Freedom of Expression
In her adulthood, Jahna Vashti has learned to follow her instincts. “I’ve always wanted to paint animals wearing clothes,” she said. “One of the problems I had in my twenties was I thought it would be too silly, that I wouldn’t be taken seriously as an artist. Now everybody does it! I would have been one of the first ones. That's what you get for not trusting yourself.”
Nowadays, Vashti allows herself full freedom of expression, be it a champagne swilling fox reveling before the Eiffel Tower, a giant woman crouching over a sparkling cityscape or a colorful and complicated mix of the abstract and the figurative.
Art before Walking
Jahna grew up in the San Fernando Valley, splitting her childhood between North Hollywood and Granada Hills. “Mom said I colored before I walked,” she said. “That’s all I did.” Well, she admits, there were a few breaks from art to play make believe or dress up with friends. “But mostly I would sit and color for hours and hours. Everyone else would be done coloring and I’d still be at it.”
She took herself seriously from the beginning, and so did her family. Her father bought her an art desk. “In my mind I knew I was going to be a professional artist,” she said. “There was nothing else for me.”
Jahna’s whole family was artistic, whether singing, painting or playing instruments. Her mom did illustration and watercolor. Her father sketched and dreamt of being a filmmaker. But only Jahna’s cousin Vone pursued art full time.
As a child, Jahna loved to visit Vone’s art studio. She still remembers the smell. “She was always so elegant. I wanted to be like her so bad.” Years later, Jahna is growing into her ideal. “Recently I had a moment when I realized I was becoming like her,” she said. “I was delivering a painting, I had on my jewelry, I looked in the mirror and thought I'm Vonish right now.”
Paralyzed by Perfectionism
But becoming the artist she wanted to be wasn’t easy for Jahna. Her twenties found her paralyzed by perfectionism. “I was super critical,” she said. “I was hard on myself, worried what people thought. Because I was so good as a child, I thought I was supposed to be like some kind of Michelangelo or something. When things didn't work out that way, the joy was gone.” She went almost a whole decade without painting, except for a failed attempt or two. When she tried to paint, she hated the result, so stopped again.
In 1999, during this dazed and confused period, Jahna came to Portland. She still doesn’t know what she was thinking. “I had no money, no plans, and didn't tell my family. And then I sort of fell in love with it.”
It took the convergence of a wonderful event and a terrible tragedy to steer her back to art.
A Birth and a Death
For many artists, having children impedes their productivity. Jahna’s two children have had the opposite effect. “I remember making a list of what I wanted him to be,” she said of her first child, who was born in 2005. “Like confident, following his dreams, trusting himself, being educated. I looked at it and I thought how many of these things are you? I thought I better knock these out, because how is he going to be these things if I’m not.”
Jahna’s father had a trip planned to meet his new grandson. But he was killed in a car accident before he could make the visit. He was only 53. Jahna’s son was 11 days old. Jahna was left raw with sadness at losing her father, at the same time she was overjoyed by and in love with her new baby. It was a time of heightened sensation for Jahna. Her feelings of loss and heartbreak blended with incredible gratitude at the gift of life. She marveled at small details. Even one ray of sun shining on a single leaf seemed incredible. She and her son went for long walks on which she felt her father’s presence. “I heard Dad tell me, ‘Yes, you’ve got it. That’s right. The gift is right now. Don't miss this. Yes, you have the secret to life. Right now is a gift.’ So somehow, slowly but surely, I just started painting and painting and painting.”
She started with a cityscape. “There was a moment when I realized the buildings were leaning to the left,” she said. “I almost started hyperventilating. I said, ‘Calm down, calm down, it's art. It’s windy, or some kind of magic is going on.’ I kept going and that was a breakthrough for me. After that, I didn’t stop.”
It took a few years to be ready to show her art to the world. “I had enough paintings and I thought I’m not going to let these stack up anymore.” She decided to get prints made because she gets attached to her originals. Her first foray into street selling was at Last Thursday on Alberta, which she found a bit too chaotic. She sold nothing and almost considered giving up. But she persevered, setting up at the Urban Art Network’s First Thursday Street Gallery the following week. The response to her work was phenomenal. “I almost wanted to cry, I was so excited,” she said.
She’s back at Last Thursday now, too, having found a quieter spot outside Frock. She donates 20 percent of her Last Thursday sales to her older son’s school.
Her Etsy store has been an especially important outlet for her work. “Forest Festivities,” her painting depicting animals having a party in the woods, has caught on around the world, especially in Scandinavia. “They love the forest animals,” she said. “I love thinking of someone in Norway with my art on the wall. It’s amazing.”
For now, Jahna plans to keep adding color to the world. “I don’t have a favorite color,” she said “Obviously, I can't get enough. I see people's simple art with only a few colors, and I try to do that. But then I just shoot rainbows out everywhere. I cannot help it. I use every single color and I don’t think about it when I do it. I just do it.”
She’s found many good places around town to sell her prints and cards, including New Seasons in Concordia and Sellwood, Bridge City Mercantile on NE Fremont and Memento on SE Hawthorne. Next she’d like to find a gallery to represent her.
And she hasn’t forgotten that list of what she wants for her children and for herself. “I conjured up a little fantasy of what they were going to say about me when they're grown up,” she said. “I want them to say, ‘She's strong, she's an artist, she followed her dream.’” It looks like that’s exactly what they’ll say.