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Nestled in the heart of Fort Wayne’s beautiful West Central neighborhood is the studio and home of local artist Diane Groenert. Her studio is drenched in sunlight that pours through windows, portals to the world she paints. Singing birds, a cup of tea and soothing music set the tone for a productive day of painting. Groenert needs a clear head, peaceful surroundings and slow-moving hours to get in the flow she requires to work through her paintings. “I like to have a long period of time to paint because it takes me a long time to get in the flow. Once I get there, I want to stay there,” she says.
On painting days, she likes to spend at least eight hours standing in front of a canvas.
Her current work is that of a charming home, lit up and glowing on a Halloween night. The canvas rests on an easel adjusted to a height that requires Groenert to stand as she works.
“I’m afraid if I start sitting I’ll get stiff and grow wide hips,” she says.
Groenert paints portraits of homes. She captures the essence of families and illustrates the houses they live in with details that reflect both history and personality. She uses curved lines and bright, bold colors that catch the eye. Viewers can’t help but imagine the type of people who live inside these homes and what they might be up to. Her work invites you to spend time with it, look for details and imagine yourself crawling inside a window to snoop around while the owners are out.
“I try to get in the mind frame of the owner and the stories they have told me,” she says.
Research for each painting begins with an interview. Before her first sketch, Groenert sits with the family and listens to its stories. She looks at family photos and takes new photos of her own. She captures all angles of the house, the front, back and sides. She takes photos of the family and mounts the collection of information on a reference board that sits in her studio on a table just behind the space where she paints.
Take a look at her work and you will understand the need for such a comprehensive collection of information. Groenert fills her paintings with details that tell about the most personal aspects of a family’s life.
“This family has roots in New Mexico,” she explains, “so I placed cacti all around. Their bicycles are here because they do a lot of biking, and the cloth with shamrocks on it is there because his wife does Irish dancing.”
These details are often so small that, unless pointed out, a person would likely never notice them. A hat rack inside a window, a family pet or an Air Force fighter flying through the background all require a tiny brush and a skilled hand.
Groenert focuses on perspective, line and color when she paints.
“I use burnt sienna for the undercoat that gives the painting a warm feeling,” she explains. “I have a commercial art degree, so I have a good black and white foundation. That informs the light colors and the dark colors. I know how to bring certain colors forward to get people’s attention.”
Her use of line brings life into each of her works. She curves and bends lines that in reality are straight. By doing so, ordinary houses seem to come to life, as if they breathe and dance.
“I use the fish eye lens to bring more excitement to the scene. It’s all done in my head, not with a real camera.”
Moving things around inside her head is something Groenert has mastered. She can paint from a bird’s eye view without having seen a house from above.
“This one had an interesting backyard and I wanted to include it so I went up and over,” says the artist, describing a piece that resembles something that popped out of a fairy tale. She can paint a home as it is or she can create a retro version, capturing historic homes before the renovations that modernized them.
Living in the West Central neighborhood, Groenert is surrounded by inspiring architecture. Each day she sees homes that people make a point to drive past just to admire the charm and individuality of the neighborhood. She has been commissioned to paint a total of 48 homes in West Central, and they will all be included in a book she plans to release on September 10 at the Paradigm Gallery inside the Fort Wayne Museum of Art. The book will be a collection of full color images, a collection of West Central homes.
In addition to her house portraits, Groenert has painted most of the downtown Fort Wayne landmarks. She makes the city look alive and vibrant – bustling with activity and high energy. She incorporates the people who are making things happen in Fort Wayne by painting them into her works as tiny people, perhaps sitting in front of JK O’Donnell’s or piling through the back door of Henry’s on Main Street, or even the Stoner family peeking out from their storefront doorway.
“Fort Wayne needed some lively images of downtown,” says Groenert. She created a series of 18 paintings, each one showing people interacting and enjoying good times shared in the city.
As Groenert flips through her portfolio, she identifies names of people as if they were part of her own family. She remembers details of stories told by the homeowners of each of her paintings. She points out Betty Fishman, painted into one of her pieces, appropriately hanging a piece of art on the wall. Groenert knows this city’s history well.
“I’ve been in the neighborhood since ’74,” she says. Inside her head are clear memories of the lives of those who live and work in the city. She’s dedicated to celebrating the efforts of those who strive to make our city better and through her paintings has preserved pieces of history that are no longer with us, such as the Tiny Tim Diner.
“I blunder my way through each piece,” she says. “I can’t do much planning. I put a blob on the canvas and move it there, then move it over there, and move it again until it’s just right, and then I move on to the next blob. It takes a lot to get all the stuff in,” she continues. “I have to move things around and rearrange until it all fits. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle; I have to figure it all out.”
Groenert is an artist who has seen and studied the pieces of Fort Wayne; but beyond that, she has enjoyed getting to know the people behind the businesses and the families who live inside grand homes. She paints the details that make up people’s lives. She’s like the secretary who sits by the water cooler collecting stories and sharing them through her paintings. The rest of us look through the windows of her dancing houses and wonder what it all means. Each brush stroke tells a story but the stories are for Groenert to know and for us to discover.
“I like to get a feeling about the place,” she says about her work.
An outsider looking at one of her paintings is sure to think of our city as a place of vibrancy and bustling energy. Through her eyes, our city is a place like no other.