2004 Artist Profile – Melissa Sarat
by Jill Hearn & Thomas Knobel
“Bewitching” is one way to describe paintings by Melissa Sarat, a Louisiana native, now living in Preble, New York. The eye is seduced instantly by the vibrant colors in these works – oranges, reds, yellows, bold blues, greens and purples. “I like colors that pop, crackle, sizzle,” Sarat declares. But rather than blaring like a trumpet, colors slowly flow over the viewer, permeating all one’s nooks and crannies, like a fragrant oil.

Sarat’s paintings abound with detail, each square inch commanding attention, like a picture-find puzzle, populated by fish and frogs, crawfish and birds, flora and fauna, clearly Southern in origin. Find, also, Mardi Gras masks, voodoo totems, dishes, and dolls. Inspiration is drawn from a birthplace characterized by an amalgam of “French-Cajun Louisiana Creole, Protestantism and Catholicism,” explains Sarat, “a place steeped in religion, where religion takes a bizarre, colorful bent that’s all mixed up with voodoo and superstition. It’s a place, too, where everything is so alive, and the air is heavy and hot, and everything grows so well. The food is great and the music is great and people visit with each other. So, you just sort of get drunk on life, and people just take things much slower.” Sarat’s Baton Rouge upbringing is reflected in all of her paintings.

Sarat calls her canvases “’painted narratives’…because, really, they’re just long stories.” They are a cornucopia of images. “I like to fit something into every area,” says Sarat, “so I put things on (subjects’) heads, and on their shoulders, and in their pockets. I like to make every, little part meaningful, and there is plenty.” Indeed, a great many images of food and feasting are incorporated, along with symbols of fecundity, religious icons, or broken dolls. Together, the images tell the subject’s story, of woman as giver and provider, perhaps, as well as a spiritual being, a being with darkness in her experience, secrets, and internal points of power and refuge she guards for her own.
The human subjects in Sarat’s paintings exude colorful, eventful lives, whether for better or for worse, in their faces, their smiles, and in the lines around their eyes. These are flawed characters, with crooked teeth, or pudgy fingers, or wear in their faces. While one painting depicts a happy occasion, a crowd donning masks and formal wear for Mardi Gras, one can still guess at other, less joyful events in the lives of the party-goers, in spite of their smiles. They are beautiful, in this way, for their sheer, imperfect humanness.

In her paintings, women are especially prominent. “I’m trying to pull out the reality of all women,” says Sarat, “sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and the like. All women deal with this, in some way, so even though my work has a regional flavor, I’m painting all women, of all places. I like to paint how strong women are, how they can overcome just about anything.”

Sarat’s treatment of women affected her use of space. As an art student, she mastered all the techniques of traditional painting, including the conventional use of space. But, over time, she found herself breaking rules governing that deemed the proper use of space. It upset her at first. “Once, I painted a very troubled, older woman,” she relates, by way of example. “She had a strong drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. She was reclining in a lounge chair out in the sun, and I painted her only from about the knees up, so that her feet were out of the frame. My teacher looked at the painting and said, ‘You can’t just put things out of the frame like that,’ and I thought, ‘Well, he just doesn’t know women’s lives at all!’ Their lives have so much that is outside of the way things are ‘supposed to be,’ so much that is outside the frame, so to speak. At that point, I began to trust my use of space, and in the end, I’ve lost a sense of space altogether in the paintings. It’s more of a swirling montage.”

Sarat grew up on the grounds of a mental hospital, and had a great deal of contact with the patients as a child. A woman friend of her mother’s took her often to the nearby town dump and taught her how to find treasures, which she would drag back home in her Radio Flyer. This woman once took her and her siblings to meet a former patient living in a fallen-down house on the edge of the hospital grounds. The meeting took a great deal of preparation and instruction about touching nothing, saying nothing. The woman addressed him respectfully as “Mr. Charles,” in her deeply Southern way, and introduced him to the children. When they entered, Sarat’s eyes feasted on elaborate walls, collages made of concrete, with thousands of images protruding, including doll parts and glass and his own treasures found at the dump: a work of art like no other. These experiences, including an unhappy childhood, the treasure hunts at the dump, the hospital patients, stayed with Sarat and are mirrored deeply in her work.

When asked what brought her to Preble, NY, she said she was looking for a quiet place in which to tuck away with her family. She is taken with, and indeed, after fifteen years, is very much a part of, the rural sense of peace and community, the culture, the traditional art forms, and the individual characters. “There is one fellow who repairs stringed instruments for orchestras,” she relates, “and you’ll see him driving to the post office on his four-wheeler (ATV), delivering boxes to be shipped to Germany or Japan. Another one makes miniature replicas of historic buildings. Then, there are the women who do the gardening and the quilting and the tatting. Beautiful work. You know, you plant yourself and then you make it real. It’s just making community.”
Back