Artists who work with children are in high demand. Like ice cream on a hot day, both refresh us and draw out the child-like nature in our personalities that we sometimes bury by accident as we move into the responsibilities of adulthood. Jan Richardson, artist and art educator, is as bright as the sun porch where we chatted about her arts background. She reminded me of those impressive sharp crayons that find a home in the magical palace of a Crayola Crayon box. As children, many of us could have sacrificed a limb (or a sibling) for a grand box of 96 classic big box crayons. You could endure a week’s time out in your room, a boring visit from unwelcome relatives and possibly a marathon station wagon ride to Timbuktu with those resources at your fingertips.
Although some of the names for Crayola colors have changed, they remain a timeless classic, a lot like Jan. Richardson is not the flamboyant Electric Lime begging to steal the limelight. She is not even the Atomic Tangerine, bold enough to blind an onlooker. No, Jan is the cheerful crayon on the left, the one in the back row that is brilliant but not overbearing, radiant but not so radical, tasteful but not tiresome. She is earthy, like the Crayola Sunglow, surely a color that brings out the best in everything and everyone else.
Jan Richardson is a detail. She is like the very first or very last stroke of genius placed upon the painting, the party, the class or the event to make conditions ideal and memorable. Her attention to detail could be either a foundation or a finish. Her art has never been about her, but about inspiring others and to fulfill her calling to work with children. Her home features some of her acrylics, watercolors, crafts and quilts. She has designed logos for organizations like Parent Place, and long ago, the Jefferson Jaguars. Before this conversation on her sun porch, I was not aware that Country Woman introduced Jan to the nation in the Christmas issue of 2004. The spread featured Jan’s themed Christmas wrappings and included a pattern for readers. That is an accolade to be proud of and one she has never flaunted.
With Jan, as with the crayons, there is a fountain of artistic ideas that never runs dry. There is always more to choose from. Jan began as a young artist in Beaver Dam at Jefferson Elementary. “We listened to our art lesson on the radio until 5th grade when a real live art instructor was hired,” recalls Jan. “She came once a week to class.” From an early age, Jan adored handwriting, loved poetry and writing. Art thoroughly hooked her when she won a $50 savings bond in a contest with a drawing of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.
In high school, mentor and art instructor Jerry Kamps encouraged her talent. “I loved that period of the day. I developed my simplistic style of drawing. To this day, I thank Mr. Kamps for saving and returning to me a few pieces of my artwork from those long ago classes,” adds Jan. After she started a family of her own, she embraced college and majored in Elementary Ed with an art minor. In 1976, she came full circle and began teaching back at Jefferson Elementary in Beaver Dam. She retired in 1994.
Jan was as reliable as the fixtures in the classes she taught. “Summer school art was my delight for 27 years,” declared Richardson, beaming. She offered as many art media opportunities as she could to children throughout the years, enough to rival that box of 96 crayons. Students knew her as Mrs. R and probably had no idea what her last name was. Who needed a last name when all they wanted her for was her artistic genius and tons of great art supplies?
Jan’s involvement with the Beaver Dam Area Arts Association (BDAAA) began early as well. She served as an art instructor and committee member/volunteer well before BDAAA found a home at the Seippel Arts Center. With her devotion to the arts, it is no wonder Jan had little hesitation in being one of the first artists to commit to undertaking the initial formation of Artdrenoline Youth Art and Sport Camp in 2009. She worked to create a fun and organized atmosphere for a day camp despite the large undertaking it turned out to be. Jan has since continued to help every year, and in addition to teaching youth art club and homeschooled art classes, she has designed curriculum for the Young Writers Boot Camp, now in its second year. Richardson combines art and words, and there is nothing as compelling as a marriage between those two pursuits. She is also a docent who welcomes guests to the art center with that terrific smile.
Another organization Jan is devoted to is the Beaver Dam Scholarship Foundation. “Decorating for the scholarship awards dinner has been my primary role,” explained Jan. “I design wall décor, table favors and always create two Beaver piñatas to be given away as door prizes. The Scholarship Foundation has a wonderful history with many dedicated supporters,” says Jan, “and I am pleased to be among them.” Jan’s husband Marty has also been deeply involved in the Scholarship Foundation from the start in 1987, while he was superintendant of schools. They have both given countless hours to make this a huge success in Beaver Dam.
Richardson has a multi-layered reputation in the community, especially one involving piñatas. Thirty-five years ago, she began creating these works of art, many with themes enjoyed by kids and adults. “How many art forms are meant to be totally destroyed in order to reveal the treasure hidden within?” Jan asked. Not that many, I pondered, but the analogy struck a chord somewhere deep. Humans, and in particular artists, share with me their life stories, their struggles and their victories. They, like the piñatas, can be hung up, ridiculed, beaten, broken and nearly destroyed, but the prize inside is a spirit that rebounds through the intimate, tedious, sometimes repetitive and powerful personal expression of one’s chosen art. It is encouraging for the rest of us.
Jan and husband Marty have wintered in Texas for several years at the Victoria Palms Resort in Donna, Texas. Jan became friends with the activities director, who could see Jan’s talent and begged her to hold a drawing class. In 2004, she began teaching “Beginning Drawing.” Her theme is “Come join me, let’s take a line for a walk.” Jan has even suggested to her group that they send some of their artwork back home to be displayed on their children’s or grandchildren’s refrigerators. “Turn about is fair play,” laughs Jan. “The idea was a hit!”
Just a year ago, Jan offered to teach Piñata-making to six grandmothers in Texas who wished to surprise their grandkids with these special art creations. They had a marvelous time creating piñatas with messy wallpaper paste. “We held only three classes. Design it. Make it. Finish it.” The simple act of creating it only to be destroyed is to find unexpected joy inside. I believe the preparation and annihilation of her art parallels her valleys and her mountain top experiences, and her joy in life as an artist, teacher and mentor. If you see a Grinch Piñata, or a Santa, Big Bird, Garfield or Raggedy Ann, think of Jan. She probably created it or taught someone else how to produce them to her quality standards.
Another art form Jan loves is creating her quilts. “I have always disliked sewing,” claims Jan, “but I love the search for the right colors and patterns in material to put together.” Quilting is a mathematic challenge, Jan relates. Her talent does not stop there either. She designed and built sets for Beaver Dam Community Theatre’s Tell-A-Tale production of Beauty and the Beast, and she is an active member of American Association of University Women (AAUW). Jan is a rainbow of colors and ideas that never end. She has provided art instruction and art projects that have touched hundreds of us over the decades.
There is something magical about Jan and her many splendid art forms. I wish Jan would act her age though because when I am in a room where she is teaching, it is hard to tell who is enjoying the class more. She is just as thrilled as the students who are there to learn. If I were to choose a Crayola from that magical box of crayons, I would choose Jan – the Sunglow that bursts forth to accentuate everything else in the box and gives art its crowning glory.