WKNO fm, Memphis's local npr station, hosts a daily arts interview show called Checking on the Arts. They are kind enough to host me to talk about my shows even when I'm not exhibiting in their lobby, but they certainly saved me space on the calendar for this show, "Autobiography," and Kacky Walton interviewed me last week. She and Darel Snodgrass both do serious homework for these interviews, look at work, read websites, and come in prepared to have a great discussion, which is a huge boon for those of us not professional at being on the air. I had a great time with Kacky, and I appreciated her kindness talking about this much more personal than usual work I've been doing lately. Here is the interview with some back story about the exhibition in case you'd like to listen.
I'm hanging the show "Autobiography" tomorrow at WKNO, and it will be up for the month of March. There will be a closing reception Friday, March 31, 6-8pm.
As part of the preparation, I'm preparing an artist statement to go with the show, and it's been interesting to think about. This is a much more personal show than I have ever mounted, and the statement reflects that a bit. I've always been fascinated by other artists' self portraits, and it's exciting to get to show my own series at this point in my life.
Here is the statement I've written for the show:
I live a solitary life, which is not the same as a lonely one. This series of work examines my solo world in times of loneliness but also in times of fulfillment. My life is rich with art, music, canine company, and periods of romantic company, but it is still in essence a life lived alone. Society does not give us good images or models for women navigating life alone. There is tremendous pressure to couple up as the only truly appropriate state of being. The word "spinster" contrasted with the word "bachelor" speaks volumes. Society's image of women needing to be coupled ignores the demographic realities that at some point or another in their lives, women are likely to live alone. Women benefit from being able to find happiness and fulfillment within themselves. This exhibition portrays me in moments of varying success at that endeavor. I make art, dance, play music, and walk in forests regularly. Sometimes I do these things alone and sometimes in company.
I go for years without painting any self portraits, but I find myself doing them again when I am in periods of self examination, upheaval, or transition. Self portraits can feel like the most self-indulgent form of art, a feeling made only stronger by selfies, Facebook, and the proliferation of the appalling selfie sticks. However, they are a centuries old art form. Artists tend to make sense of the world around them by examining it and distilling it onto paper or canvas through the lens of their art. It makes sense that we have the same urge to make sense of ourselves in this literal and tactile way.
This show began with me looking at portraits by Odilon Redon, Edward Hopper, and Andrew Wyeth. It contains not only traditional self portraits but also scenes and places that are deeply personal to me.
One friend told me that the more particularity there is to any story, the more universal it feels. These paintings show me in my own particular world. What I hope is that they are personal but also deeply recognizable on some level to others. I want them to reach and touch and give a feeling of solidarity to others who are navigating solo or examining their places in this enormous, crazy, heartbreaking, magical world that we all live in and have to make sense of for ourselves.
I've been working on two more self portraits this week since getting home from Washington. Here's one inspired by a poem called Polka-Dot Sky. I've always loved those cloud shapes, and the poem made me think back to those Redon portraits in the Orsay I saw last summer with people placed against clouds.
It started off well. I always struggle with faces and almost liked this level of finish better, but I pushed on. Here is the partway through version.
I'm also finally back to working on the self portrait at my easel. I hate the Arches gessoed paper it's on, which sucks down paint, and I had gotten discouraged weeks ago and set it aside for a while. But I finally decided to use my figure painting momentum and pull it back out again. It's close to done but still needs some finishing. The show hangs Tuesday, so I'm racing to both mount and prep everything and also finish as many of the ones in my head as I possibly can in that time.
I'll have a bunch of these in my spring show "Autobiography" at WKNO.
I've been so enjoying oils again lately. I almost stopped doing them eight years ago when I fell in love with prints. I seem to do things in spurts, focusing in for a while, and now I seem to be back to oils again. They're much faster than the intricate prints I had been doing, so it's fun to be able to push out a whole series of the images bouncing around in my brain in (comparatively) short order. The bigger ones, the full self portraits I've been doing, take longer, but these small ones (they're all in the 8" range) go pretty quickly. I come back and work more the second day once they've dried and I've thought about them a while, but SO much faster than prints. And since I have a show looming for March and a bunch of images that built up in my head through the Christmas show season, when I really couldn't tend to them, it's lovely to have a faster medium speaking to me at the moment.
These top two are from years past in Paris. I've pulled out my sketch journals to find see what images might be a good fit with my upcoming self portrait show. I've sketched my feet in various spots that are important to me for years. Having my feet on much loved ground is key to me as a landscape painter, and I both experience and celebrate meaningful things in my life by drawing them. So I drew myself in Paris.
Another meaningful part of my life is Mr. Darcy. And music. So here are two small self portraits that combine those two loves. I spend many evenings with Mr. Darcy and my banjo. I'm trying to push the envelope on what "self portrait" entails for the show, so I'll have some nice variety. I also think it will lend a full picture of my life.
The Hotel piece is finished. All of these others are in various stages of putting a bunch of color down (early) and tweaking (afterwards). I'm still monkeying around a bit with the other three.
I did a watercolor study for this oil on paper piece several weeks ago, but I hadn't had time to get to the actual painting what with Christmas shows, commissions, and the trip to Washington. It feels great to paint again. I drew this out two nights ago and started painting yesterday morning. It's close to done. I'll look at it again with fresh eyes in the morning.
This is the fourth in my series of "woman alone in a large world" series of paintings. The series started in Paris with me sitting on a couch, dwarfed by the enormous two story window behind me filled with night sky and stars. I've been examining my life lately, thinking about direction and how to live to be happy and make the most of my time. Self examination tends toward the literal for me. It is almost always accompanied by self portraits.
I've intended these to be something of a valentine for others also living singly. This is perhaps the most alone feeling, without dog or stars or banjo, but I included one of my favorite paintings I've done, one that was in the Dixon show last year, to be a window out into the wider world and also to have my abiding vocation present in the piece. Every time I do one of these, I hear from someone who is touched and sees him or herself in this place as well, so it's a kind of "solidarity" moment for me to reach out to others. Society gives us romantic couples as the only possible, successful way to live, and that's a lovely thing. But I have also found great freedom and creativity in living alone, as well as periodic lonely days, and I love the independence to pursue my art full tilt. I think it's good to offer different visions of acceptable ways to live, even if there is also great joy in finding a partner. Alice Steinbach (Without Reservations), who wrote a middle aged version of Eat, Pray, Love ten years before Gilbert's book came out, said that given demographics, all women should learn to live alone. That is so very true. My grandmother married at 30, which was quite old for her era, was happily married for 50+ years, and still had another 20 years on her own after my grandfather died, because she lived to 104.
Here are a couple of the earlier pieces in the series. I think my spring show at WKNO will be self portraits, interpreted somewhat loosely. They seem to be where my head is at the moment.
Christmas for several years now has marked the moment when I could draw a line between show and commission season and the beginning of having time to make art for myself again. That is deeply true this year, so I celebrated with a quick self portrait in my Christmas dress. I found this 1940's velvet dress (that was the decade when they most made clothes to suit my figure) in an antique shop in Washington during my recent trip. It fits like a glove, and I was delighted. I feel like I'm starting a new chapter at the moment, and a new dress is a lovely way to mark that. I'm also looking forward to doing some more self portraits now that I have time, perhaps for my spring show if things go well.
I hope all of you are having a marvelous holiday season. Thank you for reading along here and supporting my work. No independent artist could ever make it without a whole host of supporters, and I have a beautiful community around me. That is always such a gift, at Christmas and all through the year.
Martha Kelly is an artist and illustrator who lives and works in Memphis, Tennessee.
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