Giving Voice: Catching up with Northwest artist Michelle Bear
In a world that is growing increasingly louder with the noise of progress and technology, it is often hard to hear when others are speaking. Washington artist Michelle Bear believes she can give a voice to those who can’t be heard. More specifically, through her art she aims to give the natural world a visual voice.
When I met with Michelle at the Baicha Tearoom in Edmonds, it was a cold grey day. She had just recently quit her day job and she was smiling. “I get to paint full time now,” she grins. Full time by her definition is a daily routine of “morning, noon, and night.”
A restless soul who describes her style as “hopeful representationalist,” she has drifted from painting to mixed media to a brief stint in sculpture, to return full circle once again to her first passion, painting. Such rigor requires her to be her own taskmaster. “I tend to get in my own way and over-think,” she says. “Being a dedicated and stern self-critic is good and not-so-good. While it might hinder the confidence at times, it certainly helps me strive to do my best.”
In her quest to give articulation to the seemingly voiceless denizens that share our planet, her work often draws the viewer’s gaze to that of the subject. In her work, Northern Spotted Owl from her White Square Series, the subject’s countenance gives pause to consider whether we are the ones observing or… being observed. In a sense, we come to see nature “eye-to-eye” on an equal plane, and this time the subject is saying “Notice me, listen to me. I am here.” Michelle elaborates, “[T]here is a profound connection that is made when we see another creature — see its eyes — to feel a kinship and realize there is a responsibility to understand what this whole world is about.”
At first glance, her work murmurs serenity and quiet. Study it, as you would any other subject in nature, and you’ll discover something more that is deceptively powerful. Sound like a contradiction? Envision redwood trees towering above the forest floor, bull elephants grazing in the tall grass, grey whales gliding through ocean depths – yes, this is the paradoxical quality found in Michelle’s work.
In addition to her degree in fine art, Michelle worked for six years as park ranger and three more as an interpretive specialist for the City of Edmonds. Her connection with the outside world and its inhabitants is personal. Often she is privy to messages that creatures in their environs are sending that humans in their daily hustle and bustle don’t take time to receive.
“I paint quickly… I paint with materials that dry quickly… because I feel limited time, there is no time, a sense of urgency,” she says, and rightfully so. Coupling intuitiveness with her artist’s trained eye, she picks up on the communicative nuances of the natural world. Given this level of engagement, it’s easy to see what the hurry is about. Our global ecosystems are changing at a brisk pace. Soon – too soon – voices from our fellow world co-inhabitants may vanish, before we get a chance to really listen and understand what is being lost.
Michelle gathers inspiration from “witnessing” the world around her. Whether it is looking out the window of her Camano Island home or driving, reading or thinking. Other times it is from sources such as the multifaceted artist Joseph Beuys, the modern art movement Arte Povera, or from friends such as Robert McCauley, her mentor.
Apart from her painting, Michelle keeps busy at the Edmonds Bookshop. Her current work is a delightful series titled Incomplete Sentences. View it and her previous works here.
– By Marlene Martzke
Marlene Martzke is a blogger for The Northwest Trekker Bleker, a blog that reports on places and people of the Pacific Northwest