The downtown neighborhood of West Central is to Fort Wayne what Greenwich Village is to New York City or what Georgetown is to Washington, DC. Renowned for its charming architecture and Bohemian residents, many of whom know each other and socialize at floating weekly parties, West Central is unlike any other neighborhood in town. Over the years all manner of creative and hipster types have been drawn to the beauty and affordability of the district, and it’s proximity to downtown. Folks move here because they like to walk to work, like having pubs and festivals just a few doors down and like watching that big TRF parade ooze through each summer. Decades back, when the Fort Wayne Art School was located on Berry Street, the sidewalks were strewn with art students. To this day, despite the departure of the FWAS to yonder IPFW campus, dozens of artists, young and old, still choose to call West Central home. And of all these, none has zeroed in on its charms more brilliantly than painter Diane Allen Groenert.
Groenert did not grow up in Fort Wayne but arrived here in the early 70s, joining parents who had moved to the Summit City thanks to her father’s Navy career, a career which had already taken the family to several states and Japan. Groenert, who had been attending a New Hampshire college, decided to resume study at the Fort Wayne Art School and pursue a commercial art degree. It was during this time that she fell in love with West Central, which she describes as “magical.” Reluctant to leave the neighborhood after graduating, she moved into the first of a string of at least 13 West Central apartments she would enjoy over the years.
Her first commercial enterprise as an artist began around 1975 with a silk-screened T-shirt business known as D A G Shirts. She then embarked on more ambitious creations, airbrushing complex geometric patterns onto ready-made garments using stencils. To promote her clothing, Groenert had three fashion shows at Henry’s on Main Street, recruiting such young and glamorous gals as WBOI’s Julia Meek, and Pamela Brown of blues band Mom & Pop ‘n’ Fresh as runway models.
But the aspiring fashionista eventually concluded that she would rather paint. She had always painted some, but now she saw a way to make a living in the neighborhood she loved so well.
The gift of a house painting she had recently made for a friend had been enthusiastically and gratefully received, suggesting to Groenert an untapped market among the famously house-proud West Centralites. Would they be interested in having a keepsake painting of their beautiful homes? As a test, she approached three friends in the neighborhood with the idea – and all three jumped at the bait. Ever since, Groenert’s house portraits have become so in demand that she has scarcely been without a commission since 1999.
The artist quickly developed a trademark oil painting style that goes beyond a literal architectural rendering of the client’s home.
“I try to give them a lot more than a photograph,” she says.
Each family is first interviewed to get a feel for their individual personalities, favorite colors, pets, memories and whatever else they feel deserves inclusion. Then, after taking multiple photographs and doing several sketches, Groenert sets about making the home come alive on canvas.
Indeed, in her colorful renditions, which she calls “house portraits,” some houses almost appear to be breathing; walls bulge outward, rooflines soar and decks and porches tilt crazily. Some houses are depicted from a bird’s-eye view – an astonishing trick without a helicopter. Playing with perspective enables the artist to maximize space and pack the picture with details that are meaningful to the homeowners.
“I just figure it out as I go,” she says, “moving this and moving that, all the little details that I can add to make it personal.”
Even the trees and landscaping seem to quiver with life and, upon closer inspection, often reveal small pets and creatures in the shrubbery. Family members and friends are also worked into the scene, and Groenert manages to get amusing likenesses in her tiny figures.
And they are tiny because Groenert somehow manages to capture all of this architecture and action within a relatively small format, oftentimes not much bigger than 8x10 inches. The small scale, of course, is part of the charm of her paintings, which nowadays include suburban ranches and lake cottages.
Groenert has long contributed to the vibrance of Fort Wayne’s downtown, having personally instigated no less than six different venues for public art and/or performance over the years. Two of these were the “A” and “B” galleries she operated in the abandoned FWAS classroom buildings on Berry Street in the 1990s. In 2001 she opened the Art Factory, a venue for art, music, poetry and plays, which lasted until that building was torn down to make way for a parking lot forthe United Way. ArtUp, her next studio on Wayne Street next to JKO’s, welcomed the public until that building was sold. She has now consolidated her living and gallery space into a location on Union Street she calls simply West Central Studio.
Perhaps Diane Allen Groenert’s most lasting contribution to the city, however, is a series of affectionate portraits of local public buildings and businesses that she calls Fort Wayne Landmarks. Right now they number 15 and include notable buildings such as the Lincoln Tower, Embassy Theatre and the Allen County Courthouse as well as popular hangouts like Cindy’s Diner, Coney Island Hot Dogs, Henry’s Restaurant and even the Tiny Tim Diner, which is no more. Fortunately for future historians, Groenert is creating a lively pictorial record of Fort Wayne at the start of this century. That’s a nice legacy for the town she has come to love.
You can view her paintings and contact the artist through her website at dagroenert.com. Reproductions in the form of prints and notecards are available at several locations in town, including the Fort Wayne Museum of Art gift shop, Neuhouser’s Nurseries and the Botanical Conservatory.
If you are traveling from Fort Wayne by air this spring, you’ll be able to view a show of Groenert’s work in the upper concourse of the Fort Wayne International Airport, as well as selected prints on display in the ticket counter wing. The exhibit is scheduled to run April through June.