This week I learned that the legendary Marta Becket passed away in January. I had no idea. I visited her opera house for the first time on Christmas Eve but her impact on my life hit back around 2009-2010.
I was divorced and had left my beloved Santa Monica for a studio in Koreatown with an actual paper-thin Murphy bed that folded down from the wall and was possibly the kind of bed you get in hell. I hated my new neighborhood, I was free but alone, I was nursing yet another heartbreak and creatively things couldn’t have been bleaker. I used to sit in the generic apartment-furnished armchair, staring out at the brick building next door, where people would literally scream out of their windows at all hours for reasons unknown. Because they could, I guess.
My mom told me about this amazing documentary she’d seen called Amargosa and I immediately ordered it from Netflix. On DVD. When I saw it, I was deeply moved by Marta’s story – one of a frustrated artist who took a giant leap into the unknown to create something that didn’t make any sense at the time. She left her metropolitan New York world behind to settle in Death Valley and refurbish a dilapidated performance hall, where she danced to a crowd that she literally painted on the walls – because there was no audience – until National Geographic discovered her.
The story of a woman without an opportunity to create the kind of work she wanted to, stepping off the grid to start living a different kind of story, spoke volumes to me. I felt the stirrings of something akin to that for myself or the idea, at least, that something else might be possible. As soon as I finished the documentary I rushed to find out if Marta was still alive and performing. She was, but she was heading into her final performances of the The Sitting Down Show because she could no longer dance and was ready to retire. I was determined to be there but a winter storm hit; those isolated Valley roads were flooded, nearly impassable, and phone lines were down. The Amargosa website warned of treacherous travel and I sadly abandoned the idea.
Several years passed. I sort of forgot about visiting the opera house although Marta remained an inspiration to me. I thought of her often, whenever I floundered around wondering what the hell I was doing in Hollywood. Every time the thought arose that I should create my own work, forge my own path, I would beat it down with resistance but then Marta would be there, like a beacon in the background. More time passed. I saw Diane Bell’s first film, Obselidia, and its scenes at the Amargosa Opera House reminded me that Marta’s legacy was still there…waiting.
Cut to December, 2016. Bone weary, shattered, burned out in every possible way…I’m in the middle of packing up my life in a limited number of boxes that I can snail-mail home to Boston. I’m finally calling it quits. A friend has come to stay and this is my camping/hiking/national park exploring friend. The one who will join me on any wilderness adventure. Each time we meet, we excitedly plan where to go next. We know we have a short window this time. We’re both exhausted. It needs to be a place we can drive to in a day and one that won’t be closed from all of the snow. Then it hits me: Death Valley. All those years in California and I still hadn’t been. They were at the tail end of a winter storm and about to get hit with some epic flooding but we had just the right amount of time to miss the worst.
We hit the road late on Christmas Eve day and drove like demons to make the show. The opera house had confirmed via e-mail and phone that there was a dancer who was going to perform that night. Then there wasn’t because she’d been injured. Then there was because they were mistaken or at any rate she was still going to perform. We didn’t have time for any pit stops. We ate snacks in the car. The two-lane road out to Death Valley Junction was pitch black with no cell service, my aging car was insistently fogging up in the rain and we’d hit huge pockets of flooding that were impossible to see ahead of time. We nearly missed the opera house because the valley was so dark but we swerved in and I jumped out to tell them we were there. There was no time for a bathroom or food or even to buy our tickets. Marta’s personal assistant was manning the door. She said to go over to the hotel afterwards to pay for our seats but, for now, to enjoy the show.
The opera house was toasty from the wood-burning stove and I couldn’t get over the rough wood floors or the detailed murals. It was beautiful. The assistant spoke to the small audience of tourists, telling us that Marta still lived on the grounds and that she was too ill to come over but that she knew we were there and that “she is happy” we were. A young Dominican dancer had been tapped by Marta to perform. She explained in broken English how grateful she was because, in her home country, the opportunity to dance was non-existent. She danced a short program from Marta’s past, including some of Marta’s own choreography. She wore Marta’s costumes – delightfully out-of-style – and there were long pauses while she changed. A little dog in the audience quietly growled whenever a new costume appeared. The ballerina danced in front of scenery that Marta painted. The faded red curtain opened and closed jerkily. The dancer’s pointe shoes were worn to shreds. The entire experience felt like pure anthropology and I held both joy and sorrow in my heart.
Afterwards we walked over to the hotel and someone opened a vacant room for me so I could finally use a bathroom. The room was scrubbed clean but old and in some disrepair. We wandered around the hotel filled with Marta’s photos and memorabilia. We were left to ourselves in the vacant gift shop. The lobby had a Christmas tree, a cat lounging on a desk, and a guy playing the guitar for his friends. Finally an employee appeared at the front desk and seemed pleasantly surprised that we had stuck around to pay for our tickets. We were starving but there was still no cell service. I asked the employee if she could give us directions to a restaurant somewhere and she told us that the hotel’s cafe was serving a complimentary Christmas Eve dinner, courtesy of Marta.
I think walking into that cafe on Christmas Eve was the moment when, on a micro level, I started to heal from the burn-out of the previous few years. People from all over the world were gathered at the counter and tables. The employees were warm and welcoming and explained the menu. When they found out we were Vegetarians they said, “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you.” Even now, I cry when I think of it. To be in a place that meant so much to me as an artist, to be exploring a part of our American wilderness, to be surrounded by fellow travelers on a holiday eve…it was pure gratitude. Pure joy. I was remembering the core of who I was – the things I actually care about, the values that actually mean something to me. It wasn’t about booking a guest star or walking the red carpet or getting the next audition. It was about being in the world. Being present. Being loved.
Marta Becket changed my life because she lived hers with full authenticity. She surrendered to her art and allowed it to move her where it wished instead of trying to control or resist the outcome. She taught me that it’s not only possible to forge my own path – it’s desirable. I am forever grateful for her life and work.
There is an ageism that women in the arts face that men don’t. Granted, no one ever sees my face in association with my work unless I want them too, but there is still the pressure to look young, think young, be fresh and hip with my ideas.
Melissa Dyanne / Visual Artist / Age 38 / West Hollywood, California
As is the case with so many artists, Melissa Dyanne first discovered her calling at a young age during some family turmoil–her parent’s divorce–that led to a certain displacement and shuttling back and forth between airports and apartments in Seattle and Spokane. She learned to sketch at age four from her dad’s renditions of Star Wars characters and escaped unwelcome situations with a sketch pad.
She was dating and I hated the current guy so I would hang out outside with my drawing pad. There was this older women who would come out and sweep the sidewalk all the time and she did it in this very mechanical, efficient manner, back and forth like some crazy sweeping robot.
I would try to capture her motion in my sketches. I think this was the beginning of the underlying theme in all of my work, time, movement, memory. I’m always mashing realism with abstraction, photo and film….and no matter what series I am working on, I always have this obsession with the idea of moving paintings. I am positive I started it then. Even though I am a painter professionally, I grew up wanting to be an animator. I’m sure that sweeping woman started the idea.
Although art can be a calling and an escape, the very conditions that create the artist also have the potential to destroy her–a real dilemma for most artists including myself.
… I had an extremely abusive childhood so the question was never really about growing up to be an artist, it was whether or not I would grow up at all. I suffered from severe depression, eating disorders and some drinking/drug use (all before the age of 18) so art was really an escape for me. I was talented, but honestly never cared. I’m still of the belief/thought that talent means nothing, it is work ethic and the ability to center yourself.
There are also positive and negative sides to using art as an escape. Positive side is that you always make art, you never need to seek motivation, negative side is that you cease to be objective and project oriented with your work. I think that has hurt me professionally in some ways; I’m pretty scattered with my studio practice. I work a ton, but really only like to work on what my emotions are attached to…focusing on a series or getting a body of work ready for a show is difficult for me.
Melissa received her BFA from the University of Washington, Seattle, WA and an MFA from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, PA. Some of the obstacles she’s encountered in the academic and professional world are financial, and some of them are related to her gender.
Money is always an issue as an artist, until you have enough money not to consider it an obstacle anymore. I grew up with limited financial resources, which restricted the amount of risks I was willing to take in my development/career. Great art really demands that the artist take risks and think outside of the box. I’m also the only person in my family that has pursued art as a career. It can be very difficult to have a family, that is supposed to be a support system, seem more like a judge, jury and executioner when it comes to your personal and professional decisions.
My undergraduate degree was from a state school, so there were other students in my position, which made for very little comparison of the haves and have nots and more comparison based on skill, work ethic and teacher approval. The graduate school I attended, however, was private, so there were more students there that came from wealthy families. While I was amassing great amounts of debt, my classmates were getting their tuition paid for, apartments and houses, etc. I felt a ton of stress just trying to scrape together enough money to buy groceries, pay rent, and so on…and it definitely affected my work those two years.
I also graduated in 2008, during the recession. So, again, when my wealthy classmates walked out with very little debt, able to decompress and “figure their lives out,” I had to immediately go and wait on tables full time since my student loans were kicking in. That was scary, depressing and utterly demoralizing.
One thing that I also learned both in undergrad and graduate school, was that if you were a young female artist of little means, talent, and good looks, there were many male professors that would offer you hope, in the form of praise and sometimes connections. This always came at a price though, you had to worship them as well. I bucked that system in grad school and definitely paid the price. I actually had one male critic/professor ask me if the “paint brush was too heavy since many of my strokes looked weak” on a large scale (8 x 10 foot) painting that I was working on. I still tell that “joke” when anyone mentions discrimination in art, and even though I just blew that comment off at the time, that type of sexism always lingers in your brain a bit.
When I moved to New York I experienced the sexism in the painting world full force. Male artists just naturally assumed you wanted to sleep with them, and they would garishly offer you the universe if you did (“I’ll make you a star!!”) Of course those things rarely happened (success via sleeping with someone slightly famous) and if it did, those relationships ended horrifically with things always falling in favor of the man offering you the moon. Bad part is that instead of the moon, you get your ideas and paintings ripped off plus the opportunity to accidentally meet their wife at an art opening. Being lured into these unfortunate relationships can definitely be considered set backs. I do know women in stable, double artist relationships, but they do still concede and/or prop up their male half’s career, even if they are the more successful artist.
Unfortunately, all these obstacles I mentioned never go away, but I believe you learn to navigate around them. Creating a good support system through personal relationships helps! I find as time goes on, I seek out friends in my industry less and less, and look for those who are inspirational and interesting, no matter what their profession is. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I seek genuine connections rather than ones that would potentially get me somewhere. Doing that tends to rule out all the BS by default. Setting realistic goals helps as well. I can only control what I do with my work, reaching out for opportunities etc…I can’t control how it will all be received. I continuously grow thicker and thicker skin so I don’t cower from rejection and become the worst kind of road block, which is a road block to yourself.
An artist Melissa greatly admires is David Hockney, for his joyful and independent spirit. I love hearing her talk about Hockney as he is one of my very favorites as well. His experiments with video collage, where he explored creating depth and dimension on film, was so exciting to me back in the days when I was directing.
When I am teaching, I always show my students a few of his interviews. I think he is the embodiment of a true artist. He lives life his own way, makes work his own way without any bitterness or competition. His approach is just sheer joy and the love of discovery. He has also shifted his work many times in the course of his career with no guilt or explanation, and ventures into areas that people raise their eyebrows at, but he makes it happen. He’s the only artist to date, that I know of, that has had a show of iPad paintings. No one liked it, but he made it work, and I personally think he is on to something. Hockney is definitely a hero of mine.
What is your definition of success?
That’s a tricky one. For me, it would be quitting my “day job” and painting full time. I’m guessing that requires me selling my work for a good amount of money which also requires my work being noticed by the general public and be shown in major galleries. I don’t consider many gallery artists very successful in their work, a ton of it is horrible, but many of them quit their “day jobs” so they clearly have something I want, and the public considers them successful. If there was another way to quit my day job and paint full time, I would do that.
What has changed and evolved is the attitude I have towards my quality of life while striving for success. A tiny studio apartment and the single life just don’t do it for me anymore. I do actually think about the bigger picture, which includes comfortable living space and a family of my own. That is one of the main reasons I moved to Los Angeles rather back to New York when I felt the pull of a larger art scene (Seattle is pretty small). I knew my living situation would be much better and my goals would be achieved in a more relaxing fashion.
I tend to look at past accomplishments as relative, (in the sense that I might of thought of it as great then, but am not so sure now) so I would say any accomplishment that I would be proud of is most likely recent, and small. I just learned how to use digital painting software and stop motion animated a painting for the first time. It was crude, but I was very excited that I made it happen. I also think it is an accomplishment to be a tactile artist for as long as I have been, but now be able to make whatever I want digitally…it feels liberating. An older painting of mine, one that I really liked, just sold at an auction so that gave me a bit of pride as well, and the verification that I am not commercially dead 🙂 I was also recently added to the Rembrandt’s Dog list, which is an internationally curated list of 1000 of the most influential painters working today. I was honored to be included.
What keeps you going day after day, particularly in times with no visible signs of progress or success?
Routine. I always have projects swimming around in my mind, so I set goals to finish them. That art making habit is already ingrained in me, so I get irritable and upset if I am not working on something. I do get frustrated when I have no shows lined up, it feels like I am painting into a void, but I try to remedy that by telling myself I will finish a new body of work and “get it out there”. That relieves the feeling of nothingness a bit.
How do you move past society’s limiting beliefs and lack of opportunities for women in the arts?
I said a lot about this in the question about setbacks/obstacles, because sexism in the arts has always been, and still is a serious issue. One thing I have avoided in my work is to make it overtly female as to garner attention. I had very explosive, gender specific work when I started out, which I don’t think was a problem per se, but can be when used as a crutch. I also feel like there is an ingrained acceptance for women who make feminine work (and in this I mean, nudity, sex, boobs, innocence, beauty, etc.) but when they step out into larger, less gender specific themes there is less acceptance. I have heard minority artists speak of this as well. If they aren’t talking about being Hispanic, African American, Asian, so on and so forth, then no one wants to see it. I don’t want to feed that machine.
What advice do you have to offer to other female artists?
Stay committed to your work and be good to your female peers! It’s difficult enough to navigate a male dominated profession, and when women don’t prop up other women, even worse. Realize that we are a still a minority in the field, but there is power in numbers.
Which actress would play you in the movie of your life?
Amy Adams! She’s lovely, and has studied playing a female painter since she was in Big Eyes 🙂
What are you working on right now and what vision do you have for what you’d like to create next in your work?
I’m illustrating a children’s book! For a friend. It is a project I put off forever so I’m happy it is “back on.” Two painting series are in the works as well, one focuses on a trip my boyfriend and I took to Ocean Shores, WA. and the other is a contemporary mash up of Rococo paintings.
I’ve started playing with the idea of putting everything through a digital filter. I make sketches, work them up in Corel Painter and Sketch up, then copy and re-paint on canvas or panel, retaining some of the computer generated look. This requires more spray paint than I normally use in my underpaintings and other technical adjustments, so I am still trying it out/working out the kinks. I’m also going to work to perfect my stop-motion animated paintings and diorama paintings (large scale backdrops with cut-outs I attach with Velcro).
To connect with Melissa and view more of her work, please click the following links (I especially love her vibrant Instagram account):