What difference does a difference make?
At a recent memorial for a friend and teacher, the speaker posed that question for all of us to consider as we thought about the person whose death we were mourning and whose life we were celebrating.
The question came to mind again last weekend when we attended "Leaving a Legacy of Art: The Jansma Collection" at the Dogwood Center for the Performing Arts in Fremont, Michigan. The art show and sale commemorated the lives of longtime Fremont residents Ray and Phyllis Jansma, whose lasting influence on Newaygo County's cultural scene is incalculable. Phyllis was a cellist and music teacher, Ray an architectural designer and artist who painted, sculpted and carved wood. As a tribute to this remarkable couple, their family offered some of Ray's artwork for sale, with a portion of the proceeds to benefit Newaygo County Council for the Arts-Artsplace.
Before the sale, I spent some time with Lindsay Isenhart, program coordinator and curator of the Ray and Phyllis Jansma Gallery at Artsplace. A good friend of the Jansmas, Lindsay worked closely with Ray Jansma to produce a book, Ray Jansma: Designer (Blurb, 2011), that chronicles his career and archives many of his artistic works.
"The Jansmas were a pivotal influence on my life," Lindsay told me. "I started going out to their house for Tuesdays At Ray's—a Tuesday night drawing group—when I was fourteen years old. At that point in my life, I was a latchkey kid. I could have gone a very different way, but once I started drawing, my whole direction in life changed."
The weekly gathering wasn't a class; there were no lectures or formal critiques, just a bunch of local artists and art enthusiasts getting together to practice life drawing and share their creative energy.
"I had never seen a cluster of artists working together. Just getting together to do art," recalled Lindsay, who went on to be one of the first recipients of the Ray Jansma Scholarship for Visual Fine Arts, through the Fremont Area Community Foundation, and to study fine arts and graphic design at Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids and Accademia di Belle Arti in Perugia, Italy.
"Through the Tuesday nights, I got to know Phyllis, and on a regular basis went out to what they called Tea Time at the Jansmas," Lindsay said. "People could show up from anywhere at their house during tea time. Phyllis would regale us with stories and talk about politics, and Ray would take me out to his studio afterward."
The Jansmas' talents and personalities drew people to them, but their home was an added attraction. Located on a winding road north of Fremont, the house—which Ray designed in the early 1950s—started out as a modest 975-square-foot split level. But as Ray's career grew, so did the house, with additions reflecting the varied styles of his architectural design projects. On one end is a master bedroom suite where the centerpiece was the magnificent carved angel bed offered for sale at the recent event.
A tower rises from the middle of the house, looking like something from a storybook. Indeed, guests sometimes felt they were "visiting another world," said Lindsay. "It was like Alice in Wonderland. I got to go to this fairytale place where we were surrounded by art, music, and everything you could imagine to play with."
Like the house, Ray's studio was out-of-the-ordinary, decorated with architectural elements from some of his design projects. One side of the studio was originally used for building a sailboat—a 32-foot Tahiti ketch christened the Maid of Ramshorn, which Ray and Phyllis sailed around Lake Michigan and Lake Huron (and Ray sometimes used as a floating office for design jobs in port towns). Once the boat was finished and launched in 1975, the former boat shed became a working space for various art projects, both Ray's and other artists'.
"He'd share whatever he had going on, share his studio space, encourage others to come and work there," said Lindsay. The list of working artists who have been influenced by Ray is long and varied and includes Ann Arbor potter Autumn Aslakson; Stratford, Ontario-based illustrator and graphic designer Scott McKowen; ; New Mexico painter Jack Smith; multimedia artist James Magee of El Paso, Texas (who also paints as Annabel Livermore) and many others.
"He inspired so many artists because he was always working," said Lindsay. "His work ethic was amazing. He didn't watch TV, didn't golf. He'd be in his studio, working on a project or out sketching barns or downtown businesses or putting in time for our organization. He would come here to Artsplace at least once a week and participate, whether it was just helping paint a sign or helping teach a class, he was hands-on involved."
Meanwhile, Phyllis inspired a long line of musicians, not only as a piano and cello teacher, but also through the Chamber Music for Fun program she initiated at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in Twin Lake, Michigan.
The Jansma children, too, benefited from the creative environment their parents provided. Tim became a violin, viola and cello maker, Jon a chemical engineer for GE, and Jennifer a piano technician who decorated her Ray-designed home with ornamental trim she carved herself and paving stones she hand-cast.
"I've never met a family that has made such an impact," said Lindsay. "And to be found in such a tiny little community is a rare thing."
The Jansmas made a difference. And what a difference that difference made!
Who has made a difference in your life? In your community? What can you do to keep their legacy alive? As you consider these questions, take a look at more of Ray Jansma's artistry.
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.