Building a Narrative on Unusual Canvases

Artist Michela Martello on anonymity, words as symbols and painting on Shakespeare

Italian-born artist Michela Martello draws and paints, more often than not, on materials that have previously served some other purpose. At her current exhibition Future is Goddess, there are a handful of paintings on traditional canvas, but some of the most intriguing works are created on kimono fabric, loose sheets of Italian cotton, vintage quilts, and disassembled army bags.

Martello freely incorporates words in her paintings. One especially striking piece includes a hot pink painting of a fetus on a turtle skull, with the text “is going to be easy is going to be Wonderful” in gold script underneath.

When I noticed that several of Martello’s paintings are on the surfaces of pages from Shakespeare plays, I wondered about the relationship of literature to her artmaking practice. We chatted in person at her exhibition and in more detail via email, about the creation of a narrative in literature versus art, and about her thoughts on David Foster Wallace and Haruki Murakami, among other topics.

Future is Goddess is on view through May 20, 2017 at Pen and Brush in Manhattan, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting the work of women in the literary and visual arts. In addition to curating exhibitions in their gallery space, Pen and Brush hosts writing groups and mentorship programs, and they have created an imprint, Pen + Brush Publications, to electronically publish literary fiction and poetry.

Catherine LaSota: In the exhibition catalog, you state: “There is a secret place within every woman, a garden of Eden with darkness and light where we can have access using the keys of knowledge, courage, and confidence. Inside this place we find that everything manifest is not as we are told to believe; instead, we are pulled into a spiral of compellingly beautiful anonymity.” Is the beauty of anonymity in opposition to the use of labels to identify people and things? If so, how can we avoid interpreting words, or cultural symbols (which you also utilize in your artwork), as some form of identification of what we are looking at?

Michela Martello: If we dare to dive within the secret/sacred place and to hold onto its energy, we find ourselves automatically outside our comfort zone, where lack of labels are paramount for us to create a new perception. Creating an empty space allows us to receive the meanings of symbols and words in their original purity. It is an endless process, since we always tend to identify and put labels on things to feel safe, but if we keep that sacred door open, we can always reawaken and recreate ourselves. At least for me, it works in this way. It has to do a lot with that special moment right before the intellect manifests — there is always a sparkle of intuition. It’s like the first impression, that we have to trust fully — that experience comes right from the sacred place, and it is very precious!

LaSota: Some of your pieces in Future is Goddess are drawings and paintings done directly on pages of books of Shakespeare plays. Can you talk about your decision to make images on top of existing text? You also repurpose materials such as vintage kimonos and dismantled army sacks — do you view these unorthodox canvases in a similar way to working on pages of books, or is there a difference when language is part of the “canvas”?

Martello: Years ago, I found an antique beautiful collection of Shakespeare plays. Most of the pages were changing colors, showing signs of decay, but the quality of the paper was very good, as they used to make books fifty-sixty years ago at least. As soon as I went through the pages, I felt a strong desire to create art on the surface of those amazing plays.

Shakespeare’s genius is ageless — he knew how to speak to the masses using very simple/subtle yet sophisticated words. Between the lines, I often find answers to my anxiety, because he understood the darkness of human complexity and used comedy to display it. So this was the inspiration that led me to use his words as a background with specific plays. I used pages of The Comedy of Errors for three of my artworks where I explore the theme of mirror — identity and unity of time. I used The Taming of the Shrew, inspired by the always-changing roles in life from one opposite to another once we discover the interdependency that connects us all, painting among others a little paper called Family Constellation. I used Henry V, and many others, always finding in each play infinite inspirations.

For sure, backgrounds play a big role in my artwork process — from an old paper with Shakespeare’s words to a certain textile, fabric or embroidery, the background can really provoke the idea of my next painting. I like to use material that tells a story and has a memory because I like to give continuity to that material that maybe is old or damaged. For instance, when I found these old vintage army sacks, I was immediately inspired to paint on top themes related to the opposite subject, from spiritual to magical to introspective, and so I dismantled the bags, sewing them back together to create a flat canvas, and I repurposed them juxtaposing the opposite.

Michela Martello & the Graffiti Goddesses. Photo by Manny Fernandes.

LaSota: The way you talk about background materials inspiring the direction of your artwork…it reminds me of authors who draw on the geographic location or physical landscape where their stories take place, sometimes to the point of writing about the location as if it is another character in the story. There are some stories, for example, that could only take place in New York City, or in the rural American South, just as the paintings you make on a repurposed army sack or on the pages of Shakespeare plays could not exist in the same way on a different surface. If this is an accurate comparison, and your background materials act like geographic locations in a story, are there other aspects of your paintings that you view as pieces of a story, in terms of character, conflict, narrative arc, etc.?

Martello: Sometimes yes, but it is not a prerequisite condition. For instance, I will have an idea of a painting, using references that I feel will create a narrative I am very fond of, and then, when I start the painting, everything takes a completely different direction. So I just let the process flow, and I understand that those specific references were just symbolic tools that led me into new dimensions. Sometimes, I use animal skulls, and in that case the work is very much related to the idea of impermanence — therefore, the skulls are essential, and the work manifests exactly as I thought about it. But of course, in this case, I am not talking about a background — this is a very specific tool.

LaSota: You mentioned to me that you have been making artwork with a relationship to the writing of David Foster Wallace and Haruki Murakami. What about these particular writers are you drawn to, and how do their words influence your artmaking?

Martello: Shakespeare is present here as well! I painted two little artworks in homage to two of my favorite writers, David Foster Wallace and Haruki Murakami, using the inside cover of the collection of plays. The background is illustrated with a graceful decorative motif aged by time, and I felt a strong desire to pay homage to these two writers using an inside cover of the master.

David Foster Wallace has a unique quality that I have never experienced with any other writer, the perfect schizophrenic balance between intellectual mental clarity and amazing spiritual insight — these two aspects, if well nurtured, can either create a guru or a madman. Wallace makes me feel compassionate about reality in the way it is supposed to be — he really helps me to see things straight and therefore he becomes my muse, creating the necessary void for inspiration to shape it up. Sometimes I do have a mystical experience beyond pure enjoyment reading some of his lines. He was a great mind, a great intellect, a great soul.

Haruki Murakami is therapeutic in a marvelous way. His style of course is superb, but it is not just that. I definitely am inspired by the surrealistic vision of his writing, and also I feel empowered by his enhancing way of portraying women — always very feminine, mysterious, and magical, with a perfect balance between strength and delicacy. He encourages me to work on paradox and juxtaposition. Murakami allows us to see forbidden landscapes, making us believe everything is possible in the most paradoxical way.

LaSota: You were born in Italy and studied illustration there, then moved to New York ten years ago. You make art that incorporates the words of different languages, but the predominant language you use in your work is English. Are you particularly drawn to the English language as an art element, and if so, why?

Martello: Well, when I was a child, I always dreamed about coming to live in New York. I used to pretend I knew English, and mimicking the sound of Americans made me feel almost there…and, I guess, for an Italian child dreaming of coming to America, I thought I was very “cool,” sounding English. Besides this, English language is universal; therefore, there is a certain usefulness in adapting English words to my paintings. It is quite useful! In the Italian language, for instance, to explain a concept you really need to compose a paragraph, versus English, where, quite often, only one word is needed — paradoxically that word can open many doors.

Sometimes I am criticized because I use words in my paintings — some say that using words makes me less universal because I personalize too much, giving direction to the public’s reaction. Well, for me it is exactly the opposite: words are magic like symbols. I never explain a concept with words — I just use words following an instinct, and I let the perceivers have their own experience.

“Some say that using words makes me less universal because I personalize too much, giving direction to the public’s reaction. Well, for me it is exactly the opposite: words are magic like symbols.”

LaSota: Do you think that your years of studying illustration, which certainly have an influence on your variety of artmaking techniques, had an impact on your decision to include language in your paintings when you returned your focus to the fine arts?

Martello: That is a very interesting question — honestly, I never thought about this. Certainly it could be a consequential reaction since I had to interpret words to create illustrations. I now mix the process. For sure the narrative element is very important in my work, but I tend to believe that I build up a narrative using symbols and shapes instead of words, and that is probably why I do it, since I was trained with language narrative, being a children’s book illustrator. It’s interesting to see how we reinvent ourselves using the tools we learned at the beginning of our studies, and sometimes this happens in a not premeditated way.

LaSota: Do you have a favorite book? Are there any individual stories or works of literature that you return to again and again or that have had a particularly strong influence on your artmaking practice?

Martello: This is Water by David Foster Wallace always helps me to reground myself and make space within — it is a great source of inspiration in the most nonjudgmental way, but it is not my favorite book by him. Strangely enough my favorite book by him is The Broom of the System.

My favorite book by Haruki Murakami is Kafka on the Shore. Some of its passages are so powerful that I just have to close the book to either laugh, cry, or draw my immediate ideas — many of his books have this effect on me.

Other favorite books include almost every book by Banana Yoshimoto; Zazie nel metro by Queneau; L’isola di Arturo by Elsa Morante; the travel stories of Alexandra David-Néel; Memorie di Adriano by Marguerite Yourcenar, Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita; almost every book of Somerset Maugham; Italo Calvino’s Il Barone Rampante and Il visconte dimezzato; the list can go on and on…. I am also an avid reader of biography, especially artist’s bios, and no matter what, they are always inspiring.

Ahh! Another book that I go back to on and off is (Salinger’s) Franny and Zooey. The last three pages are always a great source of inspiration for me — it’s like a catapult into compassion mode.

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