Home is Where the Art Is
By Rebecca Falzano | Photography Scott Dorrance | Styling by Janice Dunwoody
Jac Ouellete’s unconventional path to making her own art, supporting other people’s art, and surrounding herself with both
A tour of Jac Ouellette’s house is a succession of stories. Each painting on the wall—and there are many—comes with a tale, a memory of a place or a time or a person. A friend we met in Italy ten years ago made this—she can paint on anything. This scallop sculpture in England caused quite the hullabaloo with the locals! This photograph was taken at our camp at dawn. Ouellette loves to share these stories, partly because she’s an artist herself and knows what it means to create, and partly because she’s chosen to surround herself with work from people she knows—a decision that intimately connects her to the works that hang on her walls and the artists who created them.
To many artists, art is not a question but an emphatic exclamation; it is not a conscious decision, but a profound passion they cannot help but surrender to. It took Ouellette some time to arrive at the realization that she is one of those artists. Her path was not a straight line, but a curvy undulation, not unlike the lines you might find in one of her sculptures. Ouellette was born in the small, rural Maine town of Caribou during a time when the professional options for women were, according to her, either “a nurse, a nun, or a secretary.” Ouellette chose nursing and embarked on a career path that led her to become a regional manager for a healthcare company. She started traveling, and as she learned more about the world, she came to know and appreciate fine art. A longing to create and give in to her artistic self had been tugging at her for years. Finally, at the age of thirty-eight, Ouellette made a decision: she left her stable management position and enrolled in art school.
“People thought I was crazy for giving up this really great job,” she recalls. “Then one of my sales reps gave me a book on [metal artist Alexander] Calder. I had no idea who he was, but my friend said that he could see me in his work.” Ouellette studied the book and immediately felt connected to Calder and his playfulness with metal. She enrolled at Maine College of Art (MECA), where she started out as a major in jewelry and metalsmithing. Not long after, she went on a class trip to New York City. The group stopped at Storm King Art Center, where she saw her first Calder sculpture in person. “On the way home, it was all I could think about. I started planning my next project in sculpture class. I was sitting at the front of the bus and saw a full moon with three stars around it, and I wanted to recreate that. It was a beautiful, beautiful night. It was like this new beginning.”
When she returned to Portland, Ouellette changed her major to sculptural metal furniture, a self-designed course of study that allowed her to learn from sculptor Anthony Tafuri and furniture maker Jamie Johnston—the perfect combination of expertise for her personal curriculum. “What a great opportunity to be at a school that would even allow that. Not a lot of places would,” she says. In 2002, Ouellette earned her BFA, and to this day she is grateful to the college for allowing her the flexibility to design her own program. “I have a deep love for MECA. It totally changed my life. The school worked with me, they put up with me.” In return, Ouellette has committed herself to giving back to the college. She sits on the board of trustees and is involved in the annual art auction. “I truly believe that we have a responsibility to give back. Whether it’s to our community, to the less fortunate, or to the people who want to learn but don’t know what avenue they need to take to get there. When you see someone like that, you want to try to open the door. I wish someone had done that for me earlier in my life.”
Ouellette’s house is a lot like her art—unpretentious and filled with life. The art-filled haven is as down-to-earth, colorful, and thoughtful as the artist herself. When Ouellette and her partner, Dr. Celine Godin, first saw the house, they fell in love with its location—a quiet street in a South Portland beachside neighborhood. The building, though, took some warming up to. “I saw potential, but Celine needed convincing,” recalls Ouellette with a smile. “I had to take down the walls with her”—literally and figuratively. The couple hired Portland architect and friend Dick Reed of Reed & Co. Architecture, and with Sarah Susanka’s The Not So Big House tucked under their arms, collaborated with Reed on the house’s dramatic transformation. The renovation was driven by a simple concept: “open, airy, and lots of light,” according to Ouellette. During the first phase, first-floor walls were torn down to create an open floor plan, and a second-floor bedroom was removed and replaced with a high wall of windows off the living area, where a massive mobile by Ouellette now hangs. South Portland general contractor Leddy Houser was brought in to do the construction. The result is a kitchen open to the dining and living areas and a light-filled sitting room near the stairs—a dramatic change from the original, disconnected floor plan that closed off rooms and separated functions.
Ouellette and Godin hired local general contractors Axel Berg, Inc., and Mike Sampson Builders for the second phase—the part of the project where, according to Ouellette, the “wow” factor began to emerge. The team designed and built the new garage that now houses Ouellette’s painting studio on the second floor. “We had a tiny little garage that was tilting, and initially we thought we’d just put a two-car garage in. We weren’t expecting a structure this large, but when Dick designed it for us, we loved it.” Ouellette likes that her studio is high up, providing her with ample natural light and views of her sculpture garden below. The team also converted an outdoor porch into an enclosed mudroom, and added on a back sunroom where a deck and gardens used to be. “The patio was designed to feel like an outside room that transitioned to the garage. The balcony off the studio was designed to overlook the patio and help transition the garage to the house,” explains Ouellette. The couple brought on friend and fellow artist Tony Muench to execute the landscape design. “We worked with true artists on this house,” Ouellette says.
Recognizing the artist in others, no matter what their profession, is a gift Ouellette possesses—a talent her own career path almost certainly nurtured. Ouellette’s vibrant metal sculptures, furniture, and colorful, oil-painted landscapes have been installed in schools, healthcare facilities, corporate offices, and private homes, including her own. Ouellette thrives when surrounded by art, and she strives to incorporate the work of friends into her life. For her, creating a collection is not just about finding works of art that you love but also about curating a carefully balanced energy. “It’s a privilege when someone has an artist’s work in their home. They’re living with a piece of that person. And that’s why, in our house, the paintings we choose to hang are from people we want to be a part of us. We want the right energy in here. There are artists whose work we love, but for whatever reason we wouldn’t put them in our house.” The energy Ouellette and Godin have chosen for their space includes local artists such as Holly Ready, Katherine Bradford, and Margaret Lawrence, as well as international artists whom the couple befriended on trips abroad.
Today, Ouellette splits her time between her painting studio above the garage and her shared metal studio down the street. Two distinct spaces for two distinct loves. “Metal work is my first love. But when I get in a painting zone, something just happens. Metal is such a physical art, especially the size of the work that I do. It’s challenging, a little more dangerous. Dirty. Loud. When I’m painting, I sit and listen to music. It’s not very physically involved, but quiet, relaxing. It can be more intimate.”
Whichever passion she’s pursuing that day, for Ouellette, life is all about creating. “Every morning, I get up, go to one of my studios, and make. People ask me, ‘What are you going to do when you retire?’ and I tell them, ‘I’m going to get up in the morning, go to my studios, and make.’ Art is a passion, it’s not optional.”
For more Jac Ouellette art: artcollectormaine.com