How an artist’s faith brought her to Aix-en-Provence
Is it possible that behind the noise of life and our own notions, the universe is speaking to us, pointing us toward our destiny? If we listen closely to painter, Jill Steenhuis’s story, we may start to believe that it is.
We first met Jill while searching for a studio in Provence to shoot the campaign for our Matisse collection. When we came across Jill’s website and found videos of her stunning workspace, everything fell into place as if by magic. We soon learned that the scent of divine intervention was not a rare fragrance in Jill’s life.
Blown away by the artist’s journey and contemplating the traces of destiny in Blue Illusion’s own beginnings, we wanted to share this story with all of you.
Discovering her Raison d’Être
Jill meets with us over Zoom during a break from touring her paintings and her son’s metal sculptures. Her silky white hair is tied back in an effortlessly chic low ponytail. Short side bangs frame her slim face. Her glasses are a modern round shape, with black frames highlighted by gold trim. The only visible makeup on her face is an orange-red lip. Ever so slightly dangling earrings and a colourful ascot are her accessories of choice. There’s no doubt she has become a southern French woman. This classic look is made even more charming by the subtlest southern-American twang in her gentle voice. She tells us her story in a brightly lit room with wooden beams and a large window.
Jill’s is a story brimming with a sense of the divine; it’s true, but that doesn’t mean every step was a happy one. Jill’s life first changed forever at the age of eight when her mother took her own life, leaving behind Jill, her father, and three younger sisters. Despite being a child herself, the role of mother fell suddenly on Jill’s delicate shoulders.
Despite the devastating shock, Jill’s father was determined to foster happy connections between the girls and their mother. To that aim, he arranged for them to attend the same summer camp she had attended as a child. “It was a time when I could just be a child,” Jill reminisces.
At camp, she discovered a loving community, the glory of nature, and a mountain that, to her, represented all of the faith and hope that she had received during her time there. At the end of Jill’s last summer, a counsellor said, “Don’t cry; just take the mountain with you.” Jill understood what she meant, and she carried that mountain in her heart all through her high school years.
On her sixteenth birthday, Jill again came face to face with the mountain in her heart. In The United States, one can apply for a driver's licence once they have turned sixteen. Like many at that age, she hoped and prayed that she would come home to a shiny new birthday present parked in the driveway, but it wasn’t.
Instead, her father excitedly presented her with an art book on the painter Picasso had dubbed “the father of modern art,” Paul Cézanne. “It was the most unwanted gift of my entire life,” Jill tells us with a small, light-hearted laugh. But Jill couldn’t allow herself to hurt her father’s feelings.
That December night, they sat together by the fireplace and carefully turned the pages. There, between the bindings of this book, was a painting of a mountain— Mont Sainte-Victoire—and then another one, and another. He had painted the same mountain over a hundred times, but the final one was the most spiritual painting of a mountain Jill had ever seen. It was like the mountain in her heart. At that moment, Jill recognized that Cézanne also knew what a mountain could give to someone. “I discovered the power of art and how it can change one’s life,” she declares, softly smiling.
At college, Jill majored in studio art and wrote all her art history papers on Paul Cézanne. Upon graduation, her father gave her one more small gift—a card with plane tickets to the South of France. She would travel to the mountain that Cézanne had painted and attend a six-week course taught in the tradition of Cézanne and Van Gough. Two weeks after graduation, Jill took off for the south of France.
With no memory of her grade-school French, she arrived in Aix-en-Provence on June 16, 1980. On her second day, she met a young French man who spoke no English. Now, 43 years later, they’re still together with three sons. “Those six weeks turned into 43 years, and the most unwanted gift of my life became the most precious gift of my life.” Jill reveals. “I really believe that my mother whispered in my father’s ear to give me that book.” She laughs.
“So that was my destiny, and that’s why I ended up in the South of France,” Jill says, perfectly casually.
Life en Provence
“I learned French very fast,” Jill tells us. “We learn through inspiration, and when you fall in love, the inspiration is there,” She laughs. The words start to stick in your brain, “...because you want to communicate with the handsome man sitting across the table at the restaurant.” In under two months, she felt she could communicate her feelings and understand the responses. “I just learned little by little like a child.” The artist admits.
The warmth and patience of the locals also made the process easier. Like any country with regional variance, there is a different mentality in northern France versus Provence. “They’re misunderstood in America where they are considered more ‘égoïste.’” Jill declares. “I don’t think that that’s true about them. I think they’re very humble.”
Jill also felt that to learn French, she had to remove her own ego. By allowing herself to move through this new language like a child discovering how to speak, she found that the locals readily encouraged and supported her. “I feel completely accepted by the French, even though I have a very strong American accent.” She jokes. Later, she learned that her accent was even considered quite sexy.
When Jill first arrived, she would make one recipe after another from a French cookbook she bought. Every day, she would go to the market to buy fruits and vegetables. “The market in Aix has been going on seven days a week since the fifteenth century.” She reveals with pride. Despite her “horrible French,” the vendors there were always patient and allowed her to struggle through conveying her thoughts.
“Every day is beautiful. The sun is out, the wind is blowing, and we’re an hour and a half from the Alps. And so everyone is outdoors.” She explains, Perhaps this commune with the sun and the fresh air blowing in from the Alps has created a sense of peace in the people of Provence. You can certainly sense a serenity in Jill’s presence.
Jill’s artistic process is also intrinsically linked to the outdoors.
“I begin my day receiving nature through the senses. Feeling the reeds as they swish against my ankles when I walk in the field and smelling the garlic and rosemary to ignite my inner poetry in an urgency to bypass the intellect. I receive nature through the senses, and then like a breath out it goes onto the canvas without thinking.”
If she thinks, that is calculation. “The Zen master says that calculation is miscalculation.” She tells us.
The goal of her artistic process is to enter a meditative state that allows her to move beyond calculation. “That means that there is a certain spirituality in the work that makes [it] immortal.” It’s no surprise that Jill’s philosophy is very much in line with Cézanne’s, who also believed that, “Art is a harmony parallel with nature.” She says, “I find that I get [into that space] by having my feet planted in the garlic field with the workers pulling at the garlic.”
No machines are involved in Jill’s process, “There’s nothing except for me hearing nature, watching the garlic pickers bob up and down like musical notes across the field, and taking it in without being afraid of failure.” Her advice is, “to paint and paint and paint until you go beyond the fear of the death of the canvas and you stretch yourself into the unknown to come up with something that is your own.”
“Art exists to make one taste the eternal.” - Paul Cézanne
For those who want to immerse themselves in the magic of Provence and learn from her practice, Jill teaches an eight-day painting workshop. The session starts with a welcome dinner on Friday followed by a walk through Aix on Saturday. During the week, Jill teaches painting in various sites across Provence—in the hill towns, on the Mediterranean, and in the poppy fields in spring or the lavender fields in summer.
Typically the workshops are held in May, June, or September; however, she may add a fourth session to accommodate those who aren’t able to make it into one of the other three. So if you’re interested in attending but find all of the dates are full, keep your eyes peeled for that fourth workshop that will be posted on her website sometime between May and September.
Jill encourages anyone interested in art or Provence to view the documentary on her life, Painting the Invisible. Shot against the backdrop of her home is southern France, the artist’s journey to Aix, serene process, and spiritual creativity are shared with the viewer through the breathtaking and intimate lens of a son and artist. The full-length documentary was directed and filmed by Jill’s son, documentary filmmaker, James Ruffato.
On Destiny and Blue Illusion
After following Jill Steenhuis’ story, it felt natural to reminisce on moments of magic in Blue Illusion’s own journey. Another love story, without the courage and faith to charge into the unknown, it would have been impossible for founders, husband and wife Donna and Danny Guest, to have built Blue Illusion from a small household operation to a global lifestyle brand.
We feel blessed to have met Jill and been reminded of the power that comes with following one’s own path no matter how unexpected or outrageous it may seem. We’re so grateful to Jill for sharing her hero’s journey with us so that we could share it with you. Hopefully, this blog was able to illuminate moments of magic in your own life, or perhaps ignited a new pursuit in art! Au revoir à bientôt!
Learn more about Jill Steenhuis, her brilliant works and her workshops at https://www.artinprovence.com or be inspired by Jill’s documentary, ‘Painting the invisible’ here.