Holland artist Joel Schoon-Tanis cultivates his craft with childlike wonder, whimsy, and wordplay

Sum peepul mite wundur if Hope Kolledge fourgot to help him lurn how to spel. But speling fun-et-ik-lee is a klever taktik Joel Schoon-Tanis inkorperates into his paintings and muruls to make them trooly youneek.

In point of fact, Schoon-Tanis may well spell better than your average right-brained artist, but he’s created a distinctive brand identity built on a palette of splashy, vivid colors illuminating themes of biblical stories, social justice, and flights of sheer whimsy. Many of his pieces are rendered with childlike wonder and captivating wordplay he describes as “kid thought.”
This Joel Schoon-Tanis mural is on the Cruise and Travel Experts Building, which fronts on Savidge/M104, in downtown Spring Lake. (Bruce Buursma)
At 53, Schoon-Tanis is steadily ripening as an accomplished artist with a devoted West Michigan following that’s growing internationally. Yet he seems as resolute as ever to never act his age. He approaches his craft with discipline and seeks to live out his principles with purpose, all the while determined to hold on to an attitude of youthful insouciance and a spirit of joyful curiosity.

“Not long ago, I heard from someone who told me he wasn’t going to back a project of mine because of the spelling issue,” Schoon-Tanis recalls in an interview at his downtown Holland studio. “It really bothered him — a lot. But I explained it was a matter of artistic choice.” 

‘As West Michigan as they come’

Schoon-Tanis has been drawn to art since his student days in the 1980s at Holland High School and at Hope College, where his father was a longtime professor.
Artist Joel Schoon-Tanis at Centennial Park in downtown Holland. (Bruce Buursma)
“I’m as West Michigan as they come,” Schoon-Tanis says. “I’ve moved around the core city here in Holland to different houses or apartments, but I’ve always been within a few blocks of downtown. I think it surprises some people that I’ve never left Holland, but West Michigan actually supports the arts really well. It’s an arts-friendly place, and the cost of living allows me to live like a regular human being without having to take on extra jobs.”

He was an art studio major at Hope and, immediately following his graduation in 1989, the fledgling artist was hired at the Water Street Art Gallery in Saugatuck. It was a learning experience.

“I discovered a lot about myself that year,” he remembers. “I found the joy of painting for people as a side job, and I also discovered what a terrible employee I was at the gallery. I didn’t like being a salesperson. Really, the only part I liked about the job was hanging the gallery — setting it up to look interesting. So I found myself painting more and more and getting to work late a couple of times. I needed to move on.”

It was a decisive time for Schoon-Tanis, who was living in a cheap apartment with a number of friends to keep expenses low. 

“Honestly,” he says, “it was an opportunity for me to examine the question, ‘What are my God-given talents?’ The answer seemed clear. I’m a creative. I can use my talents to paint. I can be an artist.”

Focus on painting

So he took the leap of faith to quit his job and focus on painting and producing artwork that people would buy.
Joel Schoon-Tanis' 1996 painting, "The Bath."
“The old saw ‘practice makes perfect’ really does ring true here,” Schoon-Tanis says.  “There’s a belief that it takes 10,000 hours to master something, and as I started working toward the 10,000 hours, my skills improved exponentially. My career has taken some twists and turns since then. But to oversimplify, the thing that drives me most is I simply like to make stuff.”

As he’s matured as a painter and muralist, Schoon-Tanis has shifted from watercolors to acrylic paints, which affords him the opportunity to create more refined and enduring “fine art” and abstract pieces than he produced in his younger years.

“I’ve always been drawn to color, and I’ve always been drawn to whimsy,” he says. “The whimsy often plays out in the juxtaposition of kid-like imagery with more realistic images. The angles are wonky, the colors are bright. They’re more ‘painterly’ now.”

An international artist

Schoon-Tanis continues to draw inspiration from the Bible for much of his work. In the early stages of his career, he created a show based on the story of Noah’s Ark and the array of animals who joined Noah on the vessel. It was something of a sensation.

Joel Schoon-Tanis during a trip Nairobi where he used his talents to raise money for giraffe conservation.“I loved painting animals, and Noah’s Ark was a great context for animals,” he says. “A big thing for me happened when I was somewhere in my mid-20s. I befriended a conservationist and writer named Betty Leslie-Melville, who established Giraffe Manor outside Nairobi, Kenya.

After discovering her books, Schoon-Tanis sent her a fan letter and a small painting of a giraffe. Soon thereafter, he notes, “We became friends, and I ended up doing an art show outside Nairobi to raise money for giraffe conservation. I had this crazy six-week adventure in Africa. And all of a sudden there’s a bigger story to tell. Technically, I’m an international artist at that point. I got some press in Nairobi, and just about that time my first children’s book came out — ‘Dragon Pack Snack Attack.’ So things are coming together.”

Since then, his career has taken him to Europe and the Middle East, where he’s had shows and commissions. He’s also dabbled in video and television work, including a children’s show “Come On Over,” which he produced and hosted in collaboration with the Grand Rapids Children Museum. He illustrated Zondervan’s popular New International Readers Version Kids’ Study Bible. And all along the way, he’s sold his paintings through galleries in Saugatuck; Charlevoix; Naples, Florida; Denver; Chicago; New York; Washington, D.C.; Nashville, Tennessee.

An ‘iconic personality’

Dave Armstrong, who with his wife, Jane, owns Armstrong DeGraaf International Fine Art Gallery in Saugatuck, has known Schoon-Tanis for decades and describes his artwork as a staple of the gallery.
The cover of Joel Schoon-Tanis' latest book, "40: The Gospels."
“Joel has always been intriguing,” says Armstrong. “His subject matter is unique, very colorful, always whimsical, and always conveying a good meaning — whether they were biblical or not. Most people don’t realize how well-known he is throughout the world. He might be better known in Jerusalem and Egypt than he is in the U.S. outside of our region.”

Armstrong describes Schoon-Tanis as an “iconic personality. He looks unrehearsed, but everything he does is really well-thought-through. He’s done his research. There’s depth. There’s a mystery behind him. And he looks like a painter — the paint on his clothes and the holes in the jeans. He is who he is, and we love to have him in the gallery. When we’ve done a show with Joel, and he’s in the gallery, working the crowd, his art is worth more and it sells well.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, of course, has put gallery shows on hold, but Schoon-Tanis has established an online gallery at joelschoontanisgallery.com, where he sells his work and arranges commissions and mural projects. He’s more recently explored issues of redemption and justice in the Bible in his paintings, leading to two art book projects highlighting 40 of his pieces in each — “40: The Biblical Story” and “40: The Gospels.”

He also created a piece commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, part of a collaborative project with other artists in Germany. To his delight, his piece was presented to Pope Francis at the Vatican by a leader of the European Lutheran Communion. Now, he is negotiating with a church in Switzerland to paint a mural there.

“I love West Michigan, which I think of as a great launching pad,” he says. “But I love to travel and I love to get to Europe.”

Creativity needs parameters

Schoon-Tanis says he’s learned that creativity needs clear parameters in order to thrive. “It’s a misunderstanding that creatives don’t want to be bound by anything,” he says. “I do have a new idea every day. But I’ve refined what I’m willing to do. I’ve rethought how to make an art business sustainable in the new economy.”

His books, art prints, original paintings, mural projects, and commissions allow him to sell his work across a wide range of price points.

"The old model was to paint a painting and sell it for money and then paint a new painting," Schoon-Tanis says. “It was nice and simple but, in the new economy, I like to use the analogy of the spec house. So I schedule enough of the hired projects, whether it’s a mural or illustration project, and in between, I do my spec work, the ideas I really want to develop. The hired jobs sustain me, but the spec work is actually where the greater potential and a lot of the joy comes from, following the passion of the moment.”
And that, rite now, is his new revelashun and resipee for kontentmunt and reel sucsess!

See more of Schoon-Tanis' work at joelschoontanisart.com.

Read more articles by Bruce Buursma.