Kansas Roots with Local Artist Jan Schoonover

Words by Julie Burton / Photos by Jami Marshall

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Where are you from? It’s a common question. It could refer to the place you were born, where you grew up, or lived the longest. The question could also mean where are your ancestors from? Do they play a role in who you are?

If you ask Jan Schoonover, a local artist, Kansas City is the simple answer — Merriam, Kansas to be exact. She lives with her husband in the house her father built in 1949. She’s the daughter of two educators — a profession she followed, as well as becoming a fine artist. 

Schoonover and her husband moved back to KC after living in New York City for 30 years. Upon her arrival, she discovered new details about her ancestry. She always knew other artists existed in her family tree, but until recently, she never realized how much her diverse ancestry played a role in her work. 

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She realized her strong desire to include bright colors in her paintings may hail from her pioneering ancestors from Dodge City and beyond. And her whimsical, spiritual nature may come from her mother. Her mother’s side of the family derives from Judaism. “This explains so much about my mother,” she says, “and even more so my art.”

Schoonover’s studio space is located in the Livestock Exchange Building in Kansas City’s West Bottoms. Besides the history and uniqueness of the building, she chose this space for two reasons: her view of the horizon and of the storefronts across the street. The storefronts echo childhood memories of Emporia with her grandmother. And the horizon is something she never saw while living in NYC. “I feel rooted in Kansas City. That’s why we moved back,” Schoonover explains. “My family came here before Kansas was a state. There’s something in me that’s tied to the earth. I’m sure of that. It’s hard not to be able to see the sky every day.” 

KC may be home, but Schoonover built a 30-year career in NYC by teaching art to students at a prestigious Upper Eastside girls school, one where many celebrities’ children attend. However, her teachings stretched far beyond. She received grants to teach art at a Mandarin public school in Chinatown and taught a symposium at Oxford University in England and Columbia University. “Teaching children is sacred. Children are unafraid. They don’t care what their neighbor will say,” Schoonover says. “I think adults could learn from that. Creating art is hard work. It takes time, thought, and deliberation. People tell me all time, ‘It must be nice to have a life of leisure,’ but it’s not. It’s methodical. Creativity requires a detachment.”

Schoonover’s paintings and exhibits have been featured around the world including the Spencer Museum at the University of Kansas (her alma mater) and as far as the Modern Museum of Art in Moscow as well as several personal collections throughout the U.S. Some of her more popular works include “Explosion,” which she painted the night of 9/11 after walking home in New York City. Her realistic and raw feelings are captured in each brush-stroke. Having lived on the same street as the World Trade Centers, her varying shades of red portray the fire and fury that unfolded. 

She also debuted a colorful and imaginative collection, “Umbrellas,” in Paris last fall — a high-point in her career. The umbrella exhibit features 37 broken umbrellas, repaired into colorful, creature-like shapes using a mix of materials. Schoonover loves the circular shape of umbrellas and the idea of protection they give from the elements. The idea was inspired by her life in NYC where she saw scattered umbrellas on the streets, sidewalks, and filling garbage cans after each rain. 

“In New York, on rainy days, street vendors sell umbrellas for $5,” Schoonover explains. “Of course, they break within five minutes, and people throw them in the trash. I took them and gave them personalities. I think they’re striking, fun, and whimsical. I went to Paris three times during my outdoor exhibition. Each trip I thought, ‘This is heaven.’”

In her career, Schoonover has traveled to more than 20 countries and views her life with openness. “Art as is life is colorful,” she says. “I believe its possible people can get narrower and narrower if they don’t expose themselves to different cultures, people, and thoughts.”

Mixture and diversity is how Schoonover has stayed relevant in the art world she says. “I’m not sure how I built a career for so long,” Schoonover says. “It’s a determination. I kept painting and creating art because of me.” 

Schoonover is from Kansas, but her work is from pieces of people that once lived around the world. 

Visit janmarieschoonover.com to see her work.

Suzanne Steiner