Mia Scheffey: The Bravest Mark
To discuss the paintings of Mia Scheffey is, in many ways, to discuss the pursuits and ideals (or assumptions) of modern painting itself. Since the ancient Chinese painter picked up a brush and indulged in calligraphy, painting has been about making a mark or a brush stroke. Since the Renaissance, painting has been about sublime devotion. Since Botticelli, painting has been about elegance, and since Carravaggio, painting has been about dramatic light and shadow. Since the Impressionists, painting has been about a moment in time, the nature of place. Since Van Gogh, painting has been about a life. Since Kandinsky, painting has been about philosophy. Since the Abstract Expressionists, painting has been about the paint itself. The true artist, they say, searches for their own personal vision. That would mean, in today's terms, that one should simply consider all of the above (and a lot more) and make an honest search by following one's instincts to find something original and significant. Sounds easy, right?
Actually, brave is more like it. In a world of discs and modems, cable and surround-sound, the world at your fingertips, via the computer; in a time when you can see productions like "Lord of the Rings," where film integrates photography with animation -- stretching the imagination at every turn -- how does a painter compete? How can a painting be powerful in comparison? The answer is by two characteristics of painting. One is permanence: a painting is an unchanging image, a receptacle of thought created at a specific time. The second is the fact that it is created by a human hand, something which no form of technology may ever aspire to.
Mia Scheffey has set out to find her personal vision. Thus far she has spent twenty-five years in focused pursuit of the unknown, the timeless and the powerfully sublime. Her drawings and paintings are the physical proof of her alchemical ideals. Mia is one of those artists who work every day, exhibiting a rarely found organization of focus and discipline. That same patience is recognizable in the building of her compositions and in the brush strokes themselves.
She begins a painting without specific preconceptions and builds a shallow space with layers of lively brush strokes and marks which grow onto the paper or canvas in an organic fashion comparable to organic patterns of marks used by Cézanne to create a deep landscape space. An organic pattern is what the relationship of branches in a tree, lines in a wood grain or raindrops on the water's surface make to the eye, something which an artist observes and internalizes, hoping to use in art-making as the hand of Nature has used it all around us. Such an artist thus becomes the hand of Nature in paint or in a piece of burnt charcoal. The marks which Mia makes may be compared to floating feathers or falling snowflakes. They are like dancing petals or moistened hair clippings falling from a barber's scissors, like a collection of leaf stems or a wisp of wind stirring up the first signs of autumn.
Mia has expressed a current interest in the study of the "fire element." These thoughts have influenced color in her paintings, where it is easy to recognize a warm palette of color under a smoky overlaid palette. In her larger works in oil, color has somewhat superseded the focus on brush strokes, or perhaps the tools used in the works on paper are more expressive than the brushes picked up for painting in oil. The drawings seem more evolved. It might be because they lack the element of color and seem freer to find a state of mind. In the best cases, they become a poetic and sublime visual experience.
At this point in the painter's development, there are still a few questions one might ask -- such as, will marks go on to reveal forms? This is something that happened during Philip Guston's development as an artist. Guston was one of the purists of the Abstract Expressionists' New York School. Somehow paint became a means of expression in itself through his use of mark-making tools, a simple color palette, touch and texture. After establishing such a reputation, however, his work went on to create shapes and forms that later developed into a cartoony pictorial drawing style.
Mia Scheffey's marks might have such an oracular potential. The work could follow a neo-Expressionist route, though if she could produce the clarity she has in her drawings at the scale of the paintings, while developing equally the expressive subtleties of her color, she might be able to hang a sign on her studio door saying, "No forms need apply." She has shown already that her work can be returned to as an ever-deepening experience or as a place of poetic contemplation. Her work represents one of the most evolved and mature approaches to the art of painting in Brattleboro's current downtown art scene.
Copyright 2003, Gallery Walk, Brattleboro, Vermont