The Life of a Founder

Profile by Esmé Stevens

Jan Vondra, one of the founders of the Wrightwood Arts Center, has actively promoted the arts throughout her lifetime.

The middle child of three, Jan grew up in a house full of music and art. Her parents, Betty and Leonard Hjelmeland, met during WWII, teaching high school on a Sioux Indian reservation in northern Montana. Her father was a music teacher, while her mother taught English and art, contributing to Jan’s early creativity. Jan’s favorite memories include sing-alongs around the piano at home, playing different instruments at school, boisterous singing during long family car trips, experimenting with batik, making puppet families from seaweed, pressing leaves and flowers, and listening to her dad play the piano as Jan and her siblings fell asleep.

As time went by, her family moved to the Bay Area where they were introduced to art exhibits, concerts, and live theater in San Francisco. During this period, Jan developed a love for poetry. Many dinners were spent discussing specific poems which only strengthened a deeper need to explore the arts more. By the time Jan was ready to set out on her own path, she had a well-developed passion for the arts.

Jan’s college years were spent partially in Southern France, where she was able to live and explore the countryside painted by Paul Cezanne and Vincent Van Gogh. “I was informally ‘adopted’ by a group of French students and spent much of my free time with them,” Jan explains. Although her friends were pursuing different careers, they all had a rich background in the arts, which seemed to bind them together. During that year they visited many art galleries, art festivals, and museums, while also reading and discussing French poetry.

The majority of her professional life was spent working as an English teacher in public education. Jan moved to Wrightwood in 1972, shortly after Serrano High School opened, and she was hired as part of the original staff. The many challenges opening a 7-12 school with 400 students only presented opportunities for her to grow as an educator. Jan recalls one specific incident: “I have a clear memory of teaching a sophomore English class one day when a boy raised his hand and said, ‘Do you know that there is a rattlesnake curled on top of the dictionaries in the back of the class?’ I didn’t, but with quick thinking from the biology teacher next door, we solved the problem without a bite.”

Even as Jan pursued an academic career, eventually becoming the principal at Wrightwood Elementary School, she stressed the importance of the arts within her own life, continuing to support them in any way she could. She started an after-school program which accessed the talent of local volunteer artists.

Jan’s professional career came to an end with a much-deserved retirement. However, her journey to spread awareness for the importance of the arts did not cease. Watercolor classes from Gayle Dowling and other local teachers sparked the interest in many members of the community, beginning their own journeys in the world of art. Together, they created The Loft, modeled after the Four Seasons Gallery—a successful artist co-op that had provided a sales outlet for many local artists for years. Their “home base,” above The Village Grind on Park Street, has served as a gallery, a classroom, a reception center, and a business center—finally evolving into the Wrightwood Arts Center as we know it today.

The initial concepts of promoting the community’s artistic awareness and artistic skills of its members have grown through the leadership of Joan McCandless and the support of a committed group of volunteers. Because of such strong community support from people like Jan Vondra, the arts are alive and well in the tri-community.

Esmé Stevens is a freshman college student at VVC studying English.