Joni Pienkowski’s sunny mid-century home in Blacksburg is so full of her paintings; it’s hard to know where to look first. Yet, she says, “Some people think I am more art than I am.”
She talks with pride about her three children – all grown up and “making a living.” A native of Southwest Wisconsin, Pienkowski and her husband, Robert, moved to Blacksburg in the 1950s for his job as a professor of entomology at Virginia Tech. He’s retired now, though she still paints.
As she approaches 80, Pienkowski reflects on her career. “When you get older you wonder how you got the way you are.” For her, art started when she was just 4. “I had wonderful parents who always had paper, pencils and crayons.” When she was growing up, she listened to a radio program, “Wisconsin School of the Air.” It involved a host telling stories and asking the children listening to use their imagination and send in drawings of it. An honorable mention award “got me started.” From the fifth through the eighth grade, she was the state’s top winner. Four years later, at the University of Wisconsin, she worked on the same program.
She painted a number of self-portraits when she was in her 40s and 50s. She’s also done other figures such as her Paint Saints series. But it is the abstractions for which she is best known. She paints them on hollow-core doors and uses the existing wood grain in the composition.
Her paintings start with “a germ of an idea, a seed of an idea.” She doesn’t completely visualize a painting, nor does she know exactly how it will end. She always works in stages and allows the painting to evolve. “I work on my own time. Sometimes fast, sometimes not. I get there.”
She works on several paintings at the same time in her studio. How does she know when she’s finished? The painting tells her when it’s done. “The finished work has to have balance but not be perfect. It just is out of your grasp a little.”