BALLSTON SPA -- Loved ones are never really gone until they’re forgotten. And if the Balet family has anything to do with it, Jan Balet will never be forgotten.
Balet was an artist, author, art director and visionary. Although he died in 2009, some of his work remains on exhibit throughout Europe.
His son, Peter, and Peter's wife, Marie, both Ballston Spa residents, hope to put a spotlight on his work in the United States, where Balet found commercial success in the 1940s and 1950s. Together, with help from local professors and art experts from around the world, they’ve published a book, “Jan Balet: Living Art,” honoring his work and, to some degree, his life.
And what a life it was.
Balet was born in Germany in 1913 and had a bit of a troubled childhood; his parents divorced when he was young and he was kicked out of several schools. He eventually found a school that worked for him: art school.
Above: Jan Balet's "Untitled."
Balet opened a studio of his own in 1933. However, shortly before World War II he had to join the German military. Concerned with the way Germany was treating its Jewish population, Balet was able to flee the country and head to America in 1938 (a year before the war began).
After coming to the United States, his artistic talent became well known. During the 1940s through the 1960s, Balet was an art director and artist for top women’s magazines and a successful advertising artist in New York City. He designed cover art for the “Saturday Evening Post,” and did advertising work for CBS’ “Captain Kangaroo” among others.
During those years, Peter Balet was born. It was during this time that he actually began to illustrate and write his children’s books.
“ ‘Amos and the Moon’ was actually supposed to be ‘Peter and the Moon.’ ” said Peter.
But Peter and the Wolf was published a few months beforehand so the publisher decided to change it, according to Peter. But Balet didn’t stop there. With his remarkable imagination, he also created “The King and the Broommaker,” “The Five Rollatinis,” and he illustrated a rather famous version of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Princess and the Pea and Other Famous Stories.”
There’s an intense dream-like quality to Balet’s work, which was perfectly suited to children’s literature and magazine work. The way he expressed it changed throughout the years and depended on the medium, but it was certainly what made a Balet a Balet.
Later in life, tired by a life fueled by deadlines, Balet moved back to Europe where he spent the rest of his life painting and being part of exhibitions.
“He was tired of ‘I need it by Friday,’ ” Peter said.
Balet’s paintings became well known in Europe and often sold for thousands of dollars and Balet caught the attention of the media and was interviewed on national television in Switzerland.
Although the two were geographically far apart, Peter and his father kept in touch through phone calls and letters. Much like Van Gogh would sketch out a small version of whatever piece he was working on in letters to his friends and family, Balet sent lithographs of whatever project he was working on at the time. Peter and his wife Marie visited him frequently during the 1990s and remained close until he died in 2009.
“We inherited all this artwork [and] neither one of us have an art background,” Peter said.
But they knew they wanted to somehow honor Balet’s life and work. So they turned to local art professionals and the curators in Europe who had exhibited his work in the past.
They teamed up with Sheldon Hurst, a professor emeritus at SUNY Adirondack and an art curator for Portland, Oregon’s ArtReach Gallery, Di Kivi, an English professor at SUNY Adirondack, and Norman Taber, a professor at SUNY Plattsburgh to write “Jan Balet: A Living Art.”
“It was almost like he was three different artists,” Marie said, which is reflected in the book’s essays. Prints of Balet’s paintings and sketches are intermixed with the essays, revealing the breadth and width of Balet’s career.
Take “Market Day in Normandy.” It’s a busy work, featuring figures with eyes so dark they seem to disappear into the head. Or “Untitled,” a figure looking out at a desolate land and this lightly drawn city in the distance. It’s not clear if the city is a mirage or not or why the figure is looking at it with his hands on his head.
Balet’s work was sometimes categorized as naivete artwork, like Grandma Moses. But it was a label that he rejected. Instead, as “Jan Balet: Living Art” points out, he preferred to apotheosize the ordinary to make it, in some way, extraordinaire.
Viewers often wonder about his work and about the artist behind it. Thus, along with the book, there will also be an exhibition of his work titled “What Was He Thinking? Jan Balet: Watercolors and Lithographs.” From Sept. 5 through Nov. 8 at SUNY Adirondack’s Visual Arts Gallery. As a traveling exhibition, it’s been to galleries in Portland, Oregon, and SUNY Plattsburgh already.
They hope the book and the exhibition bring the artist back into the spotlight. “To put him back in the eyes of the public,” Peter said. And hopefully, to keep him there.