Janis Provisor and her husband, Brad Davis, are both artists and started out living the New York artist life in a loft, showing and selling their work. Twenty years ago, they decided upon a year’s adventure in China and Hong Kong. In the course of that year they almost serendipitously found themselves taking over a state-run factory and establishing a carpet making business in Hangzhou. They went on to found the Fort Street Studio and, using their skills and ideas as artists, began to design painterly luxury wild silk Chinese-made carpets that sell both in the US and overseas.
Their Tribeca loft was a treat to visit, full of thoughtfully-chosen art work from all over, but with a particular slant towards Chinese art. Janis also makes and sells gorgeous jewelry, something she started as a kind of respite from the business side of things—“I needed to do something with my hands.”
We want to ask you about the Hong Kong and China adventure you embarked upon in 1993–it lasted rather longer than you anticipated. What held you there?
We set off on a year’s adventure, took our son out of school for a year, had about ten suitcases with us and thought we would live just in China and Hong Kong—mostly in China. We went from a 3000-square foot loft to a two-bedroom—they wouldn’t let us have the other bedroom— and naked light bulbs. There were no other westerners living on their own in Hangzhou.
How did you manage with the language?
You know, we met people … we were intrepid travelers. We met a group of journalists—and [became friends with] one in particular. Her mother was a costume designer for the Hangzhou Opera and her father was a professor. They could read and write [English] sort of but they couldn’t speak. We would have dinners and we would just write things down.
How old was your son?
He was six and he skipped a year of school. We were going to be painting and traveling. We had a point person who helped us that first year—a retired professor. He was able to register Alec in a nursery school attached to the university as his grandson! It was hilarious. He had white hair … we always said that was the most recessive gene you could ever find!
How did he take to nursery school there?
It was hard but then he almost became fluent. Then he lost it. Then he studied it. Now he speaks Chinese. We insisted he keep it up.
Out of all the countries you could have gone to for this adventure, why China?
Both Brad and I had a real interest in China, and both through our art, early on being influenced separately by Chinese paintings. And then we took [an initial] three-week trip in 1989, we fell in love with it. It was so interesting to see a country just on the cusp. We didn’t really expect to love it the way we did.
What do you love about Chinese painting?
It’s interesting—Brad and I sort of got together over Chinese painting. Around the late 70s, my work was changing. I was looking for a way to think about landscape that wasn’t hierarchical, where there wasn’t a vanishing point and that didn’t deal with perspective in the same way that Western landscape painting does. And I thought that certain kinds of scroll paintings or later, Qing dynasty painters, were very abstract and had a way of looking at the world the way I looked at the world—where a mountain and a rock seemed like they were the same size. Those landscapes had a psychological import that I’m more interested in. And Brad really knew a lot about Chinese painting and had been collecting. He subsequently curated a show as the head of Chinese painting at Sotheby’s. I’d also collected a lot of flea market stuff in China.
And so you went to live there but how did the rug-making enterprise begin?
We came out of the New York art world and had no feeling or idea about making a product. Anyway, what we saw in China was all these amazing crafts and frankly, crappy design. We had this idea you could make anything. We went for that first year and [my husband] Brad said, “Do you want to collaborate on a rug for our loft on 22nd street?” We set up a painting studio in our [Chinese] bedroom. We went in on the ground as two artists with empty pockets—we were not rich Americans. We didn’t know what we were doing. We ended up taking over a state-run factory and [eventually] a group of weavers who only worked for us.
We hear that from a lot of designers that when they travel, they see great craftsmanship but a lack of design. Why does that happen?
I think these were closed countries and those kinds of arts weren’t supported. Anything that seems maybe modern was “dangerous” to the government in some way. You have to realize that in China, which is different from India, because India has some beautiful things, there was a period in China around the Cultural Revolution where everybody dressed the same. It was all conformity.
Can good art still be made even if an artist is “collaborating” with the state, or forced to collaborate? And is there some subversion present in so-called government-approved art?
I think some of the artists who collaborated were forced to collaborate and maybe they played with it—however I think there were some who believed in the cause. And the cause was, I think, virtuous at some time. There is interesting political art. We were in Vietnam and we ran into the chief propaganda artist from North Vietnam. We went and saw a lot of paintings he did and we bought some. They were depictive of atrocities that America had done—and it was pretty fascinating.
Those political works become more interesting as time goes by and you look back at the period but at the time …
At the time, you think you’re being preached to.
What did you learn from all this experience with China?
What I’ve learned from China is not really so much “China”. What I learned by being there and how my life changed was that you can have an idea and if you push hard enough, you can create something—if you have the will. And I learned that it is a lot harder than you think it is.
How did the jewelry happen?
When we started the carpets, I had to learn to run a business, which is not my strong suit. And while I was learning to be a secretary, literally—I had never even had a computer—and while Brad was working on the transformations of our designs [into carpets] I needed to do something hands on. I found I couldn’t get into the studio and just paint for an hour because the kind of concentration painting takes is longer than that hour. So I started wandering the back streets of Hong Kong and found stones, which I started to put together. When I make a piece, I don’t think about if all the beads or elements are going to fit together. I’m thinking of making a “drawing”. I don’t do it from a technical point of view. That’s what happened with the carpets too – we were the first ones to do irregular carpets, we really were. We were the first ones to do painterly things with carpets.
Are people still buying jewelry?
I think it’s interesting. When the recession came, we went down a little bit but we’re not huge—we’re very lean and mean, so we could pull back. I have a devoted clientele. It’s not a fair thing to say but Debbie [Janis’s partner] said that her mother says our thing is sort of costume jewelry for millionaires.
What tips would you give for wearing jewelry?
I like bold and I’m a real ring person. And I don’t wear a lot of it. Sometimes people wear too much jewelry. Also, if you wear glasses, avoid big earrings. I don’t wear twee, tiny things although I do like some of those things. You have to feel like it feels right for you. Otherwise it looks like a costume—that’s what happens when these stylists do it. Eventually all the [stars] look the same. I really miss the old Oscars when they made so many mistakes! I miss Cher! And Bjork!