Jane Breskin Zalben, sitting in the kitchen of her Sands Point home on a Thursday afternoon, said the last two years of her life have changed drastically after spending more than 30 years writing and illustrating.
Although she has written more than 50 books, including children’s picture books and novels, in the last two years, following her mother’s death, she has been painting more than eight hours a day.
After studying art at Queens College and lithography at the Pratt Graphics Center, Zalben began her career as a graphic designer, working for several publishing houses in New York, and then began writing books herself.
However, starting at age 5, and all through college, Zalben, who has lived in Port Washington for 39 years, focused on painting.
With her career now going full circle and transitioning back to art, Zalben said she has become obsessed with painting.
“I wake up in the middle of the night and this is pretty much all I think about,” she said.
Zalben’s paintings will be featured on the walls of the Port Washington Public Library’s Children’s Room when it reopens late in the summer.
“It’s not the first show in Port Washington, but it’s the first show I am having of my new life, which is a shift,” she said. “It’s sort of returning to where I came from and being a painter.”
Zalben’s painting obsession is evident in her home, from the two-car garage she has turned into a studio to the walls filled with work of both present and past.
Tucked away on the right side of her home is a sun porch where she paints, as natural light beams through the windows, exposing each brush stroke on a group of paintings hanging on the wall.
“I like painting on the sun porch,” she said. “It’s all glass and I like that I am inside out even in the winter.”
About four inches of medical gauze is hanging from a painting Zalben has hung in the sun porch, a new technique she incorporated after discovering an excess of it from when her mother was in the hospital.
She said her style isn’t changing because she is tired of how she was painting, but because she’s always thinking of new ideas.
“My mind is always moving,” she said. “That’s just how it works.”
Although Zalben has been focusing on painting over the past two years, her work in publishing, especially when she was the art director of children’s books at Scribner, a publishing house, led her into writing, which she continues to do to this day.
One of her novels, “Four Seasons,” which is about a young piano player, was lauded by author Judy Blume, who called it “Heartfelt, lyrical, and humorous, with unforgettable, true-to-life characters.”
Zalben has written picture books, young adult books, middle grade fiction and even cookbooks.
In 2012, she published a picture book named “Mousterpiece” about a mouse who emulates the paintings of famous artists, re-creating the well-known pieces but substituting mice for their subjects.
“When I started writing my own work, I was writing at nights and on weekends,” she said. “The more I wrote the picture books, the more I wanted to write novels because I had more to say.”
Zalben said her picture book editor said she should start writing a novel, so she started after her first son was born and finished the final chapters when she was in labor with her second son.
“I feel that writing is a visual act,” she said. “It’s not just getting inside the character and being alone with them, it’s when you make the reader feel that the book is alive and they are in that world, it’s because you are visually, as an artist, in that world.”
Zalben said painting and writing are similar because both require the artist to judge when to be spare or detailed or when to lay it all out.
“There’s that kind of rhythm in writing and painting,” she said. “There’s a link there for me. It’s a common thread.”
It took a while for Zalben to find her writing style, she said, but not her painting style.
“That came naturally and I never even thought about it,” she said.
Zalben said her life would probably be a lot different if she hadn’t moved from the garment district to Port Washington, if she hadn’t begun writing at night and if she hadn’t begun painting two years ago.
“Life is like a path, I guess. You don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said.