While searching through my email recently I stumbled across a long forgotten gem, from all the way back in 2005. It was a profile I had written for an online art site about my wife, artist Michele Bledsoe.
The website, “ARTish,” is long gone. It was based out of Phoenix, and at the time it was a nice venue to share images and happenings on the local arts scene. Looking at the submission email, I can tell I was still in the midst of my artistic crisis; the message I wrote was so tentative and apologetic about “being out of the loop.” But the response was positive, and the one article I produced for them was online for many years.
Full disclosure: this piece is written about the woman I consider the most wonderful and fascinating person in the world, so I am biased. But as a professional artist and cultural activist I stand by everything I said. In the decade that has passed Michele has continued and expanded her amazing creative work.
Some things have changed since then. This was before I discovered the international arts movement Remodernism; it was before we made “The Secret Kingdom.” But what I wrote then still holds up. Here, I present in its unedited entirety, a piece written almost 11 years ago.
Like Writing Down a Good Dream
A Profile of Painter Michele Bledsoe
It’s hard to say when art started happening in movements. There has always been change in the visual arts, but cultural evolution used to take decades, even centuries, to manifest itself. Like any profession, most people working in the arts were competent rather than inspired, talented tradesmen fulfilling orders provided by the all powerful Church or State. Occasionally some regionally isolated genius would appear, and create innovations that would be refined and dispersed by acolytes and imitators, but this would be a slow process in an era when travel was difficult and reproductions of artwork were rare.
But easy mechanical reproduction, as it developed, changed everything. When photography came along, painters lost their role as the primary image-makers. The artists learned their lesson when machines replaced their jobs; they became moving targets. Maybe this is when the pace picked up, as artists had to redefine their purpose in society. It seems like the definition of what is quality in art has been in constant flux for over a century. No longer would the powerful dictate forms or content, artists would figure out it for themselves, using the works of the past only for a contrast. When groups of like-minded people agreed at least temporarily to a set of artistic priorities, and created bodies of work exhibiting shared influences, a movement was declared, either by the artists themselves, or interested observers. The attitude was usually, forget all that other stuff that happened before-at last, it is we who have gotten it right.
One of the more memorable –isms that moved through the culture was surrealism. The idea of it survives today even to the mainstream, even if it has been reduced to a synonym for weirdness. Starting off as a mainly literary group, surrealism moved through the door kicked open by the irreverent Dada movement, who rejected the “rational” way of life that allowed the disasters of World War I. Dada might have been the work of some wry practical jokers, but what they unleashed took on a very serious nature. Through that door they breached lay all the darkness, perils and delights of the non-rational.
Surrealism embraced the darkness. It admired art by people considered uncorrupted by bourgeois concerns-primitive tribesmen, children, the insane. To discover the pure impulses that inspired these outsider artists, the surrealists looked to dreams, the subconscious, spontaneous gestures, and odd juxtapositions.
The idea of being part of an “art movement” seems kind of dated. The experiments and fads of the past can be analyzed more objectively now all the hyperbole has passed. And there is much to learn from the past for contemporary artists. Surrealism may be history, but the tools of exploration it identified are still useful today.
Phoenix painter Michele Bledsoe is a surrealist, although she didn’t set out to be one. All she does is represent what her imagination shows her. Looking inside, she views a twilight world of planes, steps and corners. Placed throughout these shadowy structures are seemingly unrelated objects-fragmented toys, body parts, plants and small animals, streaming ribbons, curling ivy leaves, pastries, all in a soft focus, but highly detailed. These items are familiar, solid-but they are also disarranged and jumbled. There is a feeling of contradictory movement between the various elements, a disorienting swirling sensation. A mysterious story is unfolding, a secret that only the artist knows.
Michele describes her choice of content as “Memories I have, things I saw or thought about when I was younger, mixed up with current thoughts.” When asked for an explanation for the various motifs that seem to repeat throughout her work, she rejects any calculated reasoning: “Not everything has some deep symbolic meaning; I think its more personal than that. Symbols are more universal. I’ve made up my own language.”
Surrealism is a tradition of art that prizes the unexpected, yet Michele’s painting technique is very methodical. She paints in acrylics on canvas, using tiny soft bristle brushes. There are no brushstrokes visible, even though every millimeter of the surface has been worked over and over again with layers of subtle analogous colors. She avoids the extremes of chiaroscuro, creating tonal works dominated by soft grays, purples and greens. There is also control exerted over composition: “The composition is intentional. I like to drag people through my paintings,” she admits. “It’s kind of a guided tour.”
But where the automatism of surrealism comes in is the objects that wind up appearing in the paintings. “The composition is one of the few intentional things that happen. I’m the one in control of where I put these things, and how I present them. But all the imagery is stream of consciousness.” As for the repetition of some of her content, she asks, “Ever get a song stuck in your head? It plays over and over.” She can’t verbally describe what goes through her mind while she is working. “While I’m painting I disappear. I disconnect-or maybe, reconnect. I can do it anytime I sit down to paint, for me it’s simple.”
Michele painted for almost ten years before she ever sought out any chance to exhibit her art. She worked alone, practically “in my closet” she laughs. “It never occurred to me to show them. It was my sister who finally convinced me to give it a try.” Now she has been exhibiting around the Phoenix area for about five years, and recently has become one of the studio artists of the Paper Heart Gallery. Experiencing public response to her work has been intriguing. “I paint for myself. I’m not painting for audience, I’d paint even if I didn’t have an audience; but I like to show my work because it’s nice to see the reaction. It’s almost like getting connected to somebody else’s imagination for a brief moment, plugging into some else’s deepest thoughts.”
Michele views her work as in a constant state of modification. “I like to look at my work in order; when I look at my work from 10 years ago, I see that I’ve come very far.” But she considers she has still further to go. “It’s a personal journey to get my skill to match up with my imagination, to bring it out clearer,” she says. “I’m looking forward to it.”