Mike and Jan Sherwood collaborate on multimedia artwork at EclectArt Studios

By Emily Sparacino
Photographs by Dawn Harrison

When Mike and Jan Sherwood told the story of how they started making art together several weeks ago, they shared an invisible microphone.

Clutching cups of steaming coffee at a booth inside Alabaster’s Panera Bread on a Monday morning, they took turns talking about their backgrounds and current work, often adding onto each other’s statements to round out each part of the story.

Tag-teaming the conversation was second nature to the Alabaster couple, as second nature as creating what they call “Married Art.”

Mike and Jan own EclectArt Studios, where they collaborate on multimedia pieces, including acrylic and watercolor paintings and graphite drawings.

“We work on the same pieces,” Jan said.

In a nutshell, a piece of the Sherwoods’ Married Art isn’t complete until both Jan and Mike have worked on it.

“We kind of fell into making Married Art,” Mike said. “I don’t know if it’s the aesthetics of the art or the concept, but it’s propelled us.”

The themes, colors, illustrations and details that appear in the couple’s artwork are as varied and interesting as the story of how they met, married and started down the path of making and selling artwork together.

Mike, a native of upstate New York, opened a restaurant in Alabaster known to locals as Tasty Dog in 1989.

Jan is originally from the San Francisco Bay area. Her father grew up in Oakland, California, and her mother in Alabama.

“We would come here to Alabama in the summers to visit my grandparents,” Jan said of her family.

When she was in her 20s, Jan decided to take a break and come to Alabama, not intending to stay long; however, she discovered the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s dance program, and her visit turned into a move.

She majored in dance and minored in art at UAB. Prior to that, she danced and performed at the Montgomery School of Fine Arts, now known as the Alabama Dance Theater, and Auburn University at Montgomery.

She eventually opened her dance studio, Southern Dance Arts, across the street from Mike’s second restaurant, Michael J’s Deli, in Alabaster.

“I would go over and have lunch or breakfast,” Jan said. “We would sit and talk. We became best friends.”

And the two remained friends for 13 years before they dated and got married.

They have five grown children and five grandchildren, with one more on the way.

Time ushered in many changes for the couple; restaurant closures and openings, the relocation of Southern Dance Arts to its current location on Simmsville Road and Mike’s stint on the Alabaster City Council.

After Mike’s third restaurant My Peeps closed, he and Jan picked up artwork again.

“Jan has an art minor, and I was a graphic design major,” Mike said. “We started painting and drawing again. We started experimenting and doing things together. We took some things to an auction and made more than we made in a week at the restaurant.”

The Married Art was born from piles of wood and Mike’s and Jan’s individual turns captaining a paintbrush.

“We tore our deck down about four years ago and had piles of wood,” Mike said. “I started painting on the wood. I would hand it back to Jan, she’d do something on it and she’d hand it back to me. After a while, it started looking like art.”

Sometimes, they discuss plans for piece before they start, particularly for a commissioned piece, but often, they just start painting and passing.

“The grain or texture of the wood may dictate what we do,” Mike said. “We use a lot of color.”

“Sometimes, we pass it back and forth, and you can’t tell who did what,” Jan added.

Subjects for their paintings vary, but common elements seen throughout their artwork include trees, eyes and intricate patterns.

Works by artists like Salvador Dali inspire them, too.

“We love trees,” Mike said. “We’re products of the ’60s and ’70s. I’ve done hundreds of chunks of suspended land.”

“And eyes,” Jan said. “It’s really what’s in our heads. Someone described it as ‘dream art.’”

The couple sells all original pieces; they don’t produce identical duplicates or prints of any works.

“People can have something similar, but they will not be the same,” Jan said.

Because of their pieces’ originality, Mike and Jan are somewhat limited in their gallery showings.

“We haven’t had a surplus of items we can extend,” Mike said. “We don’t make prints. We believe that everybody should have an original piece of art.”

Jan said they can usually sense when someone is drawn to a specific piece.

“More often than not, certain pieces are meant for certain people,” she said. “We’ve had married couples get their first piece of art from us. People have saved up for a year to commission a large piece.”

The vibrancy of colors in the Sherwoods’ paintings is often the first thing that draws people in, Mike said.

“Art’s very personal,” he said. “If someone sees something that moves them, we make sure they get it. We make a way for people to have something.”

Selling their pieces can be emotional for Mike and Jan, too. Since they only create originals, once they sell something, they likely won’t see it again.

“We get attached to certain pieces,” Jan said. “Our kids probably have more art than anybody.”

But, as Mike said, “You’ve got to go with what your heart tells you.”

“For the right person to get a piece, that makes all the difference,” he said.

The couple has traveled to art shows in the Atlanta and Cartersville, Georgia areas and Huntsville. They have looked into shows in Asheville, North Carolina; Savannah, Georgia; St. Augustine, Florida; the Keys; and San Francisco, and will be in Chattanooga, Tennessee, later this year.

Their Border Collie, Journey, accompanies them on the trips.

They have to balance their travel schedule with the dance studio.

“We really have worked well with coordinating the dance studio with traveling,” Jan said. “(Art has) really allowed us to travel to places we wouldn’t normally have spent time in. We’ve made friends in different communities through our art.”

Most of the shows Mike and Jan participate in are juried.

Beyond awards and sales, they enjoy talking to people who visit their booth.

“When we’re out, we love to share,” Mike said. “It’s motivational for us to do that.”

After each show they attend, Mike and Jan pick out somebody who made the biggest impression on them that weekend.

They truly enjoy connecting with people through their art.

“We wouldn’t be able to do that if our art didn’t draw them in,” Mike said. “You never know who you might help.”

Jan’s dance studio keeps them busy, and like EclectArt Studios, is a family business.

She and her daughter teach full-time.

“Whatever we do, it’s truly a family industry, a family business, and always will be,” Mike said.

The studio has served as a scouting hub for the Southeast recently.

Jan said TinaMarie Holland, owner of NY-LA-NASH Entertainment and Talent American, was slated to lead an acting and musical theater workshop at Southern Dance Arts this summer.

“I’ve always had kids that have gone on to professional careers and college dance programs,” she said. “These kids are excelling in everything they do. Seeing them develop is so inspiring to me.”

Somehow, the couple also finds time to operate a fundraising company. Mike is a trained auctioneer, and he and Jan hold four or five charity auctions for local organizations each year.

Jan said the best reward from the dance and art studios is the inspiration they produce.

“Art, and our choreography, is an expression of what’s going on in our heads,” she said, adding the attention the Married Art has received is unexpected. “We are amazed. We didn’t expect this attention. We just really love doing it, and we’re just shocked sometimes.”

Mike agreed, and said they’ve been humbled by the experience.

“This year has just been prolific. Our art has kicked in very strong,” he said. “It’s our life. It’s not what we do; it’s who we are.”

For more information about EclectArt Studios, go to the following Facebook page: Mikeandjan Eclectartstudios Sherwood. To learn more about the dance studio, go to Southerndancearts.com.