Soothing the easel 

Close your eyes for a moment. Let Duke Ellington take you on a journey through the streets of Harlem. A first trumpet wails. A picture emerges in your mind’s eye — you’re there on 110th Street. Other horns meet up with the trumpet and then you’re walking through the Latin Quarter. Everything appears black-and-white, like an old ‘50s movie.

The power of music. It acts as a catalyst to stir emotion, bring up visual cues and transform our reality. Because of this consciousness-altering ability, many painters use it in conjunction with their brushes and canvas. In fact, music becomes just as necessary to them as pigment. Potent vibrations enter the brain and magically filter through the whole body, down the arm, into the fingers and finally make their way onto the surface.

Artmaking is usually a solitary process — we don’t see what goes on before the finished work hangs in the gallery. But here, four local artists invite us into their studios and take us through the process of painting — along with their sonic companions.


Jazz excursion

Allie McGhee’s studio looks out over Belle Isle, where he often goes for a run between painting sessions. Always busy, he moves about the studio with one purpose. “I’m not here to sit,” he says. “I’m here to work.”

Looking at one of his paintings is like floating in a dream, peacefully hovering over a landscape and spying shapes swirling around each other. McGhee approaches painting with an endless inquiry into the framework of the universe. His observations conclude with finished paintings of multiple perspectives — we see things from the horizon line and above it simultaneously. What we get is not a feeling of disorientation but one of omniscience.

Lush sounds of John Coltrane fill the studio, reverberating against the white walls and mixing with McGhee’s paintings hanging there. For him, it’s jazz improvisation that he finds compelling and also similar to his own work.

He says of the jazz masters, “They’re able to bring the latest information to their work, when they improvise. Eric Dolphy, Thelonious Monk — people who were really stretching the music, trying to find the connecting link between man and his element. I find it interesting and gratifying when they can play a standard in different ways — to go off and tell you many related aspects about their particular subject matter. And in that storytelling you’ll find a great deal of personal satisfaction and information that you can’t find if you’re related to the 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10 kind of straight-line music.

“The structure of the universe can be rearranged over and over. Each time I come to a problem, I want to seek another possible solution, not the same one that I’ve been giving you time and time again. What I find parallel between me and music in general is that you’re able to be innovative and bring emotion, science, rhythm — all the elements of creativity.”

Without seeing an apparent referent, people are often perplexed by and impatient with abstract art. A woman once approached Miles Davis and complained that she didn’t understand what he was playing. He responded, “It took me 20 years study and practice to work up to what I wanted to play in this performance. How can she expect to listen five minutes and understand it?”

Artists go through similar experiences, whether we’re talking about abstract painting or abstract music. McGhee addresses this concern: “What you can do as an artist, whether it’s painting or music, is create repetition or rhythm so a person can accept it as being something knowledgeable instead of chaos. I’ve even discovered that chaos is not the way we’ve assumed it to be, but it is ordered as well — that is the element behind creativity that people don’t consider.

“The ebb and flow of the paint is not only artistry, but it’s numerical, rhythmical, musical, chemical — it’s wet and then it dries hard. It has all the elements of alchemy. If you allow this element to have a voice, you work with it — you’re not making it work for you. There are some aspects that you can control and there are others that you can’t control. That’s the part that really gives you the innovative experience, because something happens without you being the guide who’s turning all the knobs, closing all the doors and being the man in charge.”

Scarlet affections

Janet Hamrick is a colorist, through and through. Constantly absorbing everything around her, she sensitizes herself to light, mood and the natural world. Her language is the language of color. When she speaks about her work, the words come out as flowing pigment. The hues contain a life all their own — the red paint “gets really red,” as if the word possesses new meanings that it bestowed upon itself.

A profound sense of organization and structure pervades all of her pieces. Looking to the harmony and beauty of nature, Hamrick contemplates “the order found in ribs of sand casting shadows under shallow water or the sunlight filtering through venetian blinds — intertwining with floral and ornamental patterns.”

Hamrick plays all kinds of music when she works. But just as she requires exactitude with her palette, the same goes for the tunes. She says, “We have so many emotions to play off of, playing off the music or how you feel that day, so the music changes. When I’m buffing the backgrounds down, I can listen to something like Brian Eno. But when I’m doing the patterning, I’d rather listen to Arabic music — I want the feeling of being in that region. I’m looking for a lyrical type of music — a repetitive sound. Something that starts slow but builds. I like that increasing momentum because, in the meantime, when I’m painting I’m building these patterns and colors. And it also depends on what colors I’m using. I’ll find music that corresponds to the colors of the background.”

For “Dreaming Red” (pictured at left), Hamrick listened to tango music as she painted — the tango influencing the intensity of the red. “The music will lead me into the colors. My work is not about being very active — it’s linear. You have to be in a trance — it’s meditative and I shut everything out. Portishead is great for that. The buildup of (Beth Gibbons’) voice — almost as if she’s following one of my pieces. It’s melodic but also meditative for me because of the linear aspects. The music builds an energy level for the work to continue, like riding on a wave in the ocean.”

Crank it up loud

Michael Mikolowski equates artmaking with “something squirting out of you in a weird way.” He possesses humility and sincerity as well as passion — and when he’s discussing art that enthusiasm reveals itself.

The first floor of Mikolowski’s house provides studio space. And there, in his kitchen, he explains the importance of music to help supply the necessary flow, or the “crazyturnyourmindoff.”

“I can throw in Iggy Pop, Patti Smith and especially L7 lately — it gives me a lot of energy and keeps me going. That’s the extroverted music I listen to when it’s time to get to work. It comes inside and you can feel it flowing through you — its influence is really strange. I’ll just blank my mind out and go to work and have this driving force behind me. If I’m going to listen to something really hard — some AC/DC, Sex Pistols, (Dead) Kennedys, Ramones, whatever, but something really driving and almost stupid — it’ll take me away and I can power stuff through.”

Mikolowski’s paintings are sculptural — the sides and edges of a painting become very important. At times he erects structures as in “Red Box” (pictured at left), these being natural extensions of his two-dimensional pieces. Once done building the surfaces, he then tears and scrapes into the canvas to “give it some wrinkles.” He plays a pensive song from Patti Smith called “Gone Again.”

“This is a thoughtful piece that I deal with — she talks about mourning for her husband Fred. Patti is the best, and that one is really important to me. I kind of fancied myself a doctor in a certain way. I love to work the canvas as an annihilation and rebuilding process — kind of like Iggy’s “Search and Destroy.” But then you have to come back into it, fix it up and make it OK and give it Band-Aids. It’s all sort of a healing process — work on your soul.”

While in the studio, artists challenge that dark, unknown territory inside the mind. Painting becomes a time to face demons (and maybe angels?) and emerge triumphantly. Music forms the channel in which to go to that place.

“I subscribe to the idea that art is a private matter in its process. The process is the most important part of the piece, because that’s where the artist confronts it. There’s an inner need and we’ve got to do it — the process brings those things out. It’s ritualistic. Light a candle, get everything in place — it seems like a preparation for worship. Those long night sessions when you’re alone with a piece of work, everything makes sense. Everything is right and fine, you’re in tune with something that you’re not often in tune with. Kind of spiritual continuity. I have a lot of faith in everything just falling into place. We just continue to breathe, do what we do and do it with some kind of intent.”

Rhythm and hues

Jocelyn Rainey not only runs her downtown Detroit art space, JRainey Gallery, she’s also a powerful painter in her own right. Her paintings reveal a strong sense of family. The images of hands in her paintings come from tracings she’s made from family members — siblings, grandparents, aunts, everyone. It’s a family tie that most people can’t admit to — it goes beyond the word “bond.”

Rainey’s acute sense of the arts comes forth with wisdom and almost stateliness. She refuses to put artistic expression into neat little categories. She says, “All the arts connect — music, poetry, painting and everything — to complete you as an artist. Poets can’t shut off paintings and music. You have to have some form of the arts that you connect with besides what you do. You need something else to stimulate you.”

Rainey listens to everything, “Except country!” She goes from legendary jazz such as Ella Fitzgerald to rap artists Tupac and Biggie Smalls, and throws in a little Rolling Stones and Earth, Wind & Fire. Once again, music becomes fundamental to the creative process.

“Sometimes when you start off, you can’t connect everything. You’re thinking about mixing certain colors and you can’t quite get it. But if you lose yourself in the music, you look around and start picking up yellows and greens and whites. So you’re not so focused on the technique of the paint. One side of the brain is soothed and stimulated from the beauty to help the other side with the technical.”

The hands in her paintings play and bounce off one another with resonating colors, like hearing the horns, drums and bass of a jazz ensemble. As she sits on the floor of her gallery, she listens to some jazz echoing throughout the space.

“It sounds like the instruments are having a conversation with themselves. It’s like listening to a lot of people talk. You have opinions about what the people are saying — but you don’t give your own input — you’re just looking and listening. You learn a lot that way. It’s like that in abstract painting — the painting is having a conversation and out of that interaction comes something to the viewer. The hands in my paintings used to be really flat, but with the newer paintings the hands are lifting up, the conversation is getting louder. That’s how I look at abstract paintings and that’s how I listen to instrumental jazz.”

In the end, the process of painting remains a mystery. Which is fitting, since fundamentally art and music both come from a kind of attitude of not knowing. That’s where it really starts getting interesting — that’s where genius lives.

Rainey says, “It’s just something that comes from the inside of your soul. People always want you to explain why you use that color, explain why you did it that way and sometimes I don’t have an explanation. You have to struggle with it — they don’t come easy. You have to fight the color, you have to fight the canvas. Whatever goes in my ear connects to all the stuff that I’m thinking about and it comes out. Music is very important when you’re painting — you’re hearing, you’re seeing and you’re moving. Music is life.”

Liz DiDonna writes about visual art for the Metro Times. Send comments to

Best Things to Do In Detroit


Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.

© 2016 Detroit Metro Times

Website powered by Foundation