Janet Purcell — known for her visual arts reporting for the Times of Trenton — is a featured artists in the current summer exhibitions on view at the Trenton City Museum.
Her solo exhibition “Writer Artist Janet Purcell… 25 Years Covering the Arts” is on view through Sunday, Sept. 8.
The Trenton native, who now lives in Hopewell, reflects on the journey that took her from her home on Genesee Street to become a regionally known arts writer, artist, and fiction writer.
“My father had a day job working at Eastern Aircraft and then other places (later as a lab assistant at the Plasma Physics Lab at Forrestal Center), but he was also a pen and ink artist,” she says on the screened back porch where she writes and reads. “He won the Best in Show award for one of his pieces at the New Jersey State Fair. It was always displayed at our house. He used to do his drawing, painting, and draft work at the kitchen table late at night, and I would sit and watch him. That’s how it started.”
Purcell then shows her father, William Knock’s, circa-1930 ink drawing of a couple and a child framed by tall city buildings. She points to the pained expression of the child and says it reflects an early part of her parents’ relationship: her mother, Lois, called off the engagement while her father was creating the work. When the relationship resumed, the pain remained in the art.
Purcell says her mother — who ran a children’s apparel shop called Tiny Towne — also had an artistic bent. “She sewed and made costumes for the Trenton High sports night. She did some painting. She was not very good at it, but she liked to do it.” Art also brought her parents together: her father first spotted her mother while she was working at her father’s Trenton music store on South Broad Street.
The future artist and writer says when she graduated from Trenton Central High School she had no thought of a life in art. “I trained as a legal secretary and right after high school went to work in Trenton for some well known attorneys. My mother always said, ‘Learn shorthand and typing and you’ll always be in demand.’ Both play in my life as a journalist. I’m so glad I took shorthand and kept it up,” she says, seemingly bemused by the twists of fate.
Another twist involves a “boy next door.” “My sister, who got married and moved to Hopewell, said I had to come up and meet her next door neighbor,” Johnny Piggott, who came from an old family in town and eventually served as the associate director of what was then the Princeton University Computer Center.
While the couple settled in Hopewell, Purcell says she continued to work in Trenton, then at RCA in Princeton, where she worked with attorneys and foreign patents until she had the first of her three children.
Then in 1969 something unplanned happened. Her husband exhibited symptoms of the disease that would end his life 20 years later: multiple sclerosis. “He had to retire on disability, and that’s when it became a fulltime job here,” she says looking about the house where she has lived for decades.
“During the time I was raising the children and taking care of him, I ran my own secretarial service from home, and I would have several clients and go and take dictation and come home and type it up. I met some interesting people doing this.”
She also encountered something from the past. “My mother bought me oil paints one year for Christmas, and I started playing with art. I was busy raising kids, but at home I did some paintings and drawings. Then I went to the Princeton Art Association and studied with Elizabeth Ruggles and others.
“Painting really helped. I could lose myself in it. It was like I didn’t have to give up my whole life. I was developing. I wasn’t just on hold. I would set myself up at the kitchen table and after the kids were in bed do paintings. My husband was extremely supportive. My family and my painting became my life.”
Her life, in turn, became part of a novel, one that deals with an artist, an arts writer, and a character with MS.
“I remember taking a painting course with (Bucks County artist) Barbara Osterman. She pointed out that ‘black holes’ showed up in my art. It seemed significant to her. She said I was working through the intense caretaking through my art. And she called my work moody.”
As evidence Purcell refers to two paintings that “will never leave this house.” One hangs in the front room: a large image of stem-less pearl-white rose against a dark sea of green. Purcell says she was surprised when she realized that she had created “Peace Rose” and how it connected her to her past. “My mother was so good at growing flowers. We had a tiny yard in Trenton, and there were 42 rose bushes in the yard. I love to paint roses.” The other, “Song of Myself,” can be seen from the porch. Named after the poem by Walt Whitman, it shows a large rose with three smaller ones grouped below. It was painted the year her husband died and captures her life: a widow with three children.
Art is connected to another moment in her life. “Right before my father died I had a little show at the Ewing Library, and I had some of his art in it and took him to see it,” she says, with her art reviewer side surfacing and her reflecting aloud that she may had been too hasty to exhibit work that was not yet complete. “But,” she says, “you do these things and don’t think about doing it,” adding she was happy to have that experience with her father and glad that she kept developing and got accepted into exhibitions on the strength of her work.
The next chapter of Purcell’s life started when her daughter — who knew her mother was a lover of historical novels — reminded her that she had said that she wanted to write. “She said go take a class at Mercer County College. I thought about writing as a caretaker. So I signed up, but I got in the wrong class and ended up in a journalism class. I stayed and loved it. That’s how I got started.”
Then a newspaper career seemed to unfold on its own. “My son did something at his high school, and I took a photo to the Hopewell Valley News. When I was there I said, ‘If you have anything to write, I’d be happy to do it.’ (Editor) Ruth Luse said she wanted an article written about an artist and gave it me. I worked a couple of days on a manual typewriter and got paid $15. I was thrilled. And I have never been without an assignment since the mid 1980s.”
It was also during that time that she made a name change. “My maiden name was Janet Knock. Purcell was my mother’s maiden name. When my husband was living I took his last name and Purcell was my middle name. I was Janet Purcell Piggott. I just never liked the sound of the name Piggott and several years after he died I legally dropped it and became, by court order, Janet Purcell,” she says.
Although Purcell has contributed to Art Matters, DesignNJ, the New York Post, and other publications, the core of her writing is for the Times of Trenton. It’s a relationship that began when she “sent a letter to the Trenton Times and asked if they needed someone to write. I got a call that said we need someone because our arts writer is ill.”
Until recently Purcell had been meeting a Friday deadline for 26 years. However the Times of Trenton has reduced her arts reporting to twice a month.
Over the past decade Purcell has launched another career as a fiction writer.
Purcell says the creation of her three novels — “Singer Lane,” “The Long Way Home,” and “Rooster Street” (Sunpenny Publishing Company) — came from both her love of historic novels and a willingness to explore both technique and self.
“I thought I couldn’t write fiction, but I started playing with it and found I enjoyed doing it,” she says. “But it is revealing. You write about what you care about. You show up in one way or another, through what the characters are saying. I’m less afraid now (of being revealing). It’s one of the advantages of age: I’m more confident.”
Writer Artist Janet Purcell . . . 25 Years Covering the Arts, Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie Mansion, Cadwalader Park. Through Sunday, Sept. 8, Wednesday through Saturday, noon to 4 p.m., Sunday 1 to 4 p.m. Free. 609-989-3632 or ellarslie.org.