Walking around the exhibit in a black and white pinstriped dress, Junglee, a former resident of St. Lucy's Homeless Center, greeted each spectator by handing him a pen and pad of paper so she could build up her mailing list. Approximately 30 people showed up for the opening night on July 19, where they could enjoy carrots, dip and wine as they browsed through a compilation of Junglee's works that were for sale.
Located on the corner of Second and Erie streets, the church allows Pro Arts, a Jersey City non-profit organization, to use its space to exhibit local artists. But as local artists go, Junglee's artistic roots are as colorful and intriguing as her paintings.
Birth of an artist
At 65, Junglee is a newcomer to the art world. Four years ago, she had never painted, sketched or created any visual art. Residing at St. Lucy's Homeless Center in Jersey City, Junglee was encouraged to join a therapeutic art program. Ruth Ann Keim, the center's project manager, developed the program as a creative outlet for the shelter's residents to alleviate their stress.
For Junglee, there were many things to be stressed about. The new hobby became a method of releasing that anxiety.
"If you pay too much attention to your problems, you go cuckoo," she said. "This is a kind of relaxation." Junglee arrived in America in 1994 as a tourist from Suriname, a South American country. During her stay, she fell ill and was soon diagnosed with cancer, forcing her to stay in this country.
In her first session at the shelter, Junglee sat down and sketched a bowl of fruit onto a piece of paper with a few colored pencils.
"It was actually pretty good," Keim said, remembering how she recognized Junglee's natural talent. "I encouraged her to keep coming, which she did."
Ever since, Junglee has been diligently painting, primarily working with oils, acrylics and watercolors and occasionally doing a charcoal drawing. "She practices quite a bit," Keim said. "I've given her art books and she studies them. She's dedicated."
In July 1998, Junglee participated in an art show the center held at St. Lucy's Church. Many local artists attended the exhibition, and a handful gravitated toward the vibrant, childlike visions of fruits, flowers and animals that Junglee displayed.
Jim Pustorino, a Jersey City artist, and his wife, Jill, immediately took a liking to Junglee's work the first time they saw it. They became friends with Junglee and have given her supplies and career advice since then. Although Junglee's late start is somewhat of an anomaly, Pusterino said that it mimics the story of other successful artists. In fact, her "self-taught" style is reminiscent of Grandma Moses, who also began painting later in life, Pustorino noted.
"You take a person who is mature in their personality but new to art," he said, "and they create something very exciting."
Another artist, Kathryn Klanderman, a member of Pro Arts, was also impressed with Junglee's work at St. Lucy's Church.
"I was impressed with the emotional power and directness of her work," she said.
When Junglee approached Klanderman earlier this year and inquired about exhibiting her work at Grace Church Van Vorst, Klanderman agreed and, as the curator, handpicked the pieces for the exhibition. Although Junglee had exhibited her work in other shows, the Grace Church exhibition would be her first independent one.
According to Klanderman, Grace Church is an alternative space for art exhibitions that Pro Arts has used for three years. Because so many different groups use the church throughout the week, including the congregation and a dance group, many people are exposed to art they would not normally see.
Featuring 30 pieces of Junglee's work, the exhibit hosts paintings ranging from $150 to $300. A portion of the proceeds go to the church, and the rest to the artist, Klanderman said.
In the past, Junglee has sold many paintings, according to Keim. In fact, Catholic Community Services, the non-profit organization that funds St. Lucy's Homeless Center, has purchased a number of her works and displays them in its Newark offices.
Junglee now resides at the Hope Center in Jersey City, a different shelter that affords her her own back porch. She plans to pursue her newfound art. She noted that some projects are more difficult than others.
"I never stop until it's finished," she said.
Pointing to a painting of fruit on a table, she explained that she had trouble depicting the grapes in the manner she envisioned them.
"I tried to make the grapes, but the grapes looked so flat," she said. "So I put some black in it and said, 'Hey, it looks good.'"