by Dan Koon – 01/02/2007
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There’s no telling what will spark a person down a certain path in life. In the late ’60s a young teacher walked into the classroom of a small community school in Newark, New Jersey. She opened a pad of newsprint and commenced to drawing pictures for the kids. They sat there interested and entertained. But for one little three year old, a light went on. Bells went off. From that moment, that was all little Vanessa Newton wanted to do.
Part of it was the teacher herself. She was young, upright, brightly dressed, big Afro. Proud of herself, her rich cultural heritage, her blackness. Vanessa saw a woman who stood out, way out, from other teachers in the school.
The larger effect, though, came when the teacher put pen to paper and Vanessa came under the magic spell of art. A creative life is in her genes. Both her parents were singers and musicians—father played piano and guitar, mother sang everything from opera to jazz. They encouraged her interest in drawing and were not too hard on Vanessa when early masterpieces showed up on the refrigerator, stove or kitchen walls.
Drawing served a real purpose for her. In different ways, it was her escape. On one level, her neighborhood was not far from other parts of the city where riots erupted and where some streets looked like war zones. In that environment, people can feel like they’re nothing, so why even try? On a more personal level, a good deal of Vanessa’s childhood revolved around the illness her mother struggled with for many years. Hospital waiting rooms, family discussions about how the family would make it, trips to the clinic. But Vanessa could transport her family away from the hard streets and harder times with her art. She’d build fantasy worlds where the whole family could simply be in a beautiful garden, with flowers and animals and a brook. It was a respite, her way to help her family make it.
Around age 7 a teacher returned from a trip to Africa, and Vanessa heard her first African fables, saw her first African art and jewelry and clothing. She’d draw pictures of people wearing traditional garb and through this she made the connection to her African heritage. Here was joy. Here were people who had a past, who had stories, heroes, a culture. Black was beautiful.
Today, these influences reflect in every part of Vanessa’s art and life. Of her art, she says, “What I try to do with my painting is create a story without words. To convey a mood or feeling. To capture a life moment. Painting is more then just natural to me it is so much a part of me that it’s hard to define where it stops and I start. I hope to create art that makes the heart happy and the soul ponder. I hope that my paintings and illustrations make people laugh or help them recall a moment in their own lives that causes them to connect with the work. I want to create positive moments to encourage the human spirit. I consider myself a modern day Scribe of Life, if you will. Like the ancient Egyptians who painted words onto great walls to tell a story without words.”
At the center of her life is her family. She is the wife and friend of her soul mate, Ray, and mother of her proclaimed gift from God, a zesty 6 year old daughter, Zoe Samantha.
The Low Country Connection
Outside the orbit of Vanessa’s nuclear family are her relatives in the low country of South Carolina. Visits to Beaufort provide endless inspiration for her art and illustrations.
The low lying coastal areas of the Carolinas and Georgia are home to Gullah culture. This was the rice growing region of the antebellum South and, oddly enough, the presence of malaria-carrying mosquitoes in the rice fields helped preserve the West African culture of the region. Plantation owners would flee the land during spring and summer when the threat of disease was high, leaving the slaves isolated and lessening destructive influences on their language, folk tales, rituals, dress, religion, methods of working the land and so on. The Gullah way of life has persevered to this day and one sees its traces in Vanessa’s work.
“I love all things antique, retro and vintage,” she says. “My great, great grandparents were slaves and I remember spending time with my great grandmother as she told us stories about them. We have just a few precious pictures of them. I try to use them in my collages and other artwork as well just to keep their memories alive and well.”
To capture the essence of her cultural heritage, Vanessa first trained at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and later the School of Visual Arts. While working in a medical lab after leaving school, she studied anatomy with an eye toward doing medical illustration. Everything combined, Vanessa fully attains her artistic ambition of telling a story in her illustrative style. In a painting of young girls, done only in black and white, one can almost see the hot sun on their white dresses, feel their wiry athleticism in the way Vanessa shapes their shoulders and legs, become acquainted with each personality through the silhouettes of their hairdos and earrings.
Reconnecting with her past
Along the way she developed a knack for caricature and was encouraged by a teacher in design school to pursue it. Happily, that coincided with a developing passion for children’s book illustration, a passion she nurtured in secret for several years. For it brought her back to one of the great joys of her childhood: discovery of the books of Ezra Jack Keats, masterful author and illustrator of children’s books featuring a young African-American boy named Peter. Vanessa found many things in Keats’ books that resonated with her down to such details in Keats’ illustrations as the wallpaper of a room which matched that in Vanessa’s home. In the works of African-American artists Varnette Honeywood and Leroy Campbell she saw the images of her South Carolina kin and Vanessa counts these three artists among her most important inspirations.
Art for children has naturally become a vehicle for her expression. She has done numerous illustrations for many children’s books, published books of her own, done illustrations for Scholastic Magazine and is a card carrying member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.
Generous spirit that she is, Vanessa figures that over the years she’s given away as many of her works as she’s sold. Though in recent times, people who don’t know her except through her art have tilted the balance decidedly in favor of the “sold” column. Her work was on exhibit at the Serengeti Plains Gallery in New Jersey for two years running, among other shows displaying her paintings, illustrations and collages.
Expanding her reach
Vanessa’s illustrative style makes it ideal for publishing as limited editions prints and many of her pieces are now being reproduced. It’s easy to see why the demand is there. Vanessa’s technical skill in a variety of media—watercolor, pen and ink, colored pencil, acrylics, silk fabric paints and her favorite, collage—combined with her deep affection for people, their lives, her African-American heritage enable her to tell a story in a single image. And did we mention that the musical talents of her parents has carried forward with their daughter? Vanessa sings gospel, does voice overs, writes songs and is currently involved in producing music as therapy for people who have undergone traumatic times in life.
Vanessa is finding that her message resonates across a wider and wider spectrum and in the artregistration.com, she has found the perfect means to keep it all under control. This past summer, her younger sister who also happens to be her agent came across artregistration.com and it has been a godsend for Vanessa’s career. She now has a way to keep each piece of art in an on line portfolio, thus establishing an accurate record of works done by her as an artist. artregistration.com also provides a seal of authenticity for her clients and herself, clearly something Vanessa is going to be needing more and more.
“artregistration.com has been such a great tool in helping me put together a professional portfolio to present to customers and future clients,” she says. “I think every artist could benefit from this wonderful website. Everyone has been such a great help. Lynn is JUST WONDERFUL!!!! I really can’t say enough about the service and follow up she has given. Such wonderful and excellent customer service. They make the whole process easy.”
Future plans, future stories
With more children’s books in her future, with editions of her works going into production, with her musical involvements and projects, not to mention a dream to open an “art bar” where creative people can explore different media and techniques, as well as a greeting card line,Vanessa Newton will for sure be sharing her experiences, her heritage and her fascination with people far and wide.
“I’d like to leave pictures indelibly printed on your brain,” she says happily.
There are so many, many stories to tell.
— Dan Koon | January 2, 2007