Art People: Jeanna Hasan puts life on a bottle | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Art People: Jeanna Hasan puts life on a bottle 

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The top of Jeanna Hasan's worktable out on her sun porch is filled with paintbrushes, small tempera bottles stacked on top of each other, and several drinking glasses full of water. Popsicle sticks used to mix paint sit in another glass, and a bottle painted with angels lies in the middle of the table on top of newspapers. Within easy reach are two cigarette lighters and an ashtray brimming with butts.

Bottles are scattered around Hasan's feet, under the worktable, on the windowsills, on top of the yellow wood cabinets that line the walls. There are wine and apothecary bottles, pickle and juice jars, and antique heart-shaped sherry bottles. A small path between them leads to her chair, an old swivel wingback that squeaks.

Painted on the bottles are a Muslim father, mother, and infant seated near a brick wall, their heads and bodies wrapped in white cloth; an Ethiopian family strolling along the coast; a Mexican man painting the seashore near a cabana; a woman hanging clothes on a clothesline while children play on swings; an Indonesian woman dressed in a purple gown holding purple fans. Hasan points out her favorite bottle, which depicts a market scene in Peru with villagers in straw hats shopping at a vegetable stand.

Hasan has painted and collected bottles all her life. She says she had a knack for painting and decorating her south-side home, a brownstone a few blocks southwest of the DuSable Museum. She wanted to take up oil painting, but couldn't afford the canvases and oil paints. "My family would always say to me, 'You paint on everything else, so why not bottles?'" In 1980 she began painting them with tempera.

"I painted flowers on them, but I didn't like that. So I tried animals, then people--and liked that much better," she says. "It's like therapy for me. I have a lot of nervous energy. I have to stay busy. After I put out dinner and clean the dishes, what else is there?

"My husband is so proud of me he doesn't know what to do," she says, tossing her hand into the air. "By the way, do you mind if I smoke?" She has already finished three cigarettes.

She's painting a large pickle jar with strokes of white paint. She can always mix it with other colors, she confides. When she "feels" the scene needs some brown or green, she adds it.

She swirls brown into the white, and rocks begin to form. She spins the bottle and adds blue, waves along a shore.

"Come here, get closer," she whispers. "Can you see it? There's going to be a figure over here." She points to the other side of the bottle. To me it looks like a blob of white paint. "People tell me they don't know what I'm talking about, but I can see it."

She sits smoking for a while, waiting for the paint to dry. Then she picks up her brush, and the white blobs slowly become angels, the rocks a mountain. Other rocks become a cave that the angels are standing near.

Hasan converted to Islam many years ago, and her 7 children, 22 grandchildren, and 7 great-grandchildren often show up camouflaged as sheikhs, rajahs, or Muslim villagers. Among her favorite subjects are the faces of her daughters and grandsons on the heart-shaped sherry bottles. She also often paints her Native American grandmother, of whom there are no photographs, depicting her both as a man and as a woman. "My grandfather told me to paint what I feel, so I do." She hesitates and then says mischievously, "Actually I probably paint my grandmother like that because I don't know what she looks like."

Hasan mixes her paints to form various muted skin tones. Sometimes when she runs out of a color she uses ketchup, mustard, or egg yolks. Every bottle is signed with her initials in yellow paint. "It reminds me of the sun and sunshine coming through my sun porch."

One bottle may take two weeks to finish. Some have taken years. Once completed, they get a coat of polyurethane to protect the paint. Hasan sells some of the bottles at art fairs, but most of them out of her home through word of mouth. Her prices run from $17 to $45.

She recently sold various neighbors several bottles from her "neighborhood scenes" collection, which depicts flats along her street, the elderly occupants sitting on front porches, the cars parked out front, a neighborhood alcoholic. "He's a nice man," she says, shaking her head. "Such a shame."

Hasan has never been to most of the places she paints, and she says the scenes sometimes come from magazine or television images. "I never know what they're going to be. I just start painting. I feel my hand move, then I say 'Oooh, that's pretty.'"

She says most of her ideas come from within, from her dreams: when she wakes up she has a vision of what she wants to paint. She also says she has painted accurate portraits of people she's never met. A customer will ask her to paint his wife, and without meeting the woman, Hassan will paint her features and dress her in clothes she has in her closet. "That scares me. I don't know how I do it."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.

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