On the Ball
Lowcountry artist captures the Charleston spirit
By Ben Schools
Janie Ball grew up dually immersed in vibrant historical architecture and the joyfully variegated natural landscape of Charleston. From the tidal creeks, marshes, scuttling crabs and evolving shoreline of Sullivan’s Island to centuries-old steeples, East Bay (Hazel Parker) Playground and the Gibbes Art Museum, the beautiful Lowcountry environment colored and shaped her world since childhood. Her love of place manifested itself in the creative side of her life, emerging in both painting and photography. And when career pressure demanded a change, art served instinctively as her vehicle for renewal.
It began with her grandmother, who passed away at 53 when Janie was only two years old. Her grandmother was an artist and attended Parsons School of Design in New York City. She used to sell her work, which would sometimes hang on the gate at St. Philip’s Church and passersby would buy her classic Charleston pieces. Her artwork hung on the walls of Janie’s childhood home; her grandmother’s legacy as a local artist has fueled Janie’s creative passions as far back as she can remember.
“I feel like I’m following in her footsteps,” says Janie. “I’m painting in the same places she painted, painting the same things — the lighthouse, the shrimp boats and the marshes.”
Her family has always encouraged her artistic pursuits. When she was around eight years old, Janie landed her first job as an aid to Hazel V. Parker, the beloved recreation supervisor at the East Bay playground. When she and her friends were released from school, they biked straight to the playground and Janie helped with arts and crafts. Throughout her early years and high school, she continued to create art. When college called, she was accepted to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). The headmistress at Ashley Hall urged her to venture away and grow from the experience, knowing well that Janie would return to Charleston.
She was right. Janie enjoyed RISD and studied graphic design, which offered more job opportunities than being a self-employed artist. Surprisingly, she didn’t take any painting classes except for in abstract watercolors. However, she emphasizes that her classes were engaging and, as she came to find out much later, very useful in a solo art career, especially when combined with marketing experience.
In her final year at RISD, she got an internship at Advertising Service Agency (ASA), working for Tom Alexander. This turned into a job offer upon graduation; she was a graphic designer there for about two years. While working for ASA from nine-to-five, she took night classes for photography, pottery and painting at the Gibbes Museum to maintain her personal creativity in a studio setting.
Following that job, she did marketing for the College of Charleston’s Office of College Relations for eight years and eventually became its director. She stepped away when she had children. After several years at home, she resumed her marketing career and eventually worked for Madeleine McGee at South Carolina Association for Nonprofit Organizations (SCANPO).
But once two years passed, unending deadlines and stress forced Janie to reexamine what she was doing. One afternoon in 2014, she entered Nella Barkley’s office exhausted and pining for answers. Yes, her job did have purpose. But was she using her skills in the most effective and most fulfilling, way? What should she do? Nella Barkley, a friend and career coach, had a simple answer for Janie. She said, “Do what you love.”
So, Janie quit her job and began painting.
This was a big change for many reasons, one being that she hadn’t painted for the past 20 years. The last time she seriously painted was in the early 1990s, when she participated in the Piccolo Spoleto show in Marion Square and sold her work there. But at that time she realized the difficulty of selling her art and she stopped.
In the subsequent years, while she advanced in her marketing career, she chose another accessible creative outlet — she photographed, a lot. She would walk out on Sullivan’s Island beach, the marsh, or another lovely spot and shoot photos. She would compose on her camera, look at images and colors and be in nature. She escaped into the lens. Thus, she had an enormous amount of reference material for her paintings.
For about a year, Janie just painted for herself. She took various workshops and thought about what she was going to do. Then in 2015, she talked to Allison Williamson, founder of the Charleston Artist Collective (CAC) and was overjoyed when Allison selected her to join the group of artists.
Janie said, “That really jettisoned my painting, zero to 100.”
In just a few months, she had her first solo show. She had been exploring using thick paint with a palette knife as something out of her normal style and Allison hadn’t seen anyone doing that before. She created an abstract piece depicting sailboats in the harbor and it served as her “hook” into the Collective. That sailboat series ended up winning a billboard competition, which displayed her name and art on a billboard for an entire year. A former marketing professional, Janie saw its incredible value.
A few of those paintings were bought by hotels as well as MUSC. “Those deals wouldn’t have happened without Allison,” said Janie. “Being connected with her brought me into more of a corporate space.”
And it was as if, since her days selling art in Marion Square, local people had been waiting to see her work again. Upon her initiation into the Artist Collective, she quickly noticed a loyal local support group and found it particularly encouraging. Charleston was primed for her work not only due to its inherent beauty and captivating scenes, but also because Janie is a daughter of the Lowcountry. Her work belongs here. No one who looks at her painted marshlands, beaches, or most importantly who meets her could think otherwise.
She is a slow painter. She does not rush the process. And the quality of careful creation astounds viewers. And still, Janie projects no air of entitlement, rather, she will say that she paints where she loves and what she loves. When she began painting again, she thought of her tagline “love where you paint,” a phrase she assigns to all of her work. Often, she will paint outdoors on location and sometimes with other artists.
Janie says, “Being a full-time artist isn’t all about painting. I've been able to apply all of the skills I learned while working in marketing/social media, higher education, manufacturing and the nonprofit sector.”
She is in charge of both the art creation side as well as the business side of her operation. In normal circumstances, she is painting for and participating in shows throughout the year. Her work is all original work; she doesn’t sell any prints. And a large part of her business, too, focuses on personal connections.
Janie said, “Knowing someone made a piece, knowing the artist, that to me is so important. It’s personal.”
Last Christmas, Cacky Rivers asked Janie to create a painting of skimmers over the water based one of Cacky’s photographs, with the intention of gifting it to her father, Tommy Rivers, an avid bird-watcher. On another recent occasion, a couple moved to Charleston and contacted Janie after seeing her work in a friend’s house. They wanted to own local art and appreciated Janie’s style. When they ultimately bought a large painting, she drove to their house, got to know them and hung their new painting on the wall.
She says, “Those sorts of experiences are really fun.”
The Artist Collective has four locations, Charleston being one, with more than 50 artists involved. Its design puts each artist in front of a broader audience and features all of their work online. Many of Janie’s paintings are sold all over the country, even internationally.
Frequently, people will call and ask for something in particular, like sea turtles or lighthouses; so Janie will paint what she knows people like. But most of the time she paints for herself and sees whether or not it will sell. She recognizes a far deeper connection with her work now in comparison to her previous career.
She says, “It’s you. It’s a very vulnerable thing to put your work out there. Because maybe someone will like it, or not.”
But the experience has been overwhelmingly positive so far. Janie is proud that her children are able to see her following her passion and her husband, Charlie, encouraged her from the start and even built her an in-home painting studio while she worked her last job.
She said, “We built the space and I used it as my office for marketing projects, but it just happened to have a sink in it. So, if I ever did decide I wanted to paint, it was really a nudge in that direction. He had never seen me paint, but it was the perfect painting studio.”
With three walls of windows welcoming plenty of natural light into the space around her, Janie escapes through the brush and canvas. She connects with her work, family, clients, hometown and herself. She joyously carries on a legacy of highlighting the beauty surrounding us.
She said, “I’ll have people now contact me and say ‘I have one of your grandmother’s paintings and I want one of yours,’ which is a very cool connection.”
This is one defining characteristic of Charleston that will not change. We look out for each other. And we take pride in the success of our own.
The Charleston art scene remains vibrant even during the pandemic. The Lowcountry attracts artists of diverse backgrounds and styles. Janie loves perusing the myriad local galleries to view the many differences between impressionist, abstract, mixed media and watercolor works. Many splendors exist just outside our door and each artist — even each person — has a unique way of capturing it.