Jan Van Matre likes to fill in the blanks. When the 82-year-old artist sees a vintage photo, she also sees a story she must tell. Borrowing the idea from Swiss artist M. Vänçi Stirnemann’s famous “Artist Trading Cards” series of miniatures, Van Matre makes quirky postcard-sized photomontages she calls “Collage Ephemera Smalls” — an inventive and unexpected addition to the Hendersonville art scene.
“Jan is a lovely person. She has inspired a lot of my artists here,” says Michele Sparks, owner of Art MoB Studios and Marketplace. “She’s such an outside-of-the-box thinker. That’s what everyone loves about her.”
On a chilly, rain-soaked fall day, Van Matre’s home is buttoned up and warm. She wears one of her own pieces — a striking necklace fashioned with colorful yarn and eclectic charms. Her nails are painted flawlessly, a canary yellow. She’s pint-sized and charming, with soft, tidy features.
By the stories she tells, you could say art mimics Van Matre’s life – varied, animated, unconfined.
Van Matre credits her earliest fascination with vintage photos to the three-story Victorian home in San Francisco where her parents moved when she was five. In the basement, Van Matre recalls, there was a cubbyhole pasted with magazine pages. The photos featured movie stars like vaudeville actress Mae West. Van Matre tried her hardest to scrape the photos off the wall so she could keep them, but they wouldn’t budge.
“I was so disappointed,” she says.
The home would later become a frequent subject of her meticulously detailed pen-and-ink drawings.
Van Matre, an only child, describes herself as a “dramatic” youngster, and, despite losing interest in singing during a childhood recital when a boy in the second row began to snicker, she studied piano and voice at the prestigious San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
While she showed talent in oil painting, pen and ink was her chosen medium for many years. She beams when telling the story of her Zodiac pen-and-ink note cards being sold exclusively by Gump’s San Francisco in the 1960s.
She taught early-childhood and art education and was a preschool director in San Rafael, eventually moving with her husband to Oregon and Nevada before finally settling in Hendersonville.
When Van Matre’s husband died five years ago, she discovered the Art League of Henderson County. “You need something in your life to dedicate yourself to,” she says, leafing through a photo book of her artwork through the years.
Through the Art League and Art Mob Studios, Van Matre has found community — “you need the social part,” she adds.
“We love when she comes in and talks to different artists and interacts with us,” says Sparks. “I love her creativity, her thinking at this time in her life about what she sees and creates.”
Van Matre works across many different mediums — acrylic, watercolor, jewelry, miniature room boxes (one she made of a mercantile store is complete with miniature seed packages) — but creating “Smalls” is what she loves.
“It’s more than just a hobby. It’s compelling to me,” she says. “It’s the ephemera/collage concept, with its intrigue and free-range challenge, a vignette with vintage photos, adding dialogue, bringing life and action to each note card.”
However, Van Matre didn’t want to be limited to the 2.5 x 3.5 sizing required for official Artist Trading Cards, and, she says, instead of trading them with other artists, she wants to share her cards with the public.
Her cards may be vintage, but her themes are not. In one collage, two black-and-white photo-booth photos feature headshots of three women smiling. “A time before selfies” is the caption.
“It’s challenging and rewarding,” Van Matre says. “It takes time to sort through these ideas to develop a theme, then put words to that idea.”
Asked her definition of “art,” Van Matre lets out a sigh.
“Oh. It’s your expression of life. It’s how you feel.” She points to a collage showing a black-and-white photo of herself at about age 7. A string of musical notes is pasted to look like it’s swirling around the grinning figure. The girl’s eyes are closed, as though she’s savoring the moment.
“It’s right there,” says Van Matre.
Jan Van Matre’s works are on display in Hendersonville at Art MoB Studios (124 4th Avenue East, 828-693-4545, www.artmobstudios.com) and at Old Towne Market (310 7th Avenue East, 828-693-0855, www.oldtownemarketnc.com).