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Jazz lover's artistic bliss on display at museum

The musicians Michele Wood met while waitressing have become a prominent part of her work.

By ELIZABETH BETTENDORF
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 8, 2002


DOWNTOWN -- If you look closely at Michele Wood's painting, A Tribute to the Women of Jazz, you will see the elegant images of Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne and Abbey Lincoln.

Look even closer, and hidden amid the swish of richly patterned blue gowns, a thumb-sized girl plays a piano of her own. The girl, who makes a discreet appearance in all of Wood's paintings in an exhibit that opens Sunday at the Tampa Museum of Art, is Wood as a child.

"Missy," she calls the little girl, after her own childhood nickname.

"Missy is my spirit visiting each decade," Wood says. "She's the child within who is able to go to different places."

Missy. The only child of a strong, single mother, who lavished the walls of their apartment with dazzling murals and worked as a janitor to make sure her daughter never had to do the same.

Missy. The young woman who worked her way through art school waitressing at the Ritz Carlton in the exclusive Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta, where the gods of jazz flocked to play. Gods like Freddie Cole, Nancy Wilson and Layman Jackson.

"It was one of the best places I could have been because I met so many extraordinary people," recalls Wood, now 38 and living in Savannah, Ga. Like everything else that has happened to her, she believes the waitressing experience was "spiritually sent."

It ignited her passion for jazz.

And it also inspired her to collaborate with writer Toyomi Igus and produce the 15 paintings that resulted in a book I See the Rhythm, which won the 1999 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award. The exhibition by the same name, which opens at the Tampa Museum of Art on Nov. 10, contains the paintings and text of the book as well as a video of live performances, five costumes, a quilt made by Wood and a doll symbolizing Missy.

The show is a journey via paintings and poems through the history of African American music, beginning in Africa and highlighting the work songs of Southern plantations, the Dixieland jazz of the Storyville neighborhood of New Orleans, and the hip-hop movements of South Bronx.

The vivid, oil on canvas paintings are rich in color, pattern, balance and detail and are accompanied by Igus' lyrics, which give the musicians voice:

I see the rhythm of the plantation.

I hear the up swing and down swing of our labor --

swish, chop, swish, chop.

I feel the rhythms of this land --

we till, we sow, we weed, we pick --

land our fathers do not own.

I feel the rhythms of our enslaved lives --

our birth, our toil, our love, and our death --

lives our mothers cannot claim....

While researching the book, Wood read deeply about textiles, history and social issues. For inspiration, she listened to jazz, particularly her favorite singer, Abbey Lincoln, while she painted.

"I wanted to take this beyond the pictures that are in front of you," she says.

Her natural curiosity has prodded her to try different things, many of which have led to success. Her children's book, Going Back Home: An Artist Returns to the South, was inspired by her own travels through the American South.

In another recent book, An African American Holiday Collection, Woods' artwork is accompanied by the reminiscences of Aretha Franklin, Denzel Washington and choreographer Debbie Allen.

Her paintings are included in numerous public art collections, among them the Atlanta Airport, Black Entertainment Network offices and St. Louis University.

Her admirers are many.

Two of the walls of her light-filled, 400-square-foot studio in Savannah's City Market, where she has worked for the last three years, are covered with rocks and leaves and painted silver and a shade of purple she calls "eternity." Another wall is papered with inspired, deeply personal letters from hundreds of women, part of a project on icons.

Quotes from friends and other artists and writers are in plain view, including one that says: "When the sky falls down upon you, use it as a blanket."

Wood also finds inspiration as a printmaker, poet, quilter and historian. She loves many things, including the color blue, birds of paradise, Thai food, yoga and the artists Frida Kahlo, Meinrad Craighead and Robert Rauschenberg. She is prone to wandering into fabric stores and soaking in the fantastic colors and patterns rolled into bolts. Her favorite poetry is Biblical variety, specifically the Song of Solomon.

"Is there anything more beautiful?" she asks.

Deeply religious, she looks to God for her strength. While growing up in Indianapolis, she was inspired by a Baptist church that she attended with her mother. She spent the rest of her young adult life searching for the same experience.

She has finally found that bliss in a church in Savannah. She painted an image of the old one into a work about gospel music that is included in the exhibition. When she talks about making a crazy quilt that incorporates more eclectic techniques including photographs and paint, she says, "I'm challenging myself. All of this is a need for exploration -- exploration of the things God wants me to do."

If you go

Michele Wood's paintings will be on display at the Tampa Museum of Art, 600 N Ashley Drive, from Sunday through Feb. 2. The show ties into two community festivals, the Black Heritage Festival (Jan. 17-20) and the American Music Festival (Jan. 20-March 6). Call 274-8130 for museum hours and admission.

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