Inspired by the Southwest: Artist Melissa Barbieri, of Essex, is melding memories, dreams and archetypes
Connecticut native Melissa Barbieri had long been drawn to the ocean, a fascination reflected in her art. Over the course of two decades, her works tended to focus on elements of the sea.
Trips to the American Southwest, primarily to Arizona, opened up a new window for her and dramatically changed the type of pieces she created. She was captivated by the spirituality of the high desert.
She kept journals and sketches from her sojourns. In her studio back home, she began transcribing her notes using dip pen and India ink, which led to a whole new style and series of artworks.
“I was astonished by what I’d created, as if seeing it for the first time. There were things laid down beneath the scribbles that I had not ever been aware of … lines of text, words and symbols, pieces of dreams. On good nights, they bubble up to the surface from some deep unconscious place,” Barbieri wrote for a new exhibition of her art.
That exhibition is “Melissa Barbieri: Memories, Dreams and Archetypes,” and it’s on view at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum. The museum has been closed for a few weeks to help limit the spread of COVID-19 in the community as pandemic conditions worsened in New London County, but it is scheduled to reopen Jan. 15.
Inside the museum’s Glassenberg Gallery, Barbieri’s artworks capture a viewer’s attention with their evocative drama and bold originality. On huge canvases, lines of text curl and flow, creating imagery of their own.
In “Ceremony,” Native American figures dance in a circle. Flames erupt along the horizon. Text spirals above the people, creating a tornadic pattern. Some words are so small that they are almost unreadable, contrasted with larger phrases, in all capital letters, like “ceremony sound and dancing rolling thunder” and “sacred trance.”
Right outside the gallery is another piece by Barbieri — although a viewer would never suspect it’s by the same artist responsible for the work inside. “Byron Beguiled” is richly traditional, with a sensuous male figure slouched in a white chair, as he gazes at the viewer, his left arm hanging to the floor, holding a pen and notebook.
Barbieri, who lives in Essex, said in an interview that she has always liked using different styles and methods.
“I find them all very satisfying, to be able to transcend one way of doing something to another way that might work better for some other thoughts I have. But I always try to think in terms of series. I like to be able to jump around,” she said.
In fact, while the folks at the Lyman Allyn were intrigued by a lot of different art Barbieri had created, this series stood out to them in part because it is such a departure from a lot of her other work. These paintings were all done in the last two years, and they hadn’t been given a public viewing yet.
Getting into a creative flow
“When I finally sit down and am lucky enough to get some solitude in my studio, which I do on a regular basis, things slow down, quiet down, and I still have things in my head, whether it’s music I’m listening to or the book I read last night or something I was reflecting on that I just experienced out West or something I’m just seeing or thinking or imagining.
“The fun thing about this series is there is no plan. When I begin them, there’s maybe just a grain or inkling of what I want to put down on paper. It could be an image, it could be a word, and you get into a creative flow.
“At the end of several hours, it’s almost like you kind of see what comes out and how it came out. So it’s not as much of an intellectual process; it’s more of an emotion-based process.”
‘I was hooked’
Barbieri has lived in Essex for 20 years and now works out of her barn at her home here. She previously had a studio in Greenwich for 25 years.
She grew up in Fairfield on a farm. There weren’t other kids around to play with because the farm was out in the country, she recalls, so she spent a lot of time with animals — riding a horse, for instance — and hanging out with her father, whom she’d watch chop wood (he had a cordwood business).
Barbieri remembers how her grandmother, who was an artist, used to take Barbieri painting when she was 7 years old.
Barbieri recalls going into her grandmother’s studio and says of the pull of art, “I was hooked.”
Barbieri studied classical painting in the Italian Renaissance manner with artist and teacher Frank Covino and attended the Ringling College of Art and Design in Florida.
She focused on custom murals early on, working on commissions to create custom, original murals around the country and abroad.
More recently, her focus has been on large-scale paintings that she has described as being a series of complex and fluid scroll-like stream of consciousness works on paper.
Barbieri said that what she loves about painting is when “you get up to the studio and close the door and you turn on the music and you just have your big white canvas there. You take out your paints and mix them all up and see the colors and the smell and the drawing, and before you know it, you’re working along, and you look up, and four or five hours have passed by.
“It’s just the most energizing thing because it’s an intellectual exercise, but it’s also physical when you do large paintings — I do a lot of large ones — and it’s all-encompassing. It just keeps me interested.
“When I’m falling asleep at night, I’m always thinking about what I’m painting the next day,” she says.
Barbieri doesn’t dream about the act of painting, but she does dream about subjects and images. She noted that, if you look closely at a couple of her paintings, you can see a body floating over the countryside.
“That’s a recurring dream I’ve always had about once every year maybe … where I’m flying over this house and farm I grew up on. It’s like a recurring dream, almost like lucid dreaming of something,” she said.
Nighttime, in fact, is when she created most of this series.
She would start painting “as soon as, say, 6, 7, 8 at night, and I could go to 1, 2, 3 a.m. It was pretty obsessive for a couple of years. I’m gearing my painting to a little more normal hours now, trying not to stay up that late. But there’s something about at night with music and it’s late and nobody’s ringing the phone that really seemed to work for a long time,” she said.
Barbieri has created about 18 pieces for the current series, and she’s continuing on, doing more.
“I have so many more pieces that I want to create, new pieces, new ideas of more of these,” she said.
If you go
What: “Melissa Barbieri: Memories, Dreams and Archetypes”
Where: Lyman Allyn Art Museum, 625 Williams St., New London
When: Through Jan. 24; hours 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sat. and 1-5 p.m. Sun. (last admission at 4)
Admission: $12 for adults, $9 for seniors, $5 for students, $7 for active military personnel, and free for kids under 12, for museum members, and for New London residents (currently only credit or debit cards are accepted for on-site purchases)
Contact: (860) 443-2545, www.lymanallyn.org