Atlanta artist’s mother, 76, moves from retirement to second act as artist

Joseph Guay’s mom Jeanne encouraged her son’s work and now he’s her biggest fan.
Jeanne Guay started painting in her 60s with encouragement from her artist son Joseph Guay. She has hew first solo show at Grant & Little gallery in Atlanta.

Credit: Joseph Guay

Credit: Joseph Guay

Jeanne Guay started painting in her 60s with encouragement from her artist son Joseph Guay. She has hew first solo show at Grant & Little gallery in Atlanta.

This story was originally published by ArtsATL.

When Jeanne T. Guay, 76, mother of Atlanta-based artist-activist Joseph Guay, retired from a career in hospitality, she helped care for her best friend, who was terminally ill. She’d stay for a week or two at a time.

“When I’d come home, I needed an outlet,” she says. “That’s when I called Joseph and said: ‘Can I come to your studio? I feel like need to throw some paint on something.’”

Now, nine years later, Jeanne is exhibiting her paintings at the Grant & Little gallery in Grant Park. “Timelapse” opened on Nov. 11 and will run through Jan. 8.

Jeanne and Joseph Guay at the opening of her show “Timelapse." (Photo by Kathryn Guay)

Credit: Kathryn Guay

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Credit: Kathryn Guay

“When I started, I was just putting paint on paper, but my art has evolved with my courage,” she says.

Without hesitation, she jumped into her second act as an artist — rules, formal training and color wheel be damned.

It’s a philosophy she picked up from her son.

When Joseph was young, they lived on St. Simons Island. During summer break, when he was 7 and the days grew long and options short, he was bored, Jeanne says, so the driveway became his first canvas.

Jeanne Guay’s paintings reflect her day-to-day emotions. (Photo by Joseph Guay)

Credit: Joseph Guay

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Credit: Joseph Guay

Given the lack of access to art supplies on the island, they had to get creative. A bucket of water and a wide paint brush would do.

“I’d sit out there all day doing giant paintings, then watching them evaporate, but I got to make something new every day,” says Joseph, whose beginnings sparked his imagination for the large-scale works he creates today.

That need for exploration has taken Joseph from sculptures to photography-filmography to massive, thoughtful, daring installations that confront a range of sociopolitical issues.

With his mother’s encouragement over the years, his career has spanned many mediums and messages. Now it’s his turn to support her.

Going big is Joseph’s sweet spot, but he’s impressed with his mother’s ability to pack such depth of emotions into small canvases. The paintings are a peek into her heart — the joy, excitement, curiosity, sorrow.

Jeanne Guay's paintings are on view at Grant & Little gallery through Jan. 7.

Credit: Joseph Guay

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Credit: Joseph Guay

“Sometimes I’ll want her to try bigger canvases, but I’ve realized her zone is in these little intimate pieces that still have so much energy,” he says. “They’re magical.”

Rows of Jeanne’s 5-by-5-inch paintings fill a wall in the cozy, eclectic gallery. Across the room, larger paintings shine with a resin finish. Some of her works have a peaceful simplicity, with pastels and calm blues that intuitively reflect the years she lived by the water. Her later pieces offer a barrage of rich, layered colors and textures, kept in motion by the swirl of the brush or beaming with drops of gold.

“It’s interesting to watch her translate her mood,” Joseph says. “There are moments when she’s very quiet and delicate pieces will pop out. Then there’s moments where she’s maybe been to a concert that week, and she’s full of energy. It all comes out on the canvas.”

It just takes a good playlist — Hall & Oates, The Eagles and John Mayer are among her favorites — and the freedom to freestyle.

Most of Jeanne Guay’s paintings are small and intimate. (Photo by Joseph Guay)

Credit: Joseph Guay

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Credit: Joseph Guay

“When she’s in the studio, I try to give her some ideas, but I don’t want to turn into an art class,” Joseph says. “Too much education can compromise your creativity and trap you in a box.”

“I don’t plan; it’s just a feeling. I can’t describe it,” Jeanne says. “With art, everything can be a tool and everything goes.”

When she started painting at 67, she thought she’d do it for a day or two. But in time, people began to purchase her work. She started with watercolors, then acrylic. Lately, she’s enjoyed using stampers and squeegees to create new looks. And she wants to experiment more in a collaborative piece with her son.

The pandemic put her on pause as Joseph kept his studio closed and their conversations returned to the driveway, maintaining a safe distance. So she’s especially excited for the social aspect of the Timelapse opening.

For Joseph: “I’m more thrilled to put this together than any of my own shows,” he says. “Art has to have a story for people to feel an attachment to it. She’s not competing with anybody or trying to be a brand. She just has a great story to tell.”

When he was in the eighth grade, his mother used one of her first paychecks to frame one of his drawings. It’s a terrible piece, he says jokingly.

“But she hung it up everywhere she worked, and it’s still up in her home,” he says. “I’ve tried to hide it in her garage, but it always finds a way back to the wall. I’m happy to have the chance to support her the way she’s supported me.”

“He’s my biggest fan,” Jeanne says. Her daughter Kathryn is a fan, too.

Joseph is inspired by her new path and what it could lead to, noting a few artists who gained exposure in their 60s and beyond. Jeanne hopes her experience encourages people to follow their interests, no matter the restrictions that society places on age.

“There’s still more to life, and, through painting, I’ve learned to be patient with myself, not so critical,” she says. “And I just have a lot of gratitude.”

IF YOU GO

Jeanne T. Guay: “Timelapse”

Through Jan. 7. Grant & Little, 787 Grant St. SE, Atlanta. grantandlittle.com.

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Angela Oliver is a proud native of old Atlanta who grew up in the West End. A Western Kentucky University journalism and Black studies grad, daily news survivor and member of Delta Sigma Theta, she works in the grassroots nonprofit world while daydreaming about seeing her scripts come alive on the big screen.

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Credit: ArtsATL

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Credit: ArtsATL

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