Miss Vinje lives and breathes her bold, bright art
Through Vinje’s eyes, art is the heart of the matter. She consumes it and it consumes her in a loop of self-propelling energy.
In person, Vinje’s eyes twinkle. Her name (pronounced vin-yuh), like Cher’s or Madonna’s, explains itself.
It doesn’t take long to learn she is a form of focused, creative, feminine power that finds a way to express itself — sometimes quite bluntly — all around the world, most recently at last month’s Western Colorado Center for the Arts annual members show.
Her art is as diverse as the interior of the 1970s travel trailer she decked out in seashells, Christmas lights and swimming mermaids, known by friends as the Mermaid House. She likes to meditate in the cool, soothing light of the enchanted seascape she parked in her back yard as often as her work permits.
On the other hand, her art is as traditional as the bold and bright landscapes and still-life paintings that pattern the aging walls of her historic Ouray Avenue residence.
“That’s oil,” she pointed one recent afternoon while seated at her dining room table. “That’s alcohol-ink, but that’s oil pastel. That’s water color and that’s collage.”
She expressed her vision in many media over the years. Currently, she prefers to work in alcohol and ink.
“They’re just trippy to paint with because you don’t really know what they’re going to do exactly,” Vinje said. “The alcohol and the ink interact with each other … they just kind of fuse and meld together.”
The front cover of “Finding Cassiopeia,” a book of poems by Grand Junction veterinarian Frank H. Coons, frames her painting of a wooden chair with stars at points that aim across a river, over a darkening forest and into a blue, starry sky crowded with constellations. Only a smiling frog at water’s edge disturbs the tranquility.
The front cover by Vinje matches the back cover by Coons, who wrote there: “To a child, magic is all around — moon that never falls, a sun that hides at night, attracting opposites, and each to each, they will not come undone.”
Vinje’s front cover expresses an educational philosophy she teaches as artist-in-residence at several Mesa County grade schools, currently Tope Elementary, where she is known as “Miss Vinje.”
“Art is made of math,” she said. “It’s just like music. It’s a different translation. It is math without the numbers. There are different translations of the universal concept and some of it’s music and some of it’s art and some of it’s math,” she said.
Connie Robinson-Brady, School District 51 visual arts coordinator, called Vinje “an amazingly talented teacher.”
“She has a wonderful ability to connect with kids and staff,” Robinson-Brady said. “It’s not easy for someone who is not an educator to know how to work with teachers and their routine, but she’s very good at that, too.
“She has the ability to take what is a very technical skill and reduce the information down to where it’s easily mastered. She steps it back so what you create, you’re really proud of,” Robinson-Brady said.
“Finding Cassiopeia” is just one example of the world viewed through Vinje’s eyes, but there are many others.
Her public art probably catches the most attention because so much of it is displayed on her front lawn.
THE STORY OF BATTLE CAT
Strolling along a sidewalk in the 900 block of Ouray Avenue, few could miss the blue-bottle waterfall flowing next to the hula in the pines palm, beneath the wavy, plastic rainbow that dominates Vinje’s front yard.
Stars and crescent moons surround her letter box.
Her front porch is hung with year-round Christmas ornaments and messages like, “Have a sparkly day.”
A purple mushroom with white spots rests near a giant bird-like gourd that squats over a giant white egg.
A ladder draped with misshapen, melted plastic suggests surrealist Salvador Dali’s melted clocks. A six-foot length of picket fence reads “This fence has no reason.”
During a recent absence, an unknown person added to Vinje’s front-yard display by knitting a plaid scarf around a tree in her front yard. The scarf was knitted to the tree from root to stem.
Vinje took it as a sign of gratitude.
“It makes me happy,” Vinje said. “The more stuff I put out there, the more my neighbors walking by smiling and the more I get to meet people who stop to say hello.”
The front yard display nearly vanished two years ago after Vinje returned from a trip to discover a cherished friend, Battle Cat, had been stolen from her front porch.
“I’ll never forget the day, Friday the 13th, July 2012,” she said.
The cat, an enormous plastic kids ride painted bronze in color, wore a Chinese war helmet bedecked with elk horns, but it had many incarnations during the 25 years she and Vinje were together.
First, she cried.
“I cried and I ranted. I mean, I hurled ancestral curses at that perpetrator who’s probably wondering these days, ‘Why is my luck so bad?’”
Then, she felt so angry, she considered taking all of her art off the porch and out of the front yard. In the end, she decided she couldn’t do it.
“I decided I shall overwhelm them with choices because thieves and vandals don’t win,” she said. “I do.”
She discovered a plastic pony during spring cleanup and decided to replace Battle Cat.
“It will be a dangerous unicorn — tied, painted, glued and screwed to the porch rail,” she said.
A CLASSIC ARTIST
Born Aug. 5, 1960, at St. Mary’s Hospital, Vinje’s family moved to Chicago when she was 5. She grew up in Illinois but returned to Grand Junction frequently to visit family over the years. She moved back to the city as an adult more than 20 years ago. Named for her paternal grandmother, she shares the monicker with a town in Norway, she said.
“I’ve had so many different last names it unsettles me,” she said, which is why she prefers the monogram.
Vinje was raised for a time in the Bahamas, which explains the mermaids, and cites Pee Wee’s Fun House as a major influence during her childhood, which explains the rest.
“In every little corner of Vinje’s house there’s something to delight and amaze,” said Wendy Videlock, a friend for 10 years who met Vinje around the time she taught art to Videlock’s children at Tope.
Everywhere she and Vinje go around town, children run up to say “hello” to Miss Vinje, Videlock said.
“She’s had big impact on children around the valley,” she said. “I think what’s different about Vinje is that everything she does, she does it not just with great skill and technique, but with great love. She has wonderful way of a putting a personal, loving touch on everything she does.”
A member of the Grand Junction Commission on Arts and Culture, Vinje likes to joke that her name can be read in three public restrooms around Grand Junction.
Her name appears at Riverside, Sherwood and Rocket parks because she is the artist who created the tile murals there.
Vinje’s life as an artist is classic in many ways, chiefly because she is poor. She and her husband live on his Social Security allotment and his part-time paycheck. It doesn’t add up to a lot.
“Nobody’s better at being poor than I am,” she said.
At the height of the artist-in-residency program, before the economy tanked, Vinje was making $7,000 or $8,000 a year at a combination of schools.
“Now I’m down to one. I think I made $1,800 to $2,000 last year,” she said.
No worries. Her art continues because virtually all of her materials are from recycled sources. She finds things lying around and turns them into art.
“Someday the world’s going to catch on and realize that shiny rocks, seashells and pretty feathers are actually the most valuable things. Then I shall be rich beyond your wildest dreams,” she laughed.
A lifelong ethic of giving could explain her expertise in cash flow.
“I get as much satisfaction out of giving stuff away as I get out of selling it,” she said.