When we meet, the first thing I notice about artist Michele Wood are faux, blue eyelashes that light on her cheeks like brilliant, indigo butterflies. The splash page for her website, michelewood.com, features a close up of the former model, bright blue paint arching over her eyes like a tribal marking. Blue is symbolic of God’s presence, Wood tells me, and her work and life are guided by the Spirit and devoted to the divine.
“I hope to reveal what God has me here to do,” she said in a recent interview with Indianapolis Woman magazine. “It is his story to tell. I am a proud vessel, and together we make a great team.”
Faith may be Wood’s inspiration, but the dominant themes of her painting, illustration, books and performance coalesce around the black experience. Her latest book for young readers, I Lay My Stitches Down: Poems of American Slavery (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2012), uses the tradition of quilting as a structural framework to recount the pains and joys of Africans enslaved in the American South. The stories unfold through vibrant pictures, painted by Wood to mimic the patchwork of American quilts, and the words of poet Cynthia Grady.
Beside an image awash with blues that recall dark Southern woods, a man in tattered pants steps gingerly across a river.
Like a hyena on the hunt, you know,
he opportunistic, unspecialized.
The bounty hunter prowl the riverbank.
He use the wind to his advantage and
he listen; he watch intently. A slave
to greed, the hunter aine no match for this old pilgrim in the woods.
Wood’s previous releases, which include the children’s books Going Back Home: An Artist Returns to the South, I See the Rhythm and I See the Rhythm of Gospel, have mined similar ground, rendering the black experience in rhythmic verse and bold color and texture. A mentor once told Wood, early in her career, “You have the ability, but not the subject matter.” There is no doubt that Wood has found her voice–the voice of the African diaspora–and burnished it through travels abroad, beginning with a year spent in Paris at 21. Everywhere she goes, Wood collects bits of culture–colors, textures, ephemera–that are later revealed in her work. Though she has journeyed across continents, including extended stays in Africa and Europe, Wood says the City of Lights still has her heart. She is studying French in hopes of a return visit.
“Louer le Seigneur!” (Praise the Lord!)
Few might guess that a girl raised by a single mother in the Hillside Apartments housing project in Indianapolis would become a globe-trotting creative, with work in the Indiana State Museum’s Represent! Celebrating Indiana’s African American Artists exhibit, contributions to seven books, a cover of American Visions magazine and an American Library Association Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award to her credit. But Wood found her muse early. An only child, “Missy” would amuse herself by painting, sculpting and snapping photos with an old 110 camera. A self portrait in Going Back Home depicts a young Wood with a square burn on her forehead from holding the camera too close. True story.
She “got it honest” as old folks sometimes say; Wood’s mother Karolyn Mitchell was a gifted creative in her own right, crafting elaborate tablescapes and wall designs to beautify the home she shared with her young daughter. And Mitchell recognized her daughter’s potential.
“We lived in the projects but once we got on the inside, I would say that we lived in a palace,” Mitchell says. “…so that [Michele] would dream big.”
Mitchell guided and nurtured her daughter through an art degree from the Intercontinental University of Atlanta, Georgia. And then, there is that trip to Paris that left such a mark on her daughter’s creative spirit.
“My dreams were interrupted,” Mitchell says. “There was no way to go off to New York City to fashion school and take my daughter and survive. I wouldn’t have no one to take care of her.
“I took all that energy and put it into Michele so I would feel like my life wasn’t wasted. I wanted to give her a coming out party when she got 16. I couldn’t give it to her at 16. I gave it to her at 21 when [I sent her] to Europe.”
Wood counts her mother chief among the “many beautiful women” who helped raise and nurture her. And her work is redolent of black womanhood. In I Lay My Stitches Down a woman bends low over her quilting. On the cover of Going Back Home, a woman plaits a child’s hair in front of a shotgun shack. In I See the Rhythm, jazz women (rendered in blue…again) raise their voices in song. In I See the Rhythm of Gospel, women lift their hands in praise.
On July 12, 2012, in Atlanta, the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History will honor Wood with the Ashley Bryan Children’s Literature Award for “displaying a commitment to the authentic representation of the Africana experience in children’s literature.” Her work will travel to area schools as part of the Ashley Bryan Traveling Exhibit of Illustrated Africana Children’s Literature. In addition, paintings from I See the Rhythm of Gospel, I See the Rhythm, I Lay My Stitches Down and an early book, My Holy Bible, will be on display in the Auburn Avenue Research Library from July 1 to July 15.
Through these exhibits, and a future project that will bring her books to life through spoken word, music and song, Wood shares with the history of African Americans, but also her past–the travels, the family foundation of love and creativity, and her faith.
In Indianapolis Woman, Wood explains, “The Lord guides me through visions in my dreams and ideas in my head. Inspiration, idea, visions or whatever you call it will come to me, and it is my job to pull it out and into existence…I want so much to unveil it exactly like I received it. It is so magnificent to see God’s works of art and hear his songs play in my head.”
When we part, Michele Wood signs a copy of her newest book for me. Above her signature, in curling script, she writes, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.”
“Artist on the come up” will be an ongoing series at Clutch magazine profiling creative of color, including writers, visual artists, performers, filmmakers and others doing thoughtful and compelling work. Send recommendations for future profiles to [email protected]
Image of Michele Wood by Polina Osherov
Painting: Underground Railroad by Michele Wood
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