Janet Kozachek paints, sculpts and draws in well-crafted and detailed ways, creating her own world of artistry that she says has been both dependably consistent and rewardingly therapeutic.
With everything from ocarinas and udu drums to mosaic masks and oil paintings lining her walls, walking into her home is like walking into a mini museum.
“I have a fascination with all kinds of art, including the mosaics. I went to Italy and studied the mosaics. I became so interested in them that I ended up co-founding the Society of American Mosaic Artists,” Kozachek said.
She also has a deep love for pre-Columbian art, which refers to the visual arts of indigenous people of the Caribbean, North, Central and South Americas until the late 15th and early 16th centuries, and the time period marked by Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas.
A part of that is the ocarina, an ancient wind musical instrument Kozachek has become proficient in making from clay -- and playing.
“I had a friend, Elizabeth Jackson, and she and I both found some. And what I did was I put wires into them so I could figure out the angles for how a sound was made. It took me seven hours to figure how to get a sound out of the first one. But over the years, I was able to get a pretty good sound,” she said before playing music from one.
She’s made hundreds of ocarinas.
“Some are very colorful. These are all pit-fired,” she said, laying out an array of the instruments. “There’s a real little one I can play ‘Happy Birthday’ on. Some I made into little sculptures. They’re just so much fun. The tinier they are, the higher the pitch,” she said.
“The kind of natural finished ones are just raw clay that’s then burnished smooth like the way the Catawba Indians made them. I studied some of their methods. I studied officially with the Tewa Pueblo Indians,” said Kozachek, who even took courses from the granddaughter and great-grandson of Maria Martinez, a Native American artist who created internationally known pottery.
She also has several udu drums, which can be found in southern India and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Like the ocarina, “it’s a musical instrument too,” Koazachek said before playing the mystical sounds of a couple udus she has in her home.
She describes herself as an “exploratory” artist for a reason.
“I’ve had many influences. I was undergraduate in art and science at Rutgers, but then my husband and I left the country and moved to China. I learned Chinese and became the first American to matriculate in the Beijing Central Art Academy. So I studied Chinese art for many years. I learned to speak and read and write Chinese, and I include a lot of Chinese in my work,” said Kozachek, whose husband, Dr. Nathaniel Wallace, is an English professor at South Carolina State University.
Some of her artwork incorporates combinations of both Greek and Chinese culture, including a piece called “Anima.”
“This is a Greek statue, but it has Chinese ancient script on the side. That is what I specialized in at the academy. I specialized in really ancient Chinese, the kind of Chinese that was written on the bronzes maybe 4,000 or 5,000 years old. Not a lot of people read it.
“It used to be thought of as a magic language. People would use it. They would believe if you wrote in that script that you would obtain what you were wishing for,” Kozachek said.
Kozachek also has a fondness for medieval art, which covers more than a thousand years of art in Europe and at times the Middle East and North Africa.
“I like illuminated manuscripts, all those kinds of things. I do really like art that is very labor intensive and well crafted. That’s something you don’t see a lot of anymore. My art is very process-oriented. When I paint on canvas, for instance, I paint in the traditional way with four coats of rabbit skin glue and then a coat of thin oil paint and then a second coat of thicker oil paint,” she said.
She specializes in oil paintings, but also uses acrylic.
“And depending upon where it ends up, I do a lot of collage work. And for that I use acrylic paint because acrylic can go on the paper I make. Sometimes I use arches, sometimes I use just a regular paper that’s thick enough so you can paint on it.
“And then I usually apply a ground … and when you paint on top of that, if it has a red ground, you paint thin in parts. That red is going to flow through, and that’s what makes the painting really three dimensional and intense,” Kozachek said.
One painting she particularly likes is a landscape painting she created in Switzerland called “The Ghost of the Cows.”
“Sometimes I have favorite paintings not necessarily because of the final effect, but because of the circumstances that I painted it under. For instance, that painting of those cows and the pasture. I was there alone in the pasture. The cows were slowly walking, and they had these big bells hanging from their necks. So they made this tune as they walked. So it was kind of the experience of it,” she said.
The artist is also particularly fond of her elaborate drawing “Map of the Underworld.”
“That’s a favorite of mine because it took three weeks to do. And it was very detailed, and I had to focus. That’s actually in this exhibition now in the Richland County Library,” she said.
Kozachek and Una Kim, a graduate school classmate of the artist, will have an exhibition titled “Transformations & Translations" through March 29.
“We are having an exhibition on East and West influences on our art. She’s from Korea and then went to graduate school in New York. I went to graduate school in New York, too, but then I also trained in China. And so we have a two-person show to see how we both dealt with this bi-cultural thing that was going on in our art education,” said Kozachek, noting that Western and Chinese art are very different aesthetically.
What will be exhibited at the Richland County Library?
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“They are mostly works on paper. I have one oil painting, ‘The Turbulence of Rivers,’ and then I have many drawings on paper. I have one small mosaic, one small collage” and another oil painting “Monstrous Transformations,” she said.
Of “Monstrous Transformations,” she said, It’s kind of a funny portrait of myself. ... It’s oil on a panel, so it’s really glossy like one of these old icon paintings. I was using it for the cover of my book, ‘My Women, My Monsters.’ It’s a book of poetry. I haven’t published that one yet, but I did win an honorable mention award,” Kozachek said.
She has published several articles, essays, poetry and a book of illustrated rhymes for the cat, “The Book of Marvelous Cats.”
“I’m trying to publish two other books of poetry. And I have a book that I’m working on in progress about women and their journey through chronic illness,” she said.
Kozachek said her battle with a connective tissue disorder in 2011 actually changed her artwork.
“I didn’t come out of this unscathed. What happened is I lost the color vision in my left eye. It’s probably something that’s not too terribly hard for someone to live with, but for an artist it can kind of be problematic,” she said.
She added, “A lot of my artwork changed after that. It was really a big part of my recovery. I found that I could distract myself from the pain, sometimes even if it was really severe, by making drawings that were extremely detailed with a lot of pattern in them because I could curl up and get close to the pattern and get lost in the pattern. So I have a lot of paintings like that.”
“Cycladic Figure” is one of those detailed pencil drawings which she got lost in, with other pieces of her artwork including a mosaic called “Awakening.”
She said the “Awakening” piece, which included the image of a stump regenerating into a new tree, was inspired by a Persian myth.
“It was about a Persian ruler who lost his kingdom and went out into the wilderness and slept by a rock. When he woke up in the morning, he noticed that this tree stump was growing again from the side. Inspired by the persistence of nature, he decided that he, too, would be persistent. So he went back to his native land and reclaimed his kingdom.
“So I did that piece when I was recovering from breast cancer because that sort of encapsulates that feeling well. If you go through something like that, you’re never the same … but you can grow again,” she said.
Her art is displayed at the Pinckney Simons Gallery in Beaufort, where many of her architectural landscape paintings, mosaics and still life paintings are located. She also has work displayed at the Tapp’s Arts Center in Columbia, which has a small collection of her most recent drawings.
“I decided to finish a lot of the studies of dancers that I did a long time ago. Some of them are actually 20 years old. I went to these dances and tried to draw the dancers as they were moving. It was quite a challenge and the end result was usually just some kind of scribble. But when I showed them to the dance director, she was like, ‘Albert!’ So she could identify them," she said, laughing.
“So I said, ‘Well, if she could identify them, maybe I’ve captured something.’ So I started doing a little collection of them. I don’t know how many are here. So by doing them very quickly, they’re kind of dynamic because you only have that moment,” she said.
She added, “I incorporated some of my Chinese art training there. I used a Chinese brush to make those calligraphic marks because calligraphy lends itself to movement. So it’s really a good way to do dancers…. I used a Chinese brush and then went over the Chinese brush marks with charcoal and chalk and pastels.”
She also has a collection of charcoal drawings based upon her father’s photographs from World War II.
“He was a World War II veteran and was part of the Mediterranean campaign that served on the USS Wyffels. He was sent to ports all over the Mediterranean, and he would take pictures there. And some of the pictures were of the mummies in the Capuchin Monastery. And so I made these from the photographs he took of them,” said Kozachek, who displayed the macabre photos, one of which was called “The Plague.”
“They’re kind of scary. I remember coming across them when I was a child and really being terrified of them. And then 50 years later I found them again in his World War II album and decided to use them,” she said.
A native of Princeton Junction, New Jersey, Kozachek has six brothers and one sister. She said her childhood helped inspire her love for art.
“I started very young. I just liked to go outdoors and sketch everything. There was a woods that we had near our property and there was a pond there. I used to go there and study the frogs and make detailed renderings of them. I even learned how to catch them live, too,” she said
She said she loves the consistency that art brings to her life.
“I like being able to count on that when there’s so much you really can’t count on. We live in strange times. You can always go to your studio. It’s the one thing that they really can’t take from you, at least not easily,” she said, noting that it is also therapeutic for her because it provided a distraction from the pain that her chronic illness brought her in 2011.
“Yes, the purpose of art changed over time. It’s a distraction, and a fairly effective distraction, too. I would highly recommend it. I just kept drawing and drawing. I made about 500 drawings,” she said.
Kozachek is an internationally trained and exhibited artist whose work is in the collections of the Morris Museum of Art, the South Carolina State Museum, the Columbia Museum of Art, the I.P. Stanback Museum, the Calhoun County Museum and in numerous private collections. Her awards include a category award in drawing from Art Fields 2018 and a Puffin Foundation Award.
Art is a force, she said, that is needed in the world and should continue to be taught in schools.
“It’s part of human culture. When we all die, what’s going to be left? The things you made. When we look at older cultures, we judge them by their art. How is our culture going to be judged maybe 100, 200 or 1,000 years from now? By what lasts.
“So you could take the short view that it boosts the local economy because the arts bring in tourists and stuff, but then there’s the long view, too, of what it means overtime,” Kozachek said.
“We don’t think about time much anymore. People made these wonderful cathedrals and it took 200 years. So when they started, the first group of people that making them were not going to see the results in their lifetime, but it didn’t matter because they were working for a higher purpose. So I think that we’ve forgotten the higher purpose,” she said.