There are plenty of pirates and ships and assorted sea creatures depicted playfully in folk artist Jeanne Van Etten’s pieces, but it is mermaids that have mesmerized her for as long as she can remember.
“I’ve always painted mermaids. They’re supposed to be mischievous, and I’ve found a lot of people collect them. I’ve been attracted by them since I was a little kid,” she said, sitting in a nook at her cheerful shop and studio at 4 Fair St. where mermaids decorate everything from mirror frames to painted scenes to meditation benches and step stools, wooden boxes, an annual calendar and even the insides of sea clam shells that tourists buy up at a quick clip.
Van Etten was having trouble finding the white oval shells, especially in good condition, when last year she learned of three young girls who dive for them. She offered them two dollars for each shell they could find, and to her surprise the next day the trio returned with 200. She is down to her last 20 now and searching for more.
“I like the whimsy [of folk art] and the stories behind mermaids and sirens,” she explained. “It’s not realistic, it’s simple. It makes you happy and it’s fun to look at.”
Born and raised in the Catskill Mountains, Van Etten recalls the influence her artistic aunt had on developing her talent during her childhood. She attended the Art Institute of Boston for two years, but admits she was a drop-out.
“I went there for fine art and I think I’m more of a graphic artist,” she said.
That was in the late 1970s, but Van Etten remained in the Boston area a while before moving to the Cape and opening a small art shop. Next she went to New York State and opened another shop in a converted gas station, before relocating in Washington, Conn. for 14 years and having her third shop there. At the same time, she worked the craft show circuit and created hand-painted furniture on commission for interior designers. In the 1990s, she decorated windows at New York City’s Museum of American Folk Art using her original pieces.
Van Etten’s family had visited Nantucket for years and eventually bought a house here. She moved here permanently in 2004 and now, besides having her shop studio, she sells her art at the Nantucket Farmers Market, at fundraisers for Small Friends of Nantucket and on the ETSY Web site.
A portion of her inspiration comes from magazine photos that she knows will translate well into folk art images and also from customers’ ideas that jog her imagination. “Sometimes I’ll just start painting something and let it evolve,” she said.
In the future Van Etten wants to create more Nantucket-themed skyline and water paintings and return to making pottery and sculptures, including the concept of a cement mermaid garden sculpture with the top of her head forming a birdbath and her hands outstretched and cupped to hold birdseed.
“It’s just the best job I could ever have. It’s something I think I have to do,” she said of being an artist. “If I’m in a situation where I’m not working on [art] for three days I get really crabby. I can’t stop — the more I do the more I want to do. There are a lot of ideas I’ve thought of for years and when you finally do them and they work you have accomplished a goal. It’s just a great satisfaction and I’m glad other people like it as well. It’s very satisfying that I can do this for a living.”