I grew up in and around Boston, an only child within my mother’s large family of second-generation Russian/Polish Jews. I started writing when I was six after my parents took me to see the movie, “Fantasia.” When we got home I asked for paper and pen to write down my feelings ….. and I’ve kept on writing. Mine wasn’t a household of books and learning — neither of my parents got beyond high school — but it was imbued with a love of art. Boston was a good place for people like us and I remember early trips to the Isabella Gardner Stewart Museum, a larger world opening up through its slender-columned courtyard that evoked the romance of Europe where I dreamed of going someday.
I dropped out of college after my sophomore year, returning to Boston and spending the summer waitressing at Club 47, the legendary café that was home to the Cambridge folk music scene. Whenever I could, I saw foreign films at the nearby Brattle Theatre, walking out afterwards in a daze of exalted emotion , sometimes weeping after seeing great movies like “Los Olvidados” or “Umberto D.” Maybe, I thought, I could make films one day.
I moved to New York as soon as I could, working during the day, getting my degree at night from The New School, and miraculously landing a job as associate producer at National Public Television (later PBS). My artistic and intellectual life was formed in those years, and I was able to produce and direct several award-winning films, among them “El Teatro Campesino,” about the Chicano theatre troupe, and “Virginia Woolf: The Moment Whole,” about the writer who still continues to inspire me.
But the need to write reasserted itself and I went back to my first love, poetry, publishing in small journals like Aphra, the first feminist literary magazine and directing the Writers In Performance series at the Manhattan Theatre Club. In the seventies, there was a buzz — wonderful conversations among women, talking to one another about what it was like to write, about the challenges and satisfactions of doing the work. Surely there had to be a book that captured those intense personal voices? But when I went to a bookstore, nothing like that existed. And so The Writer on Her Work — the first book of its kind — came about because I needed to read it.”
My friends used to kid me about my love for New York: “When the ship of New York goes down,” one of them said, “Janet’s will be the last hand waving.” But when my husband became President of CalArts in Los Angeles in 1988, we moved into a new life at a unique college that offers degrees in theater, music, visual art, writing, dance, and film — all taught by working artists whose dedication continues to inspire me. Since we’ve been at CalArts, I’ve written two memoirs, happy to find that the concision I’d learned from poetry as well as the narrative skills I’d learned from film-editing were good friends to me.
I love to explore, going to far-flung places such as Iran and India, and also exploring my home cities of Los Angeles and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico — wherever my natural curiosity takes me. In 1998, I embarked on a parallel life as a photographer, with solo shows and commissions in Berlin, Korea, Mexico, New York, and upcoming in Milan and Mumbai. A book of my photographs, Overspilling World, was published in 2016 by Distanz Verlag, with a Foreword by Wim Wenders. In 2017, my husband Steven D. Lavine stepped down after 29 years as President of CalArts, where I had contributed to many of the college’s endeavors, among them the making of REDCAT, the CalArts theatre at Disney Hall in Downtown Los Angeles. We moved to Downtown’s Little Tokyo, where we continue to thrive, working in many aspects of cultural life. For me, I foresee see more books, including writing a third volume that will complete the trilogy of my memoirs which are not only about myself and my family but also interweave history and science. A second book of photographs will appear in 2018, to accompany a show of my photographs at USC Fisher Museum.
And then there are the poodles . . . .