Sanibel Artist Sissi Janku
Blending whimsy, abstract and realism is artist Sissi Janku's styleSTORY BY ERIK ENTWISTLE
Sanibel’s abundant wildlife and natural beauty are enjoyed by visitors and residents alike. But for some, the connection to the island grows deeper, eventually establishing not only a way of life but also a way to make a living. Such is the case for artist Sissi Janku, who is now celebrating 25 years of creative work produced here, much of it influenced by the nature of the island.
After leaving her native Germany for Hawaii, where she studied in Honolulu with painter John Chin Young, Janku later relocated to the U.S. mainland to gain more exposure, displaying her works at art festivals around the country. Missing the tropical lifestyle, she eventually decided to move to Sanibel.
“No place looked more inviting than Sanibel … I like Sanibel because it is similar to Hawaii,” Janku observes. “When I came to Sanibel, it felt familiar, and I said this is the place where I really want to grow old and live for a long time.”
She finds inspiration in her outdoor studio space overlooking the oasis of her Sanibel Bayous backyard. The boundary between humans and nature is blurred, with grassy areas yielding imperceptibly to an untamed landscape of native foliage, driftwood and water.
Nesting ibis, herons, egrets and other birds—along with the occasional alligator—all come and go as they please while Janku completes her latest projects. “Painting outside is a luxury for me. I think it’s the best, and I’m glad I can do that. I feel closer to nature, and I have all these animals around me. It’s perfect.”
But artistic rewards are not all that Sanibel has had to offer. “The best thing that happened in Sanibel was to meet my husband, Chris [van der Baars]. He is my biggest supporter and it’s great to have him in my corner. Because of his assignments as an hotelier, we had extended stays in Mexico, in Egypt and in China while we were living in Sanibel.”
Janku’s style has had many sources of inspiration, owing at least partially to her travels, and has continued to evolve through the years. She’s worked extensively with watercolors and oils, but more recently turned to acrylics as her medium of choice. “I changed to acrylics because I wanted to be more playful with the techniques,” she notes.
“Acrylics can be applied very liquid, almost like watercolors. They dry very fast, so I am able to layer the paint very quickly. The effects can be very transparent as with watercolors, but I can also use the acrylics very thick and opaque,” Janku explains. “This allows a variety of effects and easy changes. It keeps my creative juices going, since I can project my thoughts and ideas onto the canvas immediately and don’t need to wait around for the paint to dry.”
She continues, “My new style of painting has a lot of movement and is full of fun activity, which is supported by the versatility of the acrylics. Oils take a very long time to dry, sometimes months. That delays the layering and the spontaneity gets lost.”
Janku describes her new style as “whimsical tropical seascapes.” The paintings reveal humanity and nature in peaceful coexistence, with marine and land-based wildlife going about their business amid homes, boats and the iconic Sanibel Lighthouse. “Too much realism is not good. With the whimsical, the abstract and the realism come together. As an artist, if you sometimes just go straight with your intuition it might open other worlds, more possibilities. I don’t think about technique. I try to simplify and have a more abstract approach to it,” she says.
This style has afforded her a greater freedom of expression, which she relishes and wants to explore further. “Right now I feel like I need to push myself to be even more loose and abstract, and actually pushing myself away from the real and going even more to the wild side.”
After 25 years of living on Sanibel, and having just enjoyed a successful retrospective of her work at The Community House, Janku is not one to pause and rest on her laurels. “I still can’t get enough of capturing the beauty of this island in my paintings and painted furniture, and being around my students and friends. I hope I will be able to do so for many more years.”
To view her work, check out sissijanku.com and visit Island Style Galleries in Periwinkle Place on Sanibel. She also offers painting classes at The Community House and at South Seas Island Resort on Captiva.
Erik Entwistle, a regular contributor to TOTI Media, writes about the arts, particularly music. He is a pianist, instructor and musicologist, who teaches on Sanibel Island.