On a September day, I opened my mailbox and found a postcard with this headline: Studio Tour on Bicycle. It listed a date, a time, and three artists. So on a fresh fall Sunday afternoon, I gathered with nine other folks, all wearing helmets, and we pedaled off.
I went because I love to ride my bike and because I felt an indescribable need to learn to love art. I’m into poetry and theater — shouldn’t art be next on the list of creative things to adore?
Besides, I live in a mini-haven for artists with an active artist guild, 11 galleries for 10, 000 people (not to mention the 1 million tourists who pass through our burg each year), and a monthly First Friday Art Walk, of which I have been to exactly two.
We arrived at the first studio where two artists share space in a warehouse down a street I didn’t know existed. Our tour guide announced to the artists, “Now, there’s no need to be intimidated — we all love art!”
She was not speaking for me.
I don’t love art. I don’t hate art. I am extremely ignorant about art. How ignorant am I? I didn’t know the difference between a gallery and a studio.
At one studio, one of the guys on a bike, an artist himself, asked the official artist, “If you could have dinner with any artist, who would it be?”
He named two people I’d never heard of. Surely, this tour was not for me.
But I didn’t give up. The first two artists leaned toward less-than-completely-realistic pieces. I took a deep breath and decided to approach the art as if it were poetry. Not, what does this mean? But, what do I notice?
I ended up captivated by a series of paintings by Melissa Starry (who wasn’t even listed on the postcard) called “Human Nature.” I called her up later for an interview, and she invited me into her studio to look more closely at the series.
Starry told me the paintings are acrylics made with a palette knife. Each painting had a figure or figures, and each was titled with a noun ending in “-ion, ” like “Celebration, ” “Direction, ” and “Creation.” She said she used only four colors for the “Human Nature” series: red, black, white, and yellow ochre. “I like to use a limited palette because they go together better, ” she said. The combinations yielded grays, creams, almost a purple.
There were two paintings that seemed to be almost mirror images of each other. In one, the figure was bent over, nearly crumpled. The background was reddish. In the other, the figure was kneeling. Its background was gray. The first was called “Isolation” and the second “Devotion.” During my morning free-writing the next day, I wrote about the similarity between these two experiences of the human condition. The postures in the paintings are nearly — but not quite — identical. The bend of the knees is almost the same, although the Isolation figure is sitting and the Devotion figure is kneeling. Even the angle of their arms is similar.
Painting doesn’t occupy all of Starry’s life. She has three interests: “art and hair and photography.” Mondays and Tuesdays she cuts hair. Photography is a lifelong interest. Art comes in at the margins. But the art is informed by her other interests. Her love of painting figures serves as a prime example. “I’m a hairdresser by trade, so I’m more of a figure/face person, ” Starry said.
She’s currently working on a series of paintings of famous people called “Species of Genius.” She showed me several she’s completed: Frida Kahlo, Alice Neel, Picasso, Mozart, Beethoven, Eudora Welty, Andy Warhol. Starry mentioned she’s not going for the kind of accuracy you’d find in a portrait, just enough so you know who the person is and maybe gain some insight into their character or some aspect of their lives from the artistic touches. (I loved that Hemingway had the sea behind him. Get it? The Old Man and the Sea.)
Then Starry mentioned that she was commissioned to design this year’s poster and T-shirt image for our town’s Oktoberfest, the 35th celebration. The committee wanted buildings, and our main streets are full of century-old and older structures. But she didn’t paint them entirely realistically. The sky is blue — that part was normal. The buildings are outlined in black, as if they are architectural sketches. But the committee also wanted the colors of the German flag, so there’s a yellow ochre swash and a red swash.
And it was in that moment that I understood my hang-up with art: realism, which is where most art classes begin — “Let’s go outside and paint what we see.” And guess what? I’m no good at that. So, if I see my dog Clover and can’t paint her realistically, is it still art? What if I were to paint a black swoosh to represent Clover dashing through the yard after a squirrel? Starry would probably paint something like that, something between the realism of a photograph and the abstraction of, say, a Picasso.
I like the in-between space where Starry makes her art. Yes, that’s the Vereins Kirche Museum on the poster, but it’s yellow and white in a swishy sort of way. Yes, that’s Mark Twain — how fun that his tie is a map of Missouri with the Mississippi River running through it. Yes, that is exactly what Isolation and Devotion look like, right down to the bend of the arm and the knee.
How to Write a Poem uses images like the buzz, the switch, the wave—from the Billy Collins poem “Introduction to Poetry”—to guide writers into new ways of writing poems. Excellent teaching tool. Anthology and prompts included.
“How to Write a Poem is a classroom must-have.”
—Callie Feyen, English Teacher, Maryland