Michele Bledsoe “And Then You Blink” acrylic on canvas 11″ x 14″
THE JOURNEY TO “THE SECRET KINGDOM“
“We sentimentalize children, but they know what’s real and what’s not.”
Over the past year, I have had the pleasure of being both a participant in and witness to a remarkable artistic transformation. I am referring to the creation of The Secret Kingdom, the first children’s book completed by my wife Michele Bledsoe.
Michele is a self-taught artist. Without any formal training in painting, she developed her own techniques through patient practice, determined to bring the clearest expression possible to her vision. This pursuit began before I met her, when she didn’t even know any other artists at all.
Her art during this phase was mainly a night time activity, and not only because she was employed in various full time day jobs. In this era Michele was an insomnia painter. Unable to sleep, she would approximate the dream state in front of her canvases, depicting slow wave depths that remained inaccessible to her physiologically. The images she created fulfilled the missing sensations normal dreaming would have provided.
Being conscious so much of the time gave Michele powerful awareness of her own inner configurations. This awareness was translated symbolically into the iconography she developed. Michele’s pictures came to represent an imaginary terrain she describes as the inside of her head. It’s Wonderland in there, peopled by assembled beings, fantastic creatures, and self-absorbed toys with expressions that range from the bemused to the serene. The repetition of certain pictorial elements speak of a consistent underlying comprehension, obsessively depicted. There is a sense of decay made restful with soft cool colors. The depictions are rendered with realism, but they are not naturalistic; curling leaves, ribbons, tangled twigs, rough hewn lumber, planes, pedestals, and layered walls are exquisitely arranged in front of an ever-present darkness. There is always an opening left that beckons towards the mystery.
Michele wasn’t making her art for public recognition; for a decade, she worked without anyone other than family members seeing the results of her nocturnal explorations. Her isolation kept her pure. Detached from commercial pressures, careerist ambitions, and art world tropes, Michele simply concentrated on giving her paintings the aspects and resolutions she desired. The results of her extreme focus were remarkable.
When Michele finally did begin to publicly show her work, she was surprised by the intense reactions it caused. It’s when I found her, at her first art show. Her paintings were a love at first sight experience for me, and once I encountered the artist, I wanted it all. I needed the totality of this fascinating woman in my life. I drew Michele into my lifestyle of a DIY artist and gallerist in the energetic Phoenix art community. Her previously unseen talent caused quite a commotion.
There was nothing else like her paintings being displayed, which brought a lot of attention and spontaneous appreciation. But she had no interest in taking part in the art world cant that drives the contemporary gallery scene, the high-flown but empty rhetoric others used to justify high -flown but empty art. The current wordy academic approach to art making was alien and irrelevant to her. Her work came from intimate, genuine experience, not theories and references. She saw no need to talk about what she had already made visible with her imagery.
Even more importantly, Michele realized she hated parting with the paintings she had created. Despite demand, Michele was very reluctant to sell her work. Purchases evoked emotional distress in her; to this day, she mourns the loss of some of the pieces that enthusiastic patrons were able to obtain from her.
So the question became how to cultivate Michele’s life calling for art without having to compromise the integrity of her outlook and approach. For 10 years we experimented with various approaches. The jaded institutional art world felt too small and elitist, its priorities unsatisfactory. But to continue to treat her painting like a hobby for weekends and evenings would never give it the emphasis it deserved. We needed a solution. So we took a leap of faith.
In early 2012, despite the wretched economy, Michele left her corporate job to focus full time on creativity. Her art was already mature and accessible. The key was finding a way to connect with a supportive audience for it.
We tried many plans along the way. The books of Steven Pressfield were inspirational, and set realistic expectations about what happens when you commit your life to your art. It was comforting to understand the trials we were facing were actually signs of progress. Most importantly, we prayed. We needed to, with all the uncertainty and doubt that challenged us.
It was in the hardest time yet, a crisis where our dream was almost abandoned, when Michele’s prayer was answered. She had hit her limit and surrendered; she had to turn over control. Very difficult for someone with such an iron will. However, It was that letting go of personal control that finally revealed a new possibility.
NEXT: PART TWO