Monday, January 3, 2022

Jeanne Horak, Watercolor Artist

Visiting my grandparents' house in Elmhurst, New York, in the 1960s was like stepping into the Old World and back in time--not only because they were Irish immigrants with a home furnished in 1920s style, but also because the entire neighborhood had a prewar feel about it.  

My grandparents' house is toward the right-hand side of the photo, with a
round shrub in the  little front yard. The neighborhood lost a lot of its charm
decades ago when a storm wiped out all the stately street trees.
I didn't know anyting about war, pre- or post-, as a little kid in the mid-60s, of course.  All I knew was that brick-and-brownstone Elmhurst was quite unlike my suburban Long Island neighborhood, with its split-level and ranch homes filled with mid-century- modern furniture.

Elmhurst is where my mother grew up and met my father. They both kept in touch with many people from Elmhurst, a group that included childhood playmates as well as friends of their parents.  Among these people was a woman named Jeanne Horak.

I know very little about Jeanne other than that I have a few of her watercolor paintings and a scattering of memories, along with regret that I didn't ask my parents enough questions about the people they knew.  I vaguely remember meeting Jeanne and recall my mom mentioning that she and her husband had moved to Colorado.  She said they had a huge church organ in their house.

Most of the watercolors hung in my bedroom when I was a child. I received one or possibly two others as an adult.  Looking at them now makes me wonder how Mom and Jeanne first met. 

Jeanne lived a few blocks away from my grandparents as an adult, but I don't know if she lived there as a child, too, or if my mom even knew her when she was a kid.

I'd always just assumed they were childhood playmates and had pleasantly imagined them meeting at church (the Catholic church my mom went to with my grandparents was a few blocks away, and Jeanne's house was around the corner from it) or in school, where they'd both get a kick out of sharing a name (Mom's name was Jean, no '-ne') and bond over a shared love of art.

The address on the back of the paintings indicates that Jeanne once lived in
this house in Queens, of a style familiar to viewers of "All in the Family."
Relatively few people get the chance to make their living as an artist, but Jeanne managed to do just that.  I learned this when I fossicked about online to see if I could turn up any information about her career.

I hit gold when I found an article about her in the October 15, 2003, issue of First Days, a newsletter published by the American First Day Cover Society (more on that later).* 

According to this article, Jeanne's father took her on woodland walks when she was little and chatted about the plants they saw. She was just five years old when she won a coloring contest sponsored by Crayola. By age six, she was painting in oils. After high school, she attended art school, and went on to design gift packaging. 

detail from plate
She enjoyed painting landscapes and later embraced painting birds and flowers in exquisite detail. Online, you can find her many paintings of ducks, hummingbirds, and other kinds of birds. 

One of her paintings, of a pair of cardinals, appears on a limited-edition Fitz & Floyd decorative plate. 

Another of her passions was the creation
of "first day cover art." The aforementioned American First Day Cover Society (AFDCS) defines this niche artwork on their website:

A First Day Cover (FDC) is an envelope or card bearing a stamp which is cancelled on the day the stamp is initially placed on sale by the postal authorities....Although most U.S. stamps are released nationwide on the first day, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) will designate a single city as the "official" first day city. (Sometimes multiple cities are designated as “official.”) The location is usually appropriate to the subject of the stamp, and will be the only place where the “First Day of Issue” postmark is used. 

An artist creates a "cachet" or design that "compliments or tells us something about the stamp" and "enhances the cover"; it can be "attractive, educational, humorous, and other things."  Some collectors of FDCs create their own artwork, while others collect the works of other artists. 

Jeanne painted many dozens of these little masterpieces over the years and won prizes for her work.  She has been honored by the AFDCS and placed in the organization's "Court of Honor."

I think of Jeanne, my mom, and Elmhurst whenever I look at my little collection of Jeanne's work.


 "Green Hollow Farm" (unfortunately, I haven't been able to determine where this farm was)   

African savanna scene

A woodland sunset scene (apologies
for poor photo with glare on glass)

*many thanks to Foster Miller of the AFDCS for providing a PDF of the article about J. Horak in First Days.

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