My studio, which is also my home, features a two-story loading-dock door. This affords me a gigantic view of the sky and little else. In some respects, it is like living in a tower, with its great square of light in an otherwise dark and windowless space. I moved in at a time of major transition in my work, where I was seeking to break down my reliance on the figure as I became increasingly fascinated with abstraction. As a writer turned painter and lifelong storyteller, I wanted to see if I could tell stories without obvious signifiers. It was a difficult time of daily existential reckoning, for my self-created mandate was simply to destroy what I had done so well, to completely dismantle figuration and, in so doing, discover a new way to paint.
One of the first things I jettisoned was color. This was radical for me, for color, probably more than anything else, defines my work. It was, as I say, a dark time. Suddenly, I was making painting after painting of white rectangles amid black backgrounds. And while I had also jettisoned the figure, I discovered that I had not dispensed with object, for even space is objective when defined by form within (or without) it. I called these paintings nonobjective objective, for just as it was my objective to make them nonobjective, the shape and spirit of their abstraction suggested objectiveness. To me, the rectangular shapes, as though lit from beyond, were as stages or screens, and although they lacked figuration, they were nonetheless full of story. It was theater at its most nascent: pure stage, pure space, the untold potential for story that becomes the story. I was enchanted, at an opening in the forest, if you will, compelled to go deeper in.
With the eventual reintroduction of color, the work swerved toward a more forceful theatricality. Not only did I begin painting theaters, but I began to focus on the theater of painting, the act of it, and now the process of painting became the paintings’ subject and driving force. Once again, as I had done repeatedly as a writer, I was telling the story of storytelling. As I saw it, I was making painting palimpsests, using words as signposts, expunging and effacing them, building layer upon layer of paint until the paintings became more than just something to look at, they were things to look into as well. Depth was as important as surface image, akin to places of entry and enclosure, both space and form at once. The problem I had started with, figuration vs. abstraction, was answered in an unexpected way. It wasn’t binary. It wasn’t one or the other, but both at the same time.
Although it had not been immediately apparent to me, I realized at some point in the course of this journey that what I had begun painting—and went on to paint repeatedly in evermore varied forms—was essentially my window. It was a humbling experience to realize how subconscious the creative impulse is. I was driven by what I saw, whether I knew it or not, and what I saw was space. But the window influenced more than just what I painted, but how and why I painted as well. In fact, it altered the course of my life’s work. It is now irrelevant to me whether a painting is abstract or figurative. My vision remains the same, in any event. My love of storytelling extends to the roots of stories themselves, to myths and folk- and fairytales, and my themes and colors consistently reflect this. Whatever approach I choose to take to painting, whether it is process-oriented or pictorial, story, for me, is what is paramount. After all, storytelling is a sacred act that binds us, each together, in our humanity.
—Melinda R. Smith, January 2018