As we look forward to the first preview of Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses this Friday, February 8th, we are excited to unveil an exhibition of myth-inspired artwork in the Catwalk Café. The exhibition, entitled Imagining Ovid, will feature the paitings and sculptures of three local artists: Micheline Klagsbrun, June Linowitz, and Massimo Righini. Below, you can read an interview with Micheline to learn more about her artistic process. Be sure to come see the display, which will be up in the Rock Garden until Metamorphoses closes on March 17th!
When did you make your first Ovid-inspired piece? Was there a particular myth that first captured your imagination?
Many visual artists have been inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses over the centuries. As just one of these artists, I have been working with these stories for over two decades, but I believe the groundwork of Ovid’s influence was laid in my childhood. I grew up spending many hours alone playing in a London park, where I imagined a society of birds, animals, trees, stones. So for me the boundaries between different forms of life were fluid. And this is essentially Ovid’s theme in the Metamorphoses….all is flux and transformation. So this is what my art is all about.
I started out with a particular fascination with trees. With their limbs pushing up the London sidewalks they were beings from another world. No wonder then that the first of Ovid’s stories to capture my imagination, years later, was that of Daphne. She was a beautiful nymph who was totally uninterested in men. Her heroine was the goddess Diana, independent, free, a virgin forever. Apollo, macho sun-god , chases her until she escapes him by turning into a tree.
I was struck with this story because it seemed affirming yet so sad. Here was a woman who got what she wanted, which was to remain chaste forever, yet she was also imprisoned forever in this tree. So she had her freedom and yet she gave up her freedom - so paradoxical.
There are several tree-transformations in this production and in the exhibition. “The Elm and Grapevine Celebrate their Thousandth Wedding Anniversary” is my interpretation of the story of Pomona and Vertumnus.
What is it about Ovid’s myths that makes you want to translate them into a visual medium?
I continue to be impressed by the immediacy and relevance of these stories written 2000 years ago, the issues they raise and the layers of meaning.
The stories have intense visual drama, and also work at a metaphorical level. I also believe that the moments of transformation described in these myths are actually those moments of extreme emotion or passion in which we transcend our bodies, or when our being-in-the-world is altered in some irremediable fashion. We take a leap, grow wings, like Alcyone, we emerge into a new self. Alcyone sees her dead husband floating out on the ocean. In this moment of truth she takes a leap into the unknown. In her leap, she is transformed. No longer earthbound, she becomes a creature who can fly. Her courage enables her partner to become transformed and the two of them to move into a new life as seabirds.
What is your artistic process like? Where do you start, and how does the painting evolve? Do you attempt to depict the entire myth in your paintings or focus on a particular moment?
My creative process, which I think of as ‘metabolizing,’ consists in reading and re-reading, different translations, mulling, free-associating, allowing images to emerge without conscious control. What emerges onto the canvas can relate to Ovid’s text in several different ways.
Sometimes I take the narrative approach. The most direct re-imagining of an Ovidian story involves trying to capture its emotional essence, or sometimes the essence of the protagonist. Often several elements of the tale will be synthesized into a single painting, and combined with allusions to personal experiences or to current events in away that adds layers of meaning. You can “read” the story in the elements of the painting.
In the last few years, I find myself moving away from narratives, becoming increasingly focused on the process of transformation itself. These works look more chaotic, fragmented.
The works in this exhibition are more narrative than abstract, yet they still get at the essence of metamorphosis, the fact that it is not a complete change from one state to another, but a liminal state in which the earlier form remains present. The woman becomes a tree yet remains present within the tree. These states of neither/both are what I depict.
Do you feel that your work illustrates these myths or reinterprets them? Is there an entirely different verb you would use?
As I explored different translations, I realized that there were many inconsistencies between them. Translation is itself a creative interpretation, and that emboldened me to be more freely interpretive in my own work. Almost as though I could bypass the translators and hope to reach some sort of direct communication with Ovid’s imagination. So, ‘re-interpretation’ or ‘re-imagining’ fits better than ‘illustration’, I think.
Recently I was sent a new translation of Apollo and Daphne’s story, by Abraham Frank, that made me want to re-visit it. I did so in a series of Paintings exhibited last year as ‘TreeFEVER’, of which two are here. The discovery was Apollo’s obsession with Daphne’s hair (it’s mentioned 6 times in the poem), culminating in his final claiming of her leaves (her transformed hair) as his trophy wreath for all his future victories. (This is the origin of the laurel wreath). I decided it was time to give Daphne the last word in this story, rather than portray her, as Ovid does, mutely nodding. So in “Daphne Gets the Last Word” I show her leaves creeping around and binding Apollo’s head a bit too tightly….
I understand you’ve seen a previous production of Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses. Did it change the way you think about Ovid’s myths or influence your own work in any way?
I loved seeing Mary Zimmerman’s production and experiencing such an original and creative interpretation. The use of water is brilliant: it made me realize what a large part water plays in these myths, and indeed how it symbolizes the notion of transformation itself. In my more recent work I use splashes and spills of paint which are also about formlessness and possibility.
What excites you the most about displaying in the Rock Garden throughout the run of Metamorphoses here at Arena?
I am thrilled to be exhibiting my work here, along with that of two sculptors, June Linowitz and Massimo Righini, who have also been inspired by the story of Daphne and Apollo. The bringing together of different art forms, especially theatre and the visual arts (and of course theatre is also partly a visual art) results in an enriched experience for all audiences.