She hadn’t originally intended to become an artist, Joanne Vallee Brunelle admits. “I wanted more of the art education angle, thinking that it would be an easy deal. Well, it ended up being a double major, more like creating my own major.” Finding it tough enough to finish her art major requirements in four years, she gave up on “the whole education angle, which I’m pretty glad I did.”
Moving toward abstract painting was a gradual process for the Granville, Massachusetts-based artist. She started off “doing a lot of real natural forms, as all college students do – you draw what you know. I went to UConn at Storrs[, Connecticut], and I was surrounded by beautiful countryside, drawing cows and rolling hills and apple orchards and all of that traditional stuff. Still lifes and plants – things that are in your dorm or apartment.” But after awhile, Brunelle grew bored with traditional subjects and wanted to move in a new direction with her art. She began “blowing up” objects, creating what she calls “macroscopic” renderings. So, instead of painting a pile of leaves, she would paint “one giant leaf, a single leaf all by itself, or leaves overlapping but from an exploded type of view. And it kind of brought it into a different plane.”
Oddly enough, Brunelle wasn’t familiar with Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings at the time; once she got a gander at O'Keefe's"giant kinds of flowers and giant jack-in-the-pulpits and different plants” – she recognized an artistic kindred spirit. The discovery excited her: “I thought, ‘O. K., I’m on to something here – what I’m doing is valid.’”
She began “stretching reality” in her work. She still painted landscapes occasionally, but she was much more taken with abstract art. “I wanted to do something that nobody else had done before,” explains Brunelle, “so I kept trying to push that and find my niche. But in modern art, so many things have already been done, it was kind of hard to find something that was completely unique on the face of the earth.”
Along the way, Brunelle took up picture-framing “because it was arts-related. It was like ‘Oh, I’ll be framing art all day -- I’ll stay in the art world.’” Today, she owns and runs J. Vallee Brunelle Fine Art & Framing in Granby, Connecticut. It has, among other things, allowed her to provide a place for local artists to meet and show their works.
“We had a little workshop yesterday for some of the Granby artists,” she remarks. “Yesterday, it was my turn to host, and I picked the topic of ‘Let’s talk about abstract art’ because I’m the only person [in the group] who does that kind of work.” Some of the other artists even tried their hand at abstract drawing, “and some who had never even attempted to paint like that before” – there’s this sudden, unexpected lilt to her voice – “they did these beautiful paintings.” Brunelle laughs appreciatively, adding that she’d brought some of her own paintings in so that they could get a sense of what she was getting at when she talked about color and composition.
“Y’know,” the artist goes on to explain, “abstract work has really a lot of the same elements as any other painting. You have to have a balanced composition: there’s use of line and form and color and shape to add interest, there’s repetition, there’s rhythm. All the basic elements of a good painting are there, whether it be abstract or representational. You just have to have them, or it’s not a good painting – it won’t be successful.” She sees it as being somewhat akin to James Joyce bending the basic elements of literature in a way that wasn’t “typical, expected, or linear” in Finnegan’s Wake or Frank Zappa using his classical training to create his one-of-a-kind so-off-the-beaten-track-we-ain’t-never-getting-back-on-it music. “It’s the same thing in building a painting as it is in building a story or a piece of music,” she maintains. “He [Zappa] had to have that background in order to do what he did.”
So, yeah, for Brunelle, it is about having those elements – that “interesting composition” -- in place. But it’s also about listening to her intuition instead of having an image set in her mind when she starts out. She tries to clear her head first, same as she would before meditating. And then she “might choose a color – ‘Oh, I really want to use this fluorescent orange today – I really like this color.’ And that’s kinda where I start. I just want to see what this color looks like, and then I let my hand dictate what I’m going to do with it.”
It’s a learn-by-going-where-I-have-to-go approach, and her work bears this out. “Effloresence,” for instance, is an oil pastel with acrylic: the oil pastel is “like a crayon – a drawing – but then I can go over it and do washes with the acrylic paint[, which] gives it a ‘painterly’ look.” Then there’s a collage or what Brunelle calls “a cropped piece,” cut down from a much larger one. She picked out the “relevant” elements – some shimmery plastic wrap from a gift basket, a watermelon candy wrapper, and guitar strings that still move instead of being glued in place – from the original, and the result was “Watermelon Song.”
“I didn’t title it till after it was cropped and done,” Brunelle says, “and then I’m like ‘Oh!’…It wasn’t intentionally made to be that. It doesn’t happen too often where it really comes together.” The collage’s title, like those of her other works, is just “to get you thinking. Because it’s abstract, people don’t know what to think.” Sometimes, though, “the titles have nothing to do with the work” – she laughs that low musical laugh of hers – “I just like the sound of them.”