Exploring the Past Through Texture

Exploring the Past Through Texture – Brief Article

Vanessa Silberman

With her textural landscapes, Michelle Samerjan opens a door to the past with an eye on the future

A 15th-century Chinese cash coin. A 17th-century Tibetan prayer book. A 19th-century Indian sari. These are the objects that excite artist Michelle Samerjan and make their way into her art. Whether it be a still life, floral or abstract, Samerjan combines these fabrics and antiques from diverse cultures with her painted compositions to create what she calls textural landscapes–dazzling works rich in color, texture and history.

And collectors and galleries are taking notice, which is great news for Samerjan, who turned professional only five years ago. But, as she revealed from her Santa Rosa, Calif., studio, her foray into the arts began at an early age.

“My mother was a highly accomplished artist and felt it was important I study both art and piano … The piano seemed like work, but with the support of talented private tutors, I found art fun and exciting” she said.

During her teens, Samerjan was introduced to unusual fabrics from exotic lands by her father, a successful textile manufacturer. He often brought Samerjan along on trips, where she was intrigued by the colors, fabrics and materials used by different cultures, especially those in Asia.

“When I first saw some antique kimonos and experienced the workmanship first hand, it was inspirational” she said. “While I had seen beautiful fabrics from Europe, Africa and South America, the antique fabrics from Asia had a different rhythm and aura. They were rich, opulent and had an energy one could feel … I just never felt that connection with fabrics or antiquities from other parts of the world.”

Another influence on Samerjan’s artistic style is her experience in interior design. When her family moved from New York to California, a young Samerjan landed a job finding and tailoring spaces for businesses while continuing to paint. As she explained, “After years of working and seeing completed interior projects, it helped shape my view on colors and textures and on how to blend diverse materials into a seamless vision that worked as one.”

Indeed, this ability is one the trademarks of her art.

Still, Samerjan’s road to success was not without its share of hurdles. In 1996, a personal tragedy prompted Samerjan to devote herself fully to painting. Then, she received ambiguous responses from the artistic community. “It was very hard in the beginning because my art didn’t neatly fit into any category” she said. “Many people dismissed it as `artsy craftsy'”

However, soon art consultants and designers realized her work’s potential. The Addi Galleries in Maui provided a real breakthrough. “It was their support that really sent me on my way, as that became a huge success story and proved my work crossed over to many kinds of collectors”

The Two Sides of Samerjan

As Samerjan explained, there are really two

sides to her work.”The first loves to paint what she sees” she said. “Each and every still life, landscape or koi is painted from real life … The process I have developed ages and almost obscures what is there. But if I didn’t start exactly where I wanted, the result wouldn’t be the same.

“The second is obsessed with texture, and many of my pieces don’t feature painting in a traditional sense,” she continued. “They are a combination of painting using 20 to 30 antique or collectable pieces.”

Each piece must be personally significant for Samerjan to use it. For example, she might use ancient Sanskrit prayer book pages on the same piece that contains a 17th-century Chinese good luck charm. “They both are there to ward off evil–one through religion and the other through hope,” she said. “And who knows which will work. They come from two different cultures and schools of thought, yet they achieve harmony in one work of art.”

Collecting Antiques

When Samerjan first began collecting objects, she used conventional sources such as antique dealers. But as her interest in collecting grew, she developed her own circle of personal contacts.

Today, the phone rings 24 hours a day at Samerjan’s studio from collectors who visit the entire Pacific Rim. “At two a.m. the phone will ring and a friend will be in a small town in China having found a cache of`Forbidden Stitch’ embroidery. I’ll tell him to buy the lot and six weeks later it will arrive,” she explained. “What makes this even more exciting is that both the sellers and collectors love to tell stories about the pieces and eventually see them featured in my work.”

In fact, the stories surrounding a particular object play a prominent role in guiding Samerjan’s art. “I am always reading translations of some of these popular tales, as they tend to reveal how these cultures taught morality,” she said.

They also help her ensure that the pieces she buys are authentic. The Internet and advice from skilled collectors is another way she verifies and dates materials.

One collector, she recalled, once came across a pile of calligraphy from 17th-century Japan. “While none of us could read it, he found an older woman who could translate some of the pages and it turned out to be poetry and court music composed for the Japanese Imperial Court.”

Such luck has not gone to the head of this lady. When asked which artists inspire her, she candidly responded, “Probably the question should be which artisans.”

Indeed, most of what Samerjan creates is inspired by unknown craftsmen/women who worked centuries ago. “When I see a beautiful blue and white Chinese porcelain vase for the first time and experience its delicate shading and hand-painting … it is breathtaking. Or a Sanskrit prayer book written completely in one man’s hand. Each character is a work of art, and there are literally hundreds of characters … I don’t look at conventional artists as inspiration, but at the thousands of unnamed artisans who created beautiful works and have lasted generation after generation. My goal is to have that same success.”

It looks like she’s on her way.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Pfingsten Publishing, LLC

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group