Meet This Artist: Marcelle Harwell Pachnowski
The fine folks at Hobbs Architects in downtown Pittsboro are powering our Meet This Artist series this year. Architecture is art, and the Hobbs crew values art in our community. They join us in inviting you to take a look. Meet your very inspiring neighbors. Meet This Artist…
To call Marcelle Harwell Pachnowski only a painter is like calling Robin Williams only a comedian. Her experience in the arts is as deep as it is wide, ranging from sculpting, paper making, mosaics, and painting to teaching art classes to all ages at a variety of schools and organizations.
Her love of the arts began in her childhood, starting with drawing, singing, and playing the piano. “I’m from a family of artists and musicians. When I was growing up, my family always said, ‘She’s the one. She’s going to either be the musician or the painter. We know it.’”
Throughout the years, one common thread has always been the foundation of her art: her ability to see color when she hears music. This ability is caused by synesthesia, a neurological condition in which one or more of the five senses simultaneously stimulates another senses, which leads Marcelle into an involuntary creative experience. When she hears music, she immediately sees colors and patterns. “[Synesthesia] is something I’ve had since I was a kid. I thought everybody had this. I thought everybody, when they heard music, saw colors. I really did.”
Chatham Arts Council sat down with Marcelle recently to learn more about her long and storied career in the arts and academia.
Let’s start by talking about the show this past fall at ODDCO in Pittsboro with some local musicians. What was that experience like?
I did the show at ODDCO right before my solo exhibition in September (29 pieces) with three musicians I’d never worked with before. I’d never heard their music, but I knew it would be new and fresh. I knew Corbie Hill, and I trusted him. I set up right in front so they could see me, and I said, “What I would like for you to do is react to me. I’m going to react to you.” (A true stream of consciousness collaboration.)
When I begin, I like to close my eyes so I’m not influenced by what I see. At ODDCO there was artwork all over the walls, so I didn’t want to be distracted while I was listening. There was this teal/turquoise that I felt/saw at first, so that was the first stroke. And from there, the collaboration continued as a dialogue and interchange between myself and the musicians. This is how I’ve created performance art since the late eighties in Atlanta.
Is your style of painting different during a live performance than in your studio?
Yes, the live stuff is fast, so the pieces are quick. I can bat them out very quickly using palette knives instead of brushes. They are very quick gestures done on black archival project foam core board or paper. I find it’s very dramatic on stage.
With the palette knife, you can manipulate the paint in all sorts of ways. It’s fantastic. My performance pieces are all done with acrylics, which are water-based. After the initial gestures, I then use a variety of mixed media (pastels, conte crayon, colored pencils, etc) to emphasize various gestures. I would love to paint with oils during a performance, but that’s much more time-consuming because the oils don’t dry quickly and people don’t like the smell of turpentine. Acrylics dry very quickly and are therefore more conducive to the spontaneous event.
I paint with oils on canvas in my studio at home. My studio work is very isolated and introspective. Obviously I can’t have live musicians all the time in my studio, but I have on occasion had musicians who happen to be in my studio play just for me. WOW!
If you listen to an artist or album regularly, do you always see the same color or pattern?
It’s not always the same, but it might rhythmically and pattern-wise be very similar, but that’s why I like to stream music now. If you plug in one person, then that artist will automatically bring up another musician from that genre that I might never have heard before, which is fantastic because then I hear brand new music. I recently discovered Dorothy Ashby, an amazing African-American harpist from the 1950s, long gone, but never got the acclaim that was due to her. Spotify has helped me discover new music because I can really get into a rut, listening to the same thing over and over again. There are certain ones that I like to listen to over and over again if I’m varnishing or doing the finishing touches on a painting. Sometimes if I’m in a certain mood, I’ll think to myself, “Hmm, maybe I’ll listen to Carlos Santana (such as his CD, “Divine Light”) and see what happens.”
Do certain types of music lend themselves to certain colors?
Oh yes. For instance, if I’m listening to Coltrane, Miles Davis, or Paul Mitchell they will invoke some of those bluesy colors. The teals, phthalo blues, phthalo greens, ultramarine blues, cobalt blues, prussian blue and all those beautiful ceruleans.
How does your mood affect your painting?
Not only is my painting created to music, of course, it’s all autobiographical, even though it’s non-objective. You can’t help but think about in your life when you’re painting. This is my therapy. This is how I work things out. I’ve had some major events and upheavals happen to me in my life. It all comes out in the art, and usually there’s a reference to it in the title. Sometimes I’ll tell you what the story is behind it and sometimes I won’t because it’s way too personal.
What types of music work best to listen to while painting? Are lyrics distracting?
If there are lyrics, some words might trigger memories and situations, but I prefer to paint to instrumental music. If it’s vocal, I prefer foreign languages because I don’t want to listen to or interpret the lyrics. I don’t want to make that story. I do understand Italian and Spanish because I’m fluent in French, so I can understand the romance languages, but I prefer other languages. I will work with many genres of music playing—jazz, classical, rock, etc.
How did you come to be fluent in French?
My mother was from Belgium. She married an American GI during the war and he brought her to this country. She was fierce about keeping her culture alive. We only spoke French at home. It was a curse because we were different; who wanted to be different? But people were pretty different where I grew up. I grew up in a strange little Southern town called Oak Ridge, Tennessee. That was a very different community in the late forties, early fifties. That’s where The Manhattan Project was created and where the atomic bomb was made. There was an amazing, diverse group of people living there of all ethnicities, all nationalities. There were lots of Belgians because The Manhattan Project was getting their uranium from the Belgian Congo. I also studied French in school to learn to read and write.
I know you’ve traveled quite a bit. How has that influenced your work?
I have had the amazing pleasure of seeing many different countries. Recently, over the last few years, I have been able to take some beautiful big trips twice a year. Those places have influenced me so much. Machu Picchu in Peru; the great pyramids, temples, and tombs in Egypt; Pre-Columbian ruins in Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico; Sicily, Scotland, France, Italy, the Seychelles are some of the most visually impressive travels.
I’ll tell you a little story about traveling. In 1973, I received a grant when I was in graduate school. All you had to do was write where you wanted to go, what you wanted to do, and why, so I wrote a letter to them. I wanted to go to Mexico and Guatemala because I had taken several Pre-Columbian art history courses in graduate school, and I was fascinated. I got the grant. It wasn’t huge, but it was enough for my husband and I to go together. It was such an influence; the colors influenced my palette for years.
What was it like being a female artist in the 60s and 70s?
In those days, I would have professors who would say, “Oh, you’re just going to get married. You’re not going to do this seriously.” And I said to them, “I AM going to do this seriously. Don’t dismiss me because I’m a woman.”
This was at American University in Washington DC where I got my undergraduate degree. I did not want to go there; I wanted to go to an art school like Pratt or Rhode Island School of Design. But my father was a real stickler and wanted me to have a liberal arts education, and get a degree that I could fall back on so that I could make a living, which was teaching. That’s what women did in those days. We became nurses, teachers, and secretaries.
But that turned out to be a very good decision for me because even though I was very frustrated with not going to art school, it was good because I studied with a lot of the best Washington color school artists, like Gene Davis, and some of the old guard Washington painters, who were all men in those days. There were very few woman teaching in the Bachelor of Arts and Master of Fine Arts programs.
How did you feel they treated you during that time?
I always felt accepted, but I didn’t act like a little prissy girl. I got my hands dirty. I wanted to be a sculptor at first; I wanted to carve granite. But do you know how much strength that takes? I went into painting because I felt that was my weakest, the most challenging medium for me. I also had an amazing mentor, a Baltimore artist named Herman Maril, who always believed in my talent and was always very supportive. He had no issues with my desire to be an artist.
Where did you get your start with teaching?
I went to the University of Maryland for graduate school for my Master of Fine Arts. I got a teaching assistantship. It was great because we didn’t have to assist anyone; I had full responsibility for my courses. We taught and did our own lesson plans and everything from the very beginning. I loved it. I taught two- and three-dimensional design, design one and two.
In 1974, after graduate school, we moved to North Carolina since I knew some folks at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, where I applied for a teaching position. I taught a survey class at the university that first summer — art for non-art majors. It was one of those art appreciation courses that everybody has to take, but I took it very seriously. My students didn’t like me because I made them write papers, do slide identification, and learn how to say Delacroix (pronounced with a French accent), not “de la crox.”
How did you get into paper making?
When my twins (who are now almost 45!) were born, I stopped teaching for a while. When my babies were little, I didn’t have enough time or space to do large paintings or pull out my oils. When they were about five, I started getting distracted by handmade paper. I always liked collecting beautiful papers and I just started doing some paintings and collages on the handmade paper.
I decided to take a paper making with natural fibers class with this wonderful woman named Lillian Bell, who’s an authority out of the West Coast who taught you the three different kinds of fibers that you can harvest—the whole start-to-finish technique. So there I was, in the mountains in North Carolina, growing all these fibers. I did that for quite a few years to the point where I was interested in teaching it myself. I asked Lillian for permission to use her book to teach her course on the East Coast, and she told me to go for it. So I started teaching paper making at the Duke Ellington School for the Arts, and later the Baltimore School of the Arts, as well as in Charleston, the Gibbes Museum, all sorts of different places. But I did not continue with paper making. Painting is in my soul.
How did your teaching career change when you moved to Atlanta?
My teaching changed in a way to accommodate more “at risk” populations, and I was able to work with a lot of populations that were not normally serviced by the arts. It was in Atlanta that I developed my “Painting to Music” program.
Also while in Atlanta, I got hooked up with the Georgia Council for the Arts, the Bureau of Cultural Affairs, and the City of Atlanta, where I served as an Artist-in-Residence for these three entities. Among those three organizations, I had teaching gigs every day. I was the first visual artist to work with homeless women and children. We would bring artists and musicians to come in and work with them. It was innovative. The diversity of the residents’ illnesses and conditions was interesting to deal with, especially since I hadn’t had any training in it. I started to work a lot with special ed, special needs, spinal injuries, AIDS patients, among others. I had a quadriplegic make a pinch pot. I put a piece of clay in his hand, and he made it.
When I started going to senior centers, I thought it would be interesting to teach painting to music to the seniors. At that time, I always had a boombox with me. I would talk to them a little bit about art history and abstract expressionism. I would ask them, “When you hear music, do you see colors? Do you make stories in your head?”
I told them to just be free. Work with the movement, the texture, the rhythm, (the basic elements of design) and what you’re feeling inside. I had just bought a CD of World War II-era music so I put that on. It really woke them up. One lady said, “I gotta get up and dance and do this!” And I said, “Good! That’s what I want you to do! That’s what I do when I paint.” It’s so interesting to watch people react that way because it brings joy.
I did go into some prisons, which I really wanted to do. The inmates were just like, “Wow, I haven’t done this in so long. This feels so good.”
So what’s next for you?
Well, I had the big exhibition in October, so that was the big, big push. Right after that I went to Egypt. Oh my gosh, I have so many ideas from that trip. The COLORS! I’m taking those ideas and am working on some mosaics for the outside of my house. Right now I’m gathering my images to do two walls that were my courtyard walls we tore down. There are a few portions remaining. I will be working on mosaics for these walls that will represent various iconography from ancient civilizations. This project is purely for me.
Also, I was just invited to display some of my paintings on paper (including the two ODDCO pieces) at FireClay Cellars Vineyard and Winery through April, which will be opening the early part of February (date to be announced). I will be co-exhibiting with fellow Chatham artist Vidabeth Bensen.
I will always have my art. I believe it’s through the arts that we will continue with civilization. I remember hearing Harry Belafonte at UNC say, “without art, there is no civilization.”
For more information about Marcelle and her work, please visit her website, www.marcelleharwellpachnowski.