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Artist Profile: Noah Massey

Joan of Arc: The Maid, oil on canvas, 44x29, 2010, complements of the owner

Noah Massey’s large canvases of saints accentuate the similarities of the human condition today, without losing sight of the cultural differences the saints of early Christianity faced. For Massey, it’s all about healing, finding inner strength, while dealing with the weaknesses of the body.

“I do all my paintings by finding a person living with some kind of pain, either physical or emotional, and then I find a saint that represents that pain,” Massey says, standing before her first attempt at a triptych in her daylight basement studio. The three panels are based on St. Teresa of Avila and her visions of ecstasy.

Saint Teresa wrote in the mid-sixteenth century:
I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron's point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain that I could not wish to be rid of it.

For this painting Massey used her sister as a model because, “she’s going through a lot of upheaval in her life right now.”

Saint Cecilia: Don't Dominate Me, oil on canvas, 68x50, 2009,

In the three connected panels, Massey’s depiction of her sister via Saint Teresa places the figure in the center of each one, but the background and sometimes even the foreground teems with bold, aggressive graffiti symbols. By combining the reverent and the irreverent, the historical and the contemporary, Massey succeeds in catching our attention and invites us to not dwell on pain, but to think about how they overcame it.

Her use of saints, for the most part female saints, allows us to examine agony while not under the duress that pain can bring. In all these paintings, the saints are not defeated by their suffering. Instead their utter surrender to it brings them closer to God.

Five years ago Massey found out she had an auto-immune disease called Julian-Barre Syndrome, an affliction that causes nerve damage. Massey suffered paralysis from the sternum down.

“It was my first year in graduate school and when I finally did recover from the paralysis I had to learn to walk all over again,” she says. “At that point in my studies I fell into an art history class, and the professor loved saints.”

Saint Blaise: Love in the Nation of Ulysses, oil on canvas, 41.5x57, 2009

While the human body and figure painting represented her illness and her ordeal with the disease, she found comfort in learning about these people who lived hundreds of years ago through attempted beheadings, cuts, fire, and seizures.

“There’s something universal about struggle,” she says, “and how you can get over yourself. You can carry your pain like a bowling ball or you can carry it like a marble.”

Standing close to her panels, mixing a layer of green glaze in a plastic tub, she carefully applies the thinnest coat to the face, a face overcome with joy, and to the entwined fingers betraying the subject’s worry.

“I’ve been studying the painter Chuck Close and his three color glaze of painting flesh tones,” she says, holding the long, thin brush and stepping forward, within inches of the canvas. “It’s interesting to work with such a limited palette.”

Another recurring theme in her work is the use of restricted language. Sometimes the words are spelled out in the style of the graffiti, sometimes they’re written on interwoven ribbons, as is the case in the St. Teresa triptych, and sometimes they are simply letters against the background. But they are always incomplete.

Saint Giles: Keep it Real, oil on canvas, 54x42.5, 2010

“I got interested in restricted information when I was studying the Ghent Altarpiece,” she says. The Ghent Altarpiece, also known as the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, is a Dutch polyptych completed in 1432. The main register panels show the Annunciation to Mary across four panels. To the left is the message of the archangel Gabriel, to the right the answer given by Mary, which is written upside-down so only God can read it. “The words are my interpretation of the saint, but I want the viewers to have their own thoughts about it.”

Massey stands back to observe her progress. The purple ribbon weaves the three panels together. The three images of the saint draped in an evening wrap/simple toga express an unleashing of joy, constrained concern, and ecstasy. While the background graffiti explodes with power, bursting forth from the boundary of the surface.

By incorporating current icons to a fresh visual lexicon, Massey shows us a way out of our pain, the equality of suffering and the dual nature of our existence, leaving us a pathway to hope, defiance, and even salvation. -BM

Author’s Note: Noah Massey’s show, “Blesseds” will be up at the Emerson Center for Culture and Art until June 10th, 2011, with a reception on May 13th, 2011 from 5-8 PM and an artist talk that night at 6 PM.

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