"I can't remember not drawing," Jan Ramsey says. She was the oldest of three kids and they'd sit in a circle and draw from books. Today, Ramsey sees art "as an extension of my life and my prayer."
Ramsey is well known in Humboldt County for the many ways she's brought art to the community: the art coaching she's offered to kids in schools , the workshops she's facilitated through Hospice of Humboldt using art to navigate grief and the Art for Life Studio she developed in 1995 through the Behavioral Health Branch of the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services to help adults with mental illness work as serious artists.
"I've been meeting with these folks for 30 years," she says of the Art for Life Studio. "During COVID, we met in my carport."
The impact of her guidance is all around. Paintings by Art for Life Studio members hang at the Humboldt County Courthouse, Eureka's Open Door Community Health Center and the Humboldt Family Service Center. The group sold paintings through St. Alban's Episcopal Church this winter to benefit people in Rio Dell who lost their homes due to earthquakes.
Los Bagels in Old Town has canvas murals painted by Ramsey and fourth graders from Equinox School (now Union Street Charter School).
Whatever age group she works with, she is also known for her open-hearted, encouraging style of teaching. When I told a friend I was about to interview Ramsey, her face lit up. "I still have the pastel my daughter painted 25 years ago in Jan's class, when she was 6," she said.
The Art for Life group is now the only one Ramsey still meets with regularly. Ramsey says as she ages, she is teaching less and increasingly interested in art as a contemplative practice. She recently returned from a trip in which she was part of a group that planted 3,000 native trees at a Benedictine monastery in France, after which she painted icons in Assisi, Italy.
Ramsey is drawn to what she calls an "encounter," which for her is more than just a conversation. It's about listening deeply, to others and to oneself. "It's the way I try to do art; it's my language, it's everyone's. We're born with images before we have words."
While in Europe last winter, her first time there since before COVID, she says she was overjoyed to be a sojourner again, and wondered, "What am I called to do with these last chapters of my life? I want to see more clearly with less of 'me' so that more joy comes through my work, as I risk more and 'fall upwards.'" Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, one of Ramsey's mentors, coined this phrase, meaning that life's messes and failures are to be embraced, since it's often when our lives are in disarray that we're open to profound change. "I have a great tolerance for making mistakes," she says. "Participants in my workshops call these 'happy accidents,'" as Bob Ross referred to them.
Ramsey's mother began going blind in her 70s, a fact that haunted Ramsey when she recently turned 71. One way she coped with her fear was to build a 10-foot-by-26-foot light-filled tiny house on the footprint of the carriage house in the back of her garden. Rock Cottage, as she calls it, has a loft with windows and skylights. The fun of learning to live more simply helped balance her fear of change.
"The tiny house gives me so much joy that I feel I could sing and dance with love and abandon even in the darkness," says Ramsey. She quotes the Shaker folk song, "'Tis a Gift to Be Simple," which ends with the line, "To turn, turn, will be my delight/And by turning we come round right," in the tiny house.
"I could turn and turn and not get lost or confused in this beautiful space," she says, laughing. And on a practical level, she knows when she can't live independently, she can hire a caregiver to live in the main house while she lives in the tiny one.
When her husband was diagnosed with melanoma in 1999, Ramsey began painting in sketchbooks. During his many treatments, when they were living for days in hospitals, her sketchbooks became her way of staying present and not trying to control things or worry about the future. "My work was to see deeply, with curiosity and gratitude, not fear."
Ramsey was 52 when he died in 2004. She continued using sketchbooks as she grieved his death and redefined her life as a "walking pilgrim artist" whenever she could. She's exhibited her large acrylic paintings made from her sketchbook watercolors of France, Germany, Norway and Italy. Her painting "Sanctuary Along the Dordogne," with its French village rooftops and riverscape, won second place at the Humboldt Arts Council's 2022 Member Exhibition in December.
Visitors can see Ramsey's "Greet the Dawn," a sunrise-toned painting with an elegant white bird at its center, in the narthex of St. Albans Episcopal Church in Sunnybrae Another painting, "Ode to Redon," is part of the new Redwood Art Association show.
Although she's lived in Humboldt for 40 years and says the house she owns is the first place she's ever felt truly at home, Ramsey doesn't feel bound here. "I'm a pilgrim, not a settler. I like to explore, to see what's out there." She was recently accepted to go on an Irish pilgrimage honoring the late mystic John O'Donoghue in September. She'll use her sketchbook to capture her experience in images and words.
"The immediacy and spontaneity of working in sketchbooks in unfamiliar territory is my favorite work," she says. "Whether I'm painting from life or from feeling and imagination, the intimate format frees and contains my passion. I jokingly say that my sketchbook is my spouse."
Louisa Rogers (she/her) is a writer, painter and paddleboarder who lives in Eureka and Guanajuato, Mexico.