By Mattie Dunn
As an art form, collage is often described as “organized chaos,” and in most cases art that falls into this category does indeed fit this exact description. Yet the work of the late Kentucky artist Melanie Sunbeam Smith currently on exhibit at the Grand Gallery in downtown Frankfort is not only “organized chaos” but an organic mixture of beautiful and compelling opposites. Her work is dark and bright, individualized and communal, harmonious and discordant. To put it simply, these pieces are a depiction of the wholeness that is achieved when an artist looks at every piece of the puzzle. Though she worked in many mediums in her lifetime including fiber, painting, and pen and ink, the works of collage that she turned to later in life are the basis of her current show. Smith’s work represents the baffling nature of the world to contain both complexity and simplicity, and she displayed this balance beautifully.
The show is titled “COLLAGE ’93: Melanie Sunbeam Smith” and is composed of 11 works created that year and never previously exhibited. As with each medium Smith used, her works of collage are all-encompassing. Looking at her work, one feels connected and enveloped by the overlapping strings of paper and fabric. The works pull you into the frame and wrap you into the collage itself. In these complex pieces, color is often the most compelling of elements. One quickly notices the contrast between deep reds, purples, and blues against blinding teals and pinks. Yet, this is merely the beginning of observation. As one continues to view the work, shapes begin to form. Titles such as “Last Tango in Paris” and “Three Canaries” provide evidence for the inspiration behind the pieces and allow the shapes to become defined figures.
Smith, a Woodford County native, began her artistic journey as a musician. Sharing music with the world was an early dream of hers cut short when she contracted rheumatoid arthritis in her teens, but her passion was then transferred from a sound wave to a strand of fabric or mark on paper. Knowing her past as a passionate musician, the various pieces of paper that seem simply to intertwine are no longer mere pieces of paper, but notes upon a musical staff. Each piece brings a new note and each strand brings a new melody. Perhaps this is what makes her pieces all-encompassing.
Not only is this show a commemoration of the works of collage, it is a commemoration of Smith herself. Though she passed in 2011, the impact of her work is ever-present. In all of the heartfelt stories of her life and work, one comment was often made — she never stopped creating. It is clear to see that she created always and in all ways. While she struggled with health conditions that limited her ability to use certain artistic tools, she constantly adapted in order to always make art. “COLLAGE ’93” is a testament to the fact that Smith approached each new medium and each new tool with enthusiasm and eagerness. It is overwhelmingly evident that art was her joy and she admirably created the works in order to share that joy with others.
“COLLAGE ’93” will be on display at the Grand Gallery through the end of August, and an exhibition reception will be 5-6:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 18. The gallery is located on the second floor of the Grand Theater at 308 St. Clair St., and is open during most performances in the theater. Free access at other times can be arranged by contacting the theater box office at 502-352-7469.
Mattie Dunn is from Benton, Kentucky, and is a senior at Transylvania University with a double major in art history and English. She, along with her classmate Leigh Kostenbader, are guest curators of the exhibition.