Jill Steenhuis, an Atlanta native, has lived in Aix-en-Provence, France, since 1980, painting in the landscapes of Provence. After graduating from Sweet Briar College with a BFA in studio art, she attended The Leo Marchutz School of Painting and Drawing in Aix. In the 1980’s and 90’s, Jill was one of the rare artists to have a studio at the Château Noir, where Cézanne had his studio in the late 19th century.
Since I was a child, I have loved art and the act of creating above all else. Because my mother died when I was only 8 years old, creating filled a void for me while also becoming a concrete and spiritual activity. My father had a passion for Shakespeare and art. He gave me a book of Cézanne’s paintings by John Rewald for my 16th birthday, sparking my interest in Cézanne.
In 1980, I graduated from Sweet Briar College in Virginia with a degree in Studio Art. For four years, I studied art history and had extensive technical training in all mediums of expression — painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture.
By age 21, I felt more like a scientist than an artist. The summer after graduation, I entered The Leo Marchutz School of Painting and Drawing in Aix-en-Provence, a school that taught me painting in the tradition of Cézanne. What I learned in this school changed my life. I painted “en plein air devant le motif” (outdoor painting on the site) in order to listen to nature and use my eyes to see, engaging my senses to perceive the parallel between nature and eternity.
Drawing and painting like this became a way of life. My eyes began to see all things in terms of light and dark, warm and cool. I learned the discipline of painting on a daily basis and the necessity of approaching nature in a humble way. I also learned to let go of the intellect and the self, letting the brush strokes go on rapidly, uncalculated, in an organic dialogue.
By the end of my summer studying at the Marchutz school, I had fallen in love—not only with the man who would become my husband, but also with my new way of life and devotion to painting and drawing. With my father’s blessing, I stayed in France and have lived here ever since. The spirit and philosophy of The Leo Marchutz School continued among those of us who remained in Aix-en-Provence through daily drawing and painting sessions at Chateau Noir. Seminars and critiques also took place out of a need to search for our own vision and to remind ourselves of the truths that Leo Marchutz had given us as a foundation. At this time, I realized The Leo Marchutz School was more a movement, like Impressionism or the Barbizon School, than it was an institution. It is vital to the art of this century; it is here to stay.
I was fortunate enough to maintain a studio at Chateau Noir, which is now privately owned and not open to the public. I lived and painted in the very spots Cézanne had painted, as well as in Arles where Van Gogh had been. How intimidating it was and still is to make my own contributions. The more I paint, the more I see, and the more I understand that the only way to arrive at one’s own vision is through work—driving myself to go beyond my limits, stretching myself to listen, feel, smell and taste nature with my paints and canvases.
Garlic Pickers, by Jill Steenhuis
Now, with over 35 years of living and painting here in the Aix countryside, I continue to work steadily outdoors. I feel a strong attachment to the small farmer. There is nothing more exciting to me than painting a group of workers gathering garlic from the fields: the smell of the garlic and the sun-baked soil while my eyes and heart engage with the scene of garlic pickers bobbing up and down like musical notes; their straw hats like halos making them into saints—the humblest among us. My heart is in it during these moments.
As I look back on my work from recent years, I see a certain energy in it. I see that I am still attached to my influences—the great masters and all that I learned from The Leo Marchutz School—but I also perceive a step forward in my own vision. Day after day, I bring home wet canvases and hang them on the walls until there is no space left. Seeing all the work gives me courage to discover a new poetry in nature through my next painting, work that is my own and at the same time “dans la ligne d’art” (the lineage of art), as Leo put it.