By Day with Jane Oriel

By Day with Jane Oriel

Artist Jane Oriel (whose work graces our cover this month) has learned to embrace change. Over the years, the Albany resident, 56, has managed to build a satisfying life amid multiple career changes, geographic moves, and challenges like the debilitating stroke that husband Pete Yellin (the well-known jazz musician) suffered last year. In Oriel’s current incarnation as a pet portraitist, clients from all across the United States have asked her to capture the likeness and personality of their pets, mostly dogs. Most days, you’ll find her at work amid the collegial group of artists at the Firehouse Collective studios on Gilman Street in Berkeley.

Bucking the system: In New Jersey, when I was about 12 or 13, my mom took me to a little after-school art program, and the style was so traditional. My first oil painting was of a cat. And I figured that this wasn’t coming naturally, so I must not be an oil painter. I put these big black X’s on the paintings, and my mom saved one of them; it was actually a beautiful painting. I figured I just wasn’t a painter, and I gave up on painting until about 20 years later. How many people are out there now who were told, “Unless you can do something this way, then you can’t do it”?

Career hopscotch: I went to nursing school in San Francisco, and then ended up moving back to New York City. I was working a medical job back there. Back then benefits were really good. I got very involved in the hospitalized coworkers union. But I was also interested in pursuing my art, so I took a leave of absence, going to Parsons School of Design and New York City School of Visual Arts . . . getting a good background in graphic design, and then got a job. I ended up leaving after six months after getting my severance pay. It turned out great; I got a job in an ad agency, and I did graphic design for about 10 or 15 years in New York and New Jersey.

Aha moment: I was living in New Jersey and I went to this little art store [with] a woman teacher and painter, a small Chinese woman who did these huge, abstract, crazy paintings. I picked up a brush, and it was just this natural thing. I thought, “Oh my God, I found it!”

The artist emerges: When my ex-husband and I moved up to Woodstock, I did a lot of landscape, and I got involved with the Woodstock Artist Association up there. That was the first time that I had really showed my work. I did a solo show that sold out, and I thought, “These are strangers, not my cousins or mother. These people came up from Manhattan, they’ve never met me, and they like my work.”

Shaggy dog story: Pete and I met each other in upstate New York. I went to live with him in Brooklyn. It was a big move back to New York City, and to Brooklyn, which is a whole other planet. So Pete said to take some time off and just work on my painting. In Brooklyn, when you walk around, there is so much stimulation. But I still didn’t know what I felt like painting. Then I went to visit my mom, who had a Jack Russell Terrier. I was taken with this dog; I just couldn’t take my eyes off of her. You could see all of her muscles, her hair, and her fur. It was so emotional. So I took four rolls of photos of this dog, and I decided to use her as my muse and my channel for my emotions.

First things first: I don’t like to do things twice. So I always do a black-and-white value sketch first. A lot of times, you can get seduced by color, and you forget about the most important part, to me, which is technically starting with a composition. The black-and-white is the road map for the whole process. When I skip that first step, I always screw up.

The portraitist’s dilemma: When you’re doing commissions as opposed to your own artwork, you kind of wonder where it crosses the line. “Well, am I an artist or am I a sellout?” If it’s commercial, it’s OK as long as I know that that’s what it is. A lot of the clients I have, their pets have died, or a lot of them are very sick, and by the time the portrait is done, they’ve passed on. And the people are so happy to have these paintings.

Canine therapy: Pets can give us something that humans can’t always give us. If I walk down the street and see a dog, almost any dog, my emotion always takes me by surprise. This warmth comes out. We all have our covers and try to be someone we are not sometimes; dogs just don’t do that.

Joe the dog: Pete adores [our] dog. He named the dog Joe after Joe Henderson, a jazz musician that Pete was on the road with. It’s a 20-pound Yorky mix. All of the Bay Area musicians know Joe.

East Bay community: Almost every Sunday, there’s a jam session happening at our house. People come from San Francisco, Sonoma, all over—that’s the Bay Area jazz community, and they come and play for Pete. I haven’t been in the Bay Area that long, but just seeing the warmth of that jazz community . . .

True colors: Since doing the dog portraits, I decided that I wanted to do something a little more socially relevant. Juana Alicia Araiza teaches at Berkeley City College, and she has started the True Colors Mural Project. She asked me to a be a part of her [new] mural. So there I was with 30 kids from every background, every age, every culture. A lot of these kids are street artists and graffiti artists with wonderful energy and creativity. They’re much more articulate than I ever remember being at that age. The energy was what I had been missing from the New York artist scene. The new mural is at the YMCA teen center at the corner of Martin Luther King and Center Street [in Berkeley].

Artistic influences: Van Gogh. Matisse, Picasso, the Impressionists in general; also some of the street artists. Basquiat, Keith Haring.

Passion: My art is about passion, but it takes a lot of concentration. Fun is not the word I would use to describe this. Fun for me is drinking and dancing or going to the movies or going to the beach.

The future: I have no idea what I’ll want to be doing with my artwork, and I like that. Who knows what’s going to be going on in the world or inside of me. If it ever comes to a point where I say, “Oh my God, if I do one more dog . . .” then I’ll stop. I’ll work in retail or something.

Contact Jane Oriel at

Faces of the East Bay