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Melissa Earley       

Spoken in the Language of Art: 
Pickens Museum spotlights 4 Upstate artists

By Ann Hicks • Contributing writer • Published: "The Greenville News" • December 18. 2010

Santa has unloaded his huge bag, if not his whole sleigh, at the Pickens County Museum of Art and History with one-of-a-kind artworks by four artists that fill three galleries.

The contemporary pieces speak a compelling visual language, says museum director Allen Coleman.

The first floor gallery, for example, pairs Brian Kelley's muted photography with Connie Lippert's vivid tapestry in “Shutter/Shuttle.”

Lippert channels scalloped Navaho art through her use of the wedge weave technique, woven on a diagonal in contrast to the conventional horizontal weave. The result is beautiful work, says Coleman, feasting his eyes on “Peace Doves” and “Cataloochee — Red Line Series,” a torrent of blue, orange and red.

In her artist statement, Lippert celebrates nature and “the spirit that reveres the natural world.” In that mood, she creates her assertive colors from natural dyes, mainly indigo, but also goldenrod, cochineal and black walnut.

She hand-dyes all of her yarn using plants from her garden. Her insight into indigo's history — once a South Carolina crop known as blue gold — has come by way of her work with natural dyes, she says.

For balance, the exhibition counters with Kelley's small, sparse black and whites. Coleman says he sees the tapestry as the “main course” and the photography “as the sorbet between courses.”

Blues fans may know Kelley's work through his book that chronicles the band Mac Arnold and Plate Full O' Blues. The photos in the show play on space with their pursuit of positive and negative relationships, Coleman says. Kelley explores the grayish intersections of the artificial and natural environment.

“Through the lens of introversion,” he says, “I become an observer of life.”

In the museum's upstairs galleries, painter Barbara St. Denis' “Mixed Media” and Melissa Earley's “10+” provide a sometime sober examination of life through symbols and references. 

The excitement in these artists' work lies in their choice of medium and expression. St. Denis, a prolific watercolorist, takes the viewer along her personal journey “colored as vibrant as she is,” Coleman says.

Earley, an original member of the artist group C.A.F.feine, of which Coleman is also member, says she brings the “common theme of introspection” to her work, which she describes as her therapy and “a way to examine my own psyche.”

St. Denis, the owner Easley's “The Art Emporium,” says her fascination with and reliance on clocks, along with arrows and numbers — her recurrent symbols — enable her to tell her story “without portraying the final chapter.”

While most of her work is created in water media, in the past St. Denis has worked in oil, pen and ink and pastels. Her life-affirming work comes via a bright palette that puts an easy smile on the viewer's face even as her subject matter darkens on occasion.

For her current show, she chose mixed media works from 1994 to the 2000s, vitalized with found collage elements, paper, metal and textile to orchestrate her message in an abstract format. St. Denis makes no bones about her center of gravity: it's nostalgia.

“I'm an emotional painter,” she says, “and it is my desire to convey that idea to the viewer.”

Earley's creations made of glass beads, threads and metal are by far the most sober of the four artists' works. Coleman says of Early (sic): “She's dealing with the dark parts of life.”

Upon entering the side gallery where Earley's “10+” show is installed, the viewer is at once challenged to acknowledge the artist's grief over her mother's unnamed illness and eventual death.

She explains: “Grief is one of those experiences that we all share, and yet, there is still something of a taboo in talking about it publicly, even though it is natural and necessary to our healing process.”

Despite the heft of her message, the work through which she speaks is at once fascinating and engaging in its intricacies, color, imagination and allure.

Earley grew up in Charleston. Since 2000, she has lived and worked in Spartanburg. She began working in beads more than 15 years ago and, in the ensuing years, studied Native American loom weaving techniques and also began to incorporate her own paintings and drawings into small beaded pieces.

Through the years her work has taken on much larger dimensions. Demonstrated by her “Self Portrait in Blue,” made with 7,520 glass beads, or her even large (sic)  installation, “Wave Goodbye,” made with 50,000 glass beads. The latter is a female figure lying on a twin-sized bed on white sheet and represents the artist.

   Coleman says the show vocalizes a universal truth: Art is integral to our journey through life.

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