Like many artists in all genres, a young Jean Hirons felt compelled to set aside her first love and “do something else to earn a living.” Fortunately, her 30 years as a cataloger were both successful and satisfying, and she gradually made her way back to art.
Hirons, who grew up in Mattapoisett, “a beautiful town on the coast of Massachusetts,” had the right genetics. Her great grandfather on her mother’s side was a professional artist, and her father’s father, an amateur artist. Hirons’ parents encouraged their young daughter to draw and take art classes. Still, she said, “they were not particularly happy when I changed my major from biology to art (at Marietta College in Ohio). My mother asked what I’d do with art and I said ‘graduate!’”
A master’s in library science from the University of Rhode Island was Hirons’ ticket to gainful employment. Working at the Library of Congress (LC) for 20 years, she wrote documentation for a cooperative program for cataloging serials (magazines, journals) and also wrote and edited the first illustrated cataloging manual, “putting my creative energies to work.” Later, as head of the program, she initiated a cooperative training program and led the international revision of the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules to incorporate electronic journals, databases and websites. Having received two awards from the American Library Association as well as a distinguished service award from LC, Hirons retired in 2003.
In retrospect, “having a liberal arts degree with a little of everything really helped” her library career, she said. And in that same vein, following two completely different career paths has taught her that “everything is related.”
Through the years, “I retained my love of art,” Hirons said. As such, she enrolled in drawing classes at the Corcoran in 1983, followed by a series of classes on topics like lithography and colored pencil at the Torpedo Factory. “I worked in colored pencil for a number of years,” she said, but quickly recognized that pastel would be a better medium for her subject matter—landscape. “After moving to a house with a large studio in 1994, I took up pastel and never touched colored pencil again.”
In the spirit of everything being related, Hirons said, “What colored pencil and pastel have in common is that the colors are all premixed.” She admits to never having “gotten the hang of mixing paint. It either turned brown, or there was never quite enough of it. But with pastel, all I have to do is find the right stick.”
In 2001, Hirons began taking week-long en plein air workshops with leading pastel artists, and four years later, started teaching a pastel class at Montgomery College-Rockville. “Becoming adept at pastel painting gave me the ability to teach what I love, and the experience of teaching others made me a better painter.”
The teaching, as well as having previously published the cataloging manual, Hirons said, equipped her to write a book, “Finding Your Style in Pastel.” She currently shares her painting process in a blog titled “Finding My Style.”
Hirons, who has earned signature membership in the Pastel Society of America and the Maryland Pastel Society and Master Circle status in the International Association of Pastel Societies, is a resident artist at Artists & Makers Studios in Rockville.
And Judith Olivia HeartSong, Artists & Makers’ founder and executive director, is pleased to have her. “Jean Hirons is a masterful pastel painter, exploring light and place in a tender way that offers the viewer a memento of locations they may never have visited, and will now always hope to. She is a tremendous teacher with a loyal following.”
About her retrospective exhibit at the Unitarian church, Hirons said, “I think that the show exhibits my love of limited color palettes, my use of light and color to give a sense of the atmospheric conditions in my landscapes. Also, my love of the medium and the different looks achieved from different surfaces.” She noted that “many of the paintings were either done outside or as demonstrations for my classes and because of this, I think that they have a freshness to them. They aren’t overworked or muddy and the colors really sing.”
For the past two years, Hirons has been working on “Insider’s Washington,” a series that includes the canal in Georgetown and the Alleys of Capitol Hill. “I want to explore more of the city and paint it from my perspective. I would love to find ways to show my work in the city as well.” Nevertheless, Hirons said she “feels very fortunate to have found a second career that draws on the experiences of the first, but enables me to work at what I truly love.”
Jean Hirons’ “A Pastel Retrospective: Paintings from the 1990s to 2016” is on view through May 29 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Rockville, 100 Welsh Park Drive, Rockville. Regular viewing hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays; call about availability on weekends. An artist’s talk and tour is set for May 21, 3 to 5 p.m., in the church’s Founders Hall. Visit www.uucr.org or call 301-762-7666. Private tours may be arranged by emailing the artist at email@example.com.