By Shya Beth
Jan Lukens has always felt blessed to be an artist, turning his observations into works of art, but it hasn’t always been easy. “My biggest challenge starting out was fitting in to the equestrian world as an artist, not a rider. Although I spent the better part of two decades exhibiting 15 weeks a year at national horse shows, there’s a massive difference between an artist who paints horses and someone who has been climbing into the saddle since they were 5 years old, surrounded by all aspects of the horse world.”
A prolific painter working mainly in oils, Jan’s original and commissioned works of art hang in the collections of the likes of individual gold medalist Joe Fargis and Rodrigo Pessoa, as well as many other Olympians and owners. One of the most influential moments in Jan’s career was in 2014, when Ralph Lauren acquired two of his equestrian paintings. “I was still recovering from the 2008 recession at that time. There is a unique part of a painter’s reputation that is based on who has purchased or commissioned his art, and when I promoted that sale, my phone didn’t stop ringing for a year and a half.”
That particular incident is something Jan’s friends use as an introduction line. “I still have friends that introduce me to people at social events, and the next words after my name are, ‘He sold two paintings to Ralph Lauren!’ It’s a little embarrassing, but I deal with it.”
Finding His Way to Horses & Art
Born in 1952 and growing up in Greensboro, North Carolina, Jan’s family was one of non-artists. With no art on the walls and no art books on the shelves, Jan’s artistic tendencies were seen as nothing more than a child’s doodles, but Jan did not see it that way. “I loved to draw as soon as I could hold a crayon. The realization that I was good at it came when my second grade teacher asked the class to draw a dinosaur, with all the kids drawing stick figures with PacMan heads, but my drawing actually looked like a T-Rex.”
With the teacher and the rest of the class gathered around his desk to see his artwork, Jan’s confidence in his art grew and at 10 years old, his first commissioned art was portraits of the Beatles for his classmates. By the time high school rolled around, however, his interest in art was something he hid to fit in better since none of the ‘cool kids’ were artists. This all changed during his senior year, on a trip to visit his grandparents in Philadelphia during Easter weekend.
“After dinner, Saturday evening, my cousin asked if he could take me to the art museum Sunday morning,” Jan explained. “My father sang in the church choir, my mother taught Sunday school, and we lived a block from our church, so I was never excused from attending church. I was shocked when they said yes.”
The exhibition at Jan’s first art museum visit was a life-changing moment, the final day of the Vincent van Gogh retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1970. Jan was amazed at the beauty and emotional power in van Gogh’s paintings. “That’s when I decided that art was cool, and I would be a professional artist.”
After studying fine and commercial art at East Carolina University, Jan worked as an advertising illustrator for 15 years and by 1992, 65% of his business was for RJ Reynolds Tobacco. But the subject of his work was wearing on his soul. “I had an ethical issue with my art being used to market a product that was killing a quarter million Americans a year. At one point, I just decided to quit and not feel dirty anymore. I had a mortgage to pay, so I had to come up with a quick alternative.”
Though wildlife painting was an option Jan considered, from a business standpoint, horses made the most sense. “I opted to paint horses, simply going with the idea that people who own horses would probably be interested in paintings of their horses. It didn’t take me long to notice that I painted people better than most of the artists painting horses at the time, so I focused on equestrian portraits, soliciting commissions at horse shows, and my career gradually took off.”
While Jan has spent a large part of the last 15 years living in his hometown, taking care of his aging parents and painting, he is eagerly working on extending his painting career. In 2021, Jan painted the poster for the 98th edition of the Blowing Rock Charity Horse Show in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, and in 2022 donated the original painting to the event.
An Artist’s Dream
Thinking of how to promote his art, Jan decided to email the curator of the Blowing Rock Art & History Museum, stating boldly that they should do an exhibition on the BRCHS Centennial and to host an exhibition of his paintings concurrently. While the museum already planned to host an exhibit on the BRCHS Centennial, seven months passed before Jan received the confirmation of exhibiting his work at the museum, which will be on display during the 100th anniversary of the BRCHS.
Having a solo exhibition in a museum such as the Blowing Rock Art & History Museum is a crowning achievement for any artist, and Jan is thankful for the opportunity after decades of working at his career as an artist. “I ride horses occasionally, but art is what I am best at, and what I love to do better than anything else.”
Jan’s solo exhibition, a collection of ten of his equine and equestrian paintings, will be on display at the Blowing Rock Art & History Museum in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, from Tuesday, June 6 to Saturday, August 4. There will be a public reception at the museum for all current exhibitions on Saturday, June 24, from 5:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. The artist will be in attendance.
For more information visit janlukens.com