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Micki Dyson-Flatmo's Visual Opera

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Art is elusive, says local painter Micki Dyson-Flatmo. "It may entirely swim away from you."

It's not that Dyson-Flatmo is unfamiliar with painting or art — she's a fifth-generation woman artist. As a child, she hung out in her grandma's studio surrounded by oil paints. In her 20s, Dyson-Flatmo would sit for hours at a time with a sharpened pencil, crafting intricate, conceptual images layered with stream-of-consciousness symbolism. But no one ever saw them. "I was young, and it was automatic and I took [my skills] for granted." She'd finish one, stash it away and start another.

Now in her early 60s, Dyson-Flatmo has built a career out of art. She's perfected her techniques in pastels and paints: expressing herself, learning the mediums and "playing the gallery game." It's been enjoyable, but mechanical. In creating marketable art for others, Dyson-Flatmo's craving for concept took a back seat to technical skill. Recently, she says, "I got to the point where I was absolutely bored spitless with what I was doing." Desperation bubbled up. The dam broke.

At Sewell Gallery's December show, Dyson-Flatmo's narrative aspirations receive VIP treatment. Surface Tension: A Visual Opera fuses the artist's pencil-lead past with a painter's artistic maturity, describing the arc of her recent transformation through theatrical grandeur. "An opera allows you to go over the top. It allows you to be extravagant," says Dyson-Flatmo. An opera also needs depth, characters and props. Most of all, it needs a story. For Dyson-Flatmo, that story is personal: "This is how it feels to me to chase a work of art."

A collection of smaller paintings set the stage, announcing the characters while teasing out snippets of meaning. There's a poised director, "the one who hears voices," listening carefully, eyebrow raised in anticipation. The playwright appears (Dyson-Flatmo used herself as a model), bedecked in carnival colors, a fluffy wig and rumpled hat. A fish darts away with a tiny umbrella in its mouth. In fact, fish, umbrellas and circles thread through nearly every piece.

The show's poster (an opera needs a poster, right?), "The Muse is Always a Stranger," amplifies these props with aplomb, visually defining Dyson-Flatmo's creative quandary. The umbrella signifies protection: Skill building made her a successful artist but restricted her true inspiration, keeping her work safe and saleable. The fish is creativity itself — that slippery little muse forever out of reach. The circle represents insight, focus and the regeneration of Dyson-Flatmo's approach.

It's not just her so-called "restless metaphors" that tell a story in this painting though. The range of Dyson-Flatmo's skill is on full display, challenging viewers' notion of who this painter really is. Expressionistic brushwork rattles against renaissance polish. Seductive beauty is shrouded behind symbols, never fully revealing itself. Sharp diagonal lines swell with restless energy, and it's clear that something is bubbling just below the surface.

At the opera's climax, the artist finally learns her lesson. "Dream and Reason" is the biggest, most forceful work in the show. Swirling geometry shines with spotlight umbrellas, exposing the riddle through steampunk shades. This tight composition leaves nothing to chance, yet the strict narrative focus nearly throws all of Dyson-Flatmo's previous work overboard. Relief and trepidation dance together as she stretches out her arm toward ...

No spoilers in this article. If you want to know how this opera ends you'll have to go see it for yourself. The curtains open Saturday, Dec. 6, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Sewell Gallery in Eureka.

After the opera, be sure to waltz around the corner to Eureka Studio Arts where Leo Stafsnes is showing his newest oil paintings. Stafsnes is a Eureka native and sophomore at Arcata High School.

About a year ago, Stafsnes stumbled upon a box of art supplies at an estate sale and wondered what to do with them. After a few classes with Jeff Stanley in Trinidad, local artist Stock Schlueter took him under his wing and Stafnes spent a few days a week painting with him. Once Schlueter took him on a plein air outing, Stafnes was hooked. "It's an expression of a passion I've had my entire life," he says. "I've always been into hiking, and now I can do art outside while hiking! It's a perfect combination."

Stafsnes' landscapes have an erudite combination of color, composition and technique, but there's more than that. "The attachment is more of a spiritual conversation with the place and I convey that artistically," he says with the calm assuredness of a life-long painter. "The artwork itself is a more superficial layer." These aren't just "oh that's cool" one-offs — Stafsnes' paintings are the real deal. With just a year under his artistic belt, it's stunning to think where this kid is headed.

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Ken Weiderman

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