This is a printer-friendly version of an article from Zip06.com.Article Published February 26, 2020
With seemingly boundless energy and a special talent as a watercolor and sketch artist, Jean Polka has been very generous in giving back to her hometown of Branford. Most recently, she’s provided some very artful assistance to the James Blackstone Memorial Library. Just ask one of her biggest fans, Blackstone Library Director Karen Jensen.
“Jean has created a painting of the library and we sell notecards with its image, which are very popular, and she recently worked with the library and Branford375 to create a frameable map of the town, featuring landmarks and places of note. She created most of the drawings and is doing a lot of legwork to make sure people are aware of it,” Jensen says.
Jean, a member of the Connecticut Watercolor Society, is a Branford resident of 29 years. About two years ago, Jensen reached out with a request: lending a hand to help the library create a special keepsake map tying in to Branford’s 375th anniversary celebration in 2019.
Jean agreed to join the effort, adding her talent to a group of artistic and professional volunteers, local community leaders (among them, Town Historian Jane Bouley), and library staff and supporters who all went to work on the project.
Jean signed on as project artist together with local artist Pamela Morgan and illustrator/calligrapher Pamela LaRegina. Over time, Jean became involved in helping to develop a final product that is much more than a map: it’s an homage to Branford, the town’s special locales, and its 375-year history.
“It took a lot of thinking and a lot of trying to come up with the conception of ‘What is it we want?’” Jean says of the brainstorming sessions shared by the entire project committee. “I think the original conception was to do a lot of writing to introduce the history of places to people, and a little bit of sketching.”
Of course, with 375 years of history to review, that turned out to be quite a list of places, she adds.
“Jane Bouley is just amazing—what a historian!,” Jean says. “When they asked, ‘What would you do [for a concept]?’ I said, ‘Why don’t you give a me a list of all of the places that you’re interested in, and tell me what’s really important to you, and I’ll see what I can find.’”
Bouley and Deborah Trofatter, Blackstone’s associate librarian for reference services and technology, put together a digital file filled with a wealth of historic documents and images.
“It was on a zip drive, so I could pull up things like the old hotels and old post cards and images of buildings,” says Jean. “And when I started doing the sketches, they liked the sketches, and that’s when it kind of turned from doing a written project to a more of an artistic project.”
One of Jean’s best notions for the project was changing the original idea of producing a two-sided piece to instead developing a very original one-sided design. Jean credits committee member Richard Kosenski of Pixel 64 in Branford for his wonderful assist in layout and production and his incredible work to bring the entire piece to life as a 17” x 22” print (on a special acid-free, linen-texture paper).
“Richard was so instrumental,” says Jean, who laughs when she thinks of the tall order she put in front of him, including scads of original, full-page watercolor sketches that had to be boiled down to fit the template (Jean and her husband, Joe, recently gifted the library with framed, 22” x 30” originals of the watercolor paintings she created for the project).
Jean also credits Kosenski for sparking the inspiration that struck her to come up with the map’s final layout.
“Richard and I spent hours and put it together so we had the concept of where it all was going to go and how it was going to be laid out. And when Richard then put it all together so I could see all of the pieces [front and back] at once, I loved it! And I said, ‘You know what? Let’s leave it, top and bottom together, as the piece.’”
The result? A lovely hand-drawn map of Branford, with delightful renditions of historic buildings and points of interest sprinkled alongside, atop a collection of small-scale paintings and sketches highlighting the town’s beloved shoreline neighborhoods, all tied into an ink-and-watercolor piece that’s perfect for framing.
Jean adds she also loved collaborating with Morgan and LaRegina on the art developed for the project.
“Pam [Morgan] did a wonderful job—and about a third of the paintings—and she brought some fun things in, like that little lobster, which I love!,” says Jean, who added her own bits of local whimsy to the map, too, from a representative strawberry (one of Branford’s top crops in the past) to a straw-hatted female golfer in a nod to Pine Orchard’s links.
“And Pamela LaRegina, what a professional she is,” Jean adds. “Her calligraphy just brings it all together. There were so many people involved in this project. It was truly a collaborative effort, and all of it was volunteer. I’m really proud and pleased with how it all came out. I think it’s really special,” says Jean.
Copies of the Branford 375th Anniversary Commemorative Map, $50 each, can be ordered online at www.blackstone.lioninc.org, where a digital image of the print is also on view. All proceeds benefit the Blackstone Library.
A Card of Thanks
For Jean, putting her heart into something that supports the Blackstone Library is a joy.
“It really is a wonderful place, and I think the best credit card anyone could have is your library card,” says Jean, who, together with Joe, is also a member of the Friends of the Blackstone Library.
As an artist, Jean’s also captivated by the library’s historic, extraordinary architecture.
“I think the library is one of the most beautiful buildings that we have in Branford. It’s like an artists’ dream when you look at it, with the curves and the light,” says Jean.
She recently gave the library two of her original watercolors of the building, one showing the exterior in spring surrounds and one in fall, to sell as gift cards to benefit the library.
“The library loved them and people love them, and it’s a money-maker for the library,” says Jean.
She often makes cards from her original paintings, adding them to the inventory of art she has available at her online gallery, www.jeanpolka.com.
“I do a lot of painting and sketches. And now I’ve gone into doing pet portraits, which I love, because they’re fun to do, I enjoy it, and I work real hard at capturing their spirit,” says Jean.
She also donates pet paintings as fundraising items to assist the Branford/North Branford Dan Cosgrove Animal Shelter.
Jean’s business card features another type of creature: a brown pelican. To this day, it’s one of her favorite paintings, inspired during one of her annual winter visits down south.
Grateful for Her Gift
What may make Jean’s gift of art all the more remarkable is that she creates her work while living with Parkinson’s disease. She was diagnosed about 13 years ago and has since donated artwork to assist the Branford chapter of the Connecticut Advocates for Parkinson’s.
“I am really so blessed,” Jean says. “My Parkinson’s is pretty controlled, especially when I’m calm and quiet. And when I paint, I’m quiet. I don’t have tremor when I paint.”
Jean says it’s also a matter of making the best of any situation. She first became involved with art as a potter, something she mastered and enjoyed before an injury made it too difficult to continue.
“I think that people need to be able to try anything that they want to try. They might fail, but if you don’t try, you don’t know,” Jean says. “I never thought that I had any talent for painting or sketching. I loved pottery. I did pottery for 10 years, and then I became a crazy golfer and golfed with Connecticut Women’s Golf Association—and then I blew out my back.”
After her daughter gave her a gift registration for a sketch class in Florida, Jean realized she could pursue a new artistic chapter. Like her pottery, which she always made to give to her family and friends, Jean simply signs every painting or sketch “Love, Me.”
“I’ve always been ‘Me’—my grandchildren call me Me-Me!” says Jean. “When I started to paint a lot, people told me I had to use a proper signature. But on the back [of each piece] there’s a card that tells you who I am. So I sign all of my paintings, I sign all of my letters, I sign everything I make, ‘Love, Me.’”