Jan Brown Checco’s pleasure in making art generously extends to all those who use art as the means of interpreting what they see. Most recently she’s been deeply involved in “The Great Cincinnati/Liuzhou Paint Out!” –  a week-long visit by eight artists from Liuzhou, China, partnering with Cincinnati artists to paint together in Eden Park and at the nearby Ohio River overlook  The visiting artists, two of them accompanied by their wives making them a group of ten, were here for ten days and were housed in Cincinnati homes, making the visit a personal exchange on many levels. Checco says “The Chinese are very keen on plein air painting. Their teaching of it is extremely academic.” Speaking of the Paint Out, she makes plain that this learning adventure was mutual for all hands, American and Chinese.

The Chinese visit was the most recent episode of Cincinnati’s Sister City program, which began in the late 1980’s and includes eight cities in Europe and in Asia. These cities are Nancy (France), Munich (Germany), Mysore (India), Gifu (Japan), New Taipie City (Taiwan), Kharkiv (Ukraine) and Harare (Zimbabwe).

Cincinnati artist Marlene Steele was one of those taking part in the recent Chinese visit.  Asked  how that venture went she replied by email: “I’m grateful to have experienced the challenge of the CinLiu Sister City Exchange. The schedule of venues reflected the diversity of location that our city offers. We were accommodated warmly by every entity. Cultural differences and language barriers melted away as we bonded together in the interest of art-making. The plein air challenge is all about performance in the moment, the challenge of capturing one’s inspiration with imagination and technical verve as light and time flee. From the very beginning, the talented artists that I worked beside were visually inventive and interactive. I worked on site, in watercolor as many did. I truly appreciate the variety of artistic work and approaches that emerged from this week.  It was wonderful to experience our city through their eyes.”

Checco has been involved down the years in this exchange program and she has made several trips to China herself. “It’s been so interesting to see things change as fast as they have,” she says. This most recent visit of Chinese artists here was followed by a month-long exhibition of the resulting work (only just closed) at Caza Sikes Gallery in Oakley. Its opening took place while the artists still were here and of course they were present at the reception. The exhibition itself included all the work completed by both Chinese and Cincinnati artists during the week; proceeds are earmarked for the Sister City program. An earlier product of collaboration with Chinese artists, in 2005, resulted in the exhibition “Butterflies of China” at Krohn Conservatory in Eden Park. Each year since has deepened the ties of those involved. Despite language barriers Checco speaks of the “level of trust and mutual respect” the exchanges have fostered. “These people are friends,” she says.  Her husband, Gerald Checco, has served as superintendent of operations during some of these projects, and their daughter Amanda also takes a role in the organization.

The Sister City program is a natural fit for Checco, who clearly enjoys other artists, wants to know what they’re doing and why. The first of the Sister City visitors came from Nancy, France, and others have come from Munich, Germany; Mysore, India; Gifu, Japan; New Taipie City, Taiwan; Kharkiv, Ukraine; Harare, Zimbabwe. Checco herself is looking forward to China next year: “Plans are already underway for our visit next year to Liuzhou to complete the Cincinnati Abroad half of the project. The benefits are always more than the participants can imagine, with surprises all along the way and a deeper appreciation and understanding of how things are the same, and different, than our way of doing things.”

For Checco, art is no lonely, self-absorbed venture. It is her means of communication, and in following that path she has found herself involved in projects we can all share, among them “Clay, Color and Fire,” at Theodore M. Berry International Friendship Park, the “Black Brigade Monument” at Smale Riverfront Park and other public artworks, as well as a steady career as a studio artist creating works for commissions. She studied illustration and design at Miami University in Oxford, holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Art Academy of Cincinnati and a Master’s degree in sculpture from the University of Cincinnati’s DAAP program. Checco has also studied independently in Florence, Italy, and in Paris.

The “Clay, Color and Fire” project in 2003 was one of her early award-winning accomplishments (Post-Corbett Award) and there have been many awards since. This work, a mosaic in a very public setting on the riverfront, was carried out by eight visiting ceramic artists and “scores,” she said, “of local apprentices.” One suspects the local apprentices enjoyed their work, if there were so many of them.  Checco is an artist at home in making both public pieces and those meant for more personal settings. She ventures into various forms, both two and three dimensional, loves color (often strong and commanding) but takes pleasure in delicate details when the piece needs it.  Among her works are assemblages, ceramics, paintings, drawings – some artists (most, actually) just can’t stop making art, but few venture into so many fields. Checco certainly is among those who turn a hand to whatever catches their interest.

Artists need private time, to create the art, and Checco seems to have found ways to balance that element with her personal desire to be part of the world at large. She has spent much of her life in Cincinnati but not surprisingly was drawn to Europe – to Italy and then to Paris – as a young woman. But Cincinnati persisted, in that she was working for Procter & Gamble in Paris, drawing babies for European ads for Pampers. But it was there she met the man she married and who came with her when she returned to Cincinnati, along with their young daughter.

She has for some time had her own company, Brown Checco Fine Arts, and has carried out design and direction of public art works as well as continuing to produce her own work. She is at home in the planning and direction of these public works but also has a long history as a studio artist creating works for commissions.

It’s apparent that Jan Brown Checco finds it hard to pass a challenge – for a project, for a painting, for any sort of artistic intervention. She has the enthusiasm and commitment that make these involvements productive but perhaps, sometimes, too much? “I have to learn how to say ‘no’,” she told me. “How to say ‘no’ but remain supportive. I’m still trying to figure that out.” Chances are she’ll not succeed, in saying no, and will continue to have much going on.  In the meantime, both her art and her involvements are rewarding and productive and she seems to thrive on them.

Joe Hamrick, of the full Sister Cities of Cincinnati Committee, gave me information on other upcoming Sister Cities activities:  high school students from New Taipei City, Taiwan, will visit Cincinnati in October and Cincinnati students will later return the visit; four interns from Munich are here now working for the city or local companies;  Cincinnati’s Mysore Sister City Association is sponsoring its annual Indian Film Festival September 5 -14, and it is hoped that a group of teachers will come here from Liuzhou from January to June of next year. “We’re having a hard time getting visas for them! It’s a long story,” he said. But all this exchange of ideas, many related to the arts, can only enrich the knowledge and understanding of Cincinnatians and of the visitors they welcome.

–Jane Durrell

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