By Nicole Gallucci, Managing Editor
I have these moments – not very often – but every once in a while I’ll meet someone who overwhelms me with this immediate sense of comfort. I had one of those moments when I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing Shanna Melton, local poet and artist behind the image featured on the cover of Dogwood’s 2015 issue. When I first laid eyes upon Shanna’s painting, entitled Esperanza Spalding Falling In, my pupils immediately danced at the sight of a musically entranced Esperanza Spalding passionately plucking the strings of a double bass. Her brilliantly bright red, ruffled dress jumped out against a sunny background of perfectly blended yellows and oranges, and I knew the person who painted this did so with great purpose.
On a cold, rainy March day in Downtown Bridgeport, I went to interview Shanna. As I sat alone in an empty gallery space surrounded by grey walls, surrounded by a similarly grey world, I waited to meet the artist with whom I had only a few short conversations with via email. In the midst of gathering my questions and preparing for the interview, one of the sweetest and most soothing voices I have ever heard echoed throughout the gallery. I lifted my head to behold a smile that warmed my heart and splashed color throughout the room. As Shanna walked towards me I was drawn to my feet and hit with the awkward thought of “okay Nicole, this is an interview so you should probably do something professional.” By the time she had reached me, I made the conscious decision that a handshake would be the appropriate, if not somewhat uncomfortably cliché and formal greeting. But no – Shanna went in for the hug. I knew I liked her already.
An artist for as long as she can remember, Shanna explained, “I don’t remember not painting.” Though she started very young, she shared that it wasn’t till around eight or nine years old that she started seriously trying to figure the world of art out. Now though you might assume someone with Shanna’s intense passion and artistic talent would be overly eager and willing to share their work with the world, this was not the case. Shanna began her artistic career as a legendary closet painter. While those closest to her knew her for her poetry, growing up, she would paint in secret and hide her art in her very own safe haven – behind her dresser. This undercover talent followed Shanna to Northeastern, until one day in 2001 when she was overcome with a desire to show her friend Jamal some of her paintings before they left for a poetry night. She dropped a stack of her paintings on his lap, and after a few minutes of astonishment and an “Oh my god,” he and the paintings were out the door.
“You’re showing these at the show tonight!” Jamal said with the upmost belief in Shanna. “I yelled at him the whole way there,” Shanna explained to me. However, despite her hesitation the people at the show that night reacted extremely positively to her art. Shanna began to get more comfortable showing her paintings, and she explained that after that night, “it just sort of snowballed.” So on the count of three, let’s hear it. 1, 2, 3: Thanks, Jamal!
When asked to describe her artistic process in relation to her paintings, Shanna expressed that visions often show up in her mind, or she’ll see something that inspires her and feel the need to paint it. Whether it’s a color that moves her, a person that influences her, or the beta fish that is currently swimming through her thoughts, Shanna feels very strongly that if she doesn’t address these visions and express them through art, they will keep showing up. When Shanna paints, she tunes into the energy of her subject. In regards to Esperanza Falling In, she explained that if she didn’t have such a strong connection to the subject, it would have been much more difficult for her to paint.
Upon first glance, the massive amount of soul and musical passion present in Esperanza Spalding Falling In is undeniable, so Shanna’s answer to my questioning if music plays a role in inspiring her to paint came as no surprise. “Music always plays while I’m painting,” she said. She loves listening to natural sounds, relaxing Jazz, Native American songs, or African drums while she paints. And although she shares my love for Beyoncé and Jay-Z, she prefers to paint to less distracting music such as Maroon 5 or Esperanza. Shanna described that music has been an influential part of her life ever since she was little. Her uncle is a blues musician, so she would often attend his shows, which she feels played a large role in her love for performing.
Shanna finds inspiration in many individuals, from famous people like Nikki Giovanni, Maya, and Frida Kahlo, to regular people in her life – though as she explains, “none of my friends are really regular.” Some inspirations in her personal life include California based painter, Stephen Lopez, along with friends, Alicia (who I had the pleasure of meeting that day as well,) and fellow artist, Tantra-Zawadi. Shanna describes Tantra as a “freaking superhero” and recalls that when she was first starting out in the art scene, Tantra was a wonderful support system. Shanna is also greatly inspired by the creative energy from the graffiti artists, poets, singers, and dancers in her Bridgeport community.
Reflecting upon the idea that, “You can’t control everything around you, but you can create beautiful things,” Shanna expressed that when she paints, she wants to create positive energy for herself, and hopes that positivity will extend to others. As she said, “It’s so easy to have a drab experience…grey is so available right? But if my art shows up and it’s orange or red or yellow, your mood has to change with it. So I guess that’s what I would say I want people to walk away with.” She then recited a quote that her church pastor always says, “You’re not gonna leave here the way you came.” Shanna hopes that people leave her art feeling empowered on some level. She expressed that, “even if it’s a small amount of inspiration that they take with them, it’s more than they had when they showed up.”
Shanna sees art as a way to document and share experiences – a way for people to relate to a certain emotions or events that are similar to their own, and a reference point for those who might not have gone through them yet, but will need help once they do. As for the future, Shanna hopes to travel around the world and see different places and art. “I want my art to be among those artists in other places so maybe I can offer some ideas and be inspired by them,” she explained. Additionally, she would like to take her love of public speaking to the next level. “I’m not meant to be silent,” she said. Shanna hopes to create more platforms for people to show what they do, and dreams of creating a program: Art Makes Dreams Real. With this program, Shanna would work to inspire others to make their artistic dreams and visions realities, along with helping them overcome their fears of creating and encouraging them to trust that their visions have purpose. As Shanna explained, “So many people say ‘I can’t draw a straight line,’ but you don’t have to, you just have to draw what comes out of you and figure it out later.”
Shanna currently has several new artistic visions in her head waiting to be painted. She is doing writer’s groups sponsored by City Lights Gallery, which are held on the first and second Saturday of each month, and as the ambassador of Poetry at Housatonic, she will be doing their poetry stage, The Poem Mobile, for the Bridgeport Arts Festival. For more on Shanna-related events, artwork, and information, be sure to visit her website at poeticsoularts.net and like the “Poetic Soul Arts” Facebook Page.
As our interview drew to a close, I felt compelled to ask Shanna if there was anything she wanted to share with the readers of Dogwood. After a short reflection, she said, “I guess a lot of times someone will have a vision or idea and not a lot of people have support for that. Sometimes people don’t really have anybody to encourage them, but I can’t say that – a lot of people have shown up and supported and pushed me to keep doing what I think I’m supposed to be doing, and I’m very thankful for that. I don’t take anything for granted like an article or somebody saying how my work affected them. Those are the kind of things that keep me inspired and keep me showing up. So if anybody is at all touched by anything – not just my work but by another artist’s work – it’s always helpful to hear it. Even the people who you might think know, they don’t always know.”
As Shanna mentioned earlier in the interview, “I don’t need to change the world, but if I can change a person’s energy, that contributes to it.” After our interview had ended I eagerly stood, knowing that I would undoubtedly be receiving my second Shanna hug of the day. I can confidently say, that Shanna changed my energy after that interview. I left that grey-walled gallery on a cold, rainy March day in Downtown Bridgeport, and entered into the grey world feeling a certain sense of warmth and seeing a whole new sphere of color. I have no doubt that Shanna Melton will do wonderful things, and I eagerly await to see her spread her colorful soul throughout the world.