Artist profile: Jada Rowland of Greenport

Artist Jada Rowland in her Greenport studoio. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

Artist Jada Rowland in her Greenport studoio. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

In many ways, boredom has directed Jada Rowland’s life.

It was the artist’s boredom with show business that prompted her to abandon a successful career as a Broadway and soap opera actress in the early 1980s in favor of illustrating children’s books. And it was her eventual disaffection with that endeavor that led Ms. Rowland, who has an exhibit of some 50 drawings on display at Cutchogue-New Suffolk Library through the end of October, to her latest creative pursuit as a graphic novelist.

It comes as no surprise, then, that discussing her life with a reporter is a subject she also greets with dismay.

“Talking about myself is so boring,” she complained during an interview last week in her paint-splattered Greenport studio, her grayish-brown hair, braided into a single plait, skimming past her waist.

But a majority of people would agree it’s a life worth talking about.

Born in New York City, Rowland, 71, grew up ensconced in culture. Her parents met in Greenwich Village while her mother was working as an artist and her father, a writer, struggled to find acting jobs.

She exhibited artistic ability from a young age. In fact, she said, “My first memory is of having a pencil in my hand.”

As a young child, she attended the now-defunct King-Coit School and Children’s Theatre, a Manhattan arts school whose prestigious alumni include the likes of actor Christopher Walken.

At King-Coit, Ms. Rowland and her peers were introduced to plays, like Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” and then performed them for the public.

It was during one of these performances that Katharine Cornell, a hugely successful stage actress who had previously been dubbed the “First Lady of Theater,” noticed Ms. Rowland, who was then just 6 years old.

“And she came backstage after the performance and asked me if I’d like to go on Broadway and play her daughter,” Ms. Rowland recalled.

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In 1949, the little girl did just that, starring alongside Cornell in “That Lady.”

That experience paved the way for Rowland’s career as an actress. She starred in seven additional Broadway shows and earned some minor television credits before accepting the breakout role of Amy Ames Britton Kincade on the CBS soap opera “The Secret Storm” in 1954.

Blessed with a photographic memory, learning lines came effortlessly to Ms. Rowland. After a while, she was even able to cry on cue.

“It wasn’t easy for me to make myself cry in the afternoon for money,” she said. “I tended to play the long-suffering heroine.”

In 1969, Rowland starred as Jennie on the first season of “Sesame Street.” Her character on that show had a segment where she drew illustrations containing hidden objects for children to find. It was a role she was happy with, but couldn’t continue because of her demanding schedule on “The Secret Storm.”

PHOTO COURTESY JADA ROWLAND

PHOTO COURTESY JADA ROWLAND

Eventually, Ms. Rowland went on to star in other soap operas, including “As the World Turns” and, memorably, as Carolee Aldrich on NBC’s “The Doctors” — the more “risqué” version of its competitor, “General Hospital.”

Despite her success and the people she had the chance to meet — a young Richard Gere, to name one — the Hollywood scene never appealed to Rowland.

In 1983, she officially quit acting when her husband, astrophysicist David Helfand, told her what she already knew: She was bored and should pursue something else.

Ms. Rowland had always loved drawing, but she’d been a performer for so long that the idea of jumping from the collegial atmosphere of acting to working alone as an artist was daunting.

“That, to me, was a big risk,” she said. “Not being out of show business, but being alone. And indeed, if I did not so adore it I would find it very hard.”

Rowland’s detailed drawings and vibrant use of color attracted commercial attention and she landed jobs illustrating numerous children’s books, most notably “Bringing the Farmhouse Home” in 1992 and the popular “Miss Tizzy” in 1993. She also began painting portraits, oils and watercolors — and is still doing that professionally.

Recently, however, Rowland’s ennui, that old familiar friend, has gotten the best of her.

“I’m not really impatient; I’m capable of detail,” she said. “But I get bored. So I have to do something that gets my motor running, for whatever reason.”

These days, that something is writing and illustrating young adult graphic novels.

Currently, Rowland is working on a book about a little girl who is adopted by a family of marionettes and desperately wants to look like them. The novel’s working title is “Puppets” and Ms. Rowland is excited to see where her imagination takes her, both in writing the story and in drawing its characters.

“It’s fun,” she said. “I can like it as both a writer and an artist.”

She has no plans to slow down, either — unless, of course she gets bored.

“As long as I stay interested and as long as I can stay healthy, I’m going to do as much as I can,” she said. “Because what is life for?”

ryoung@timesreview.com