Wednesday, October 13, 2010

New Orleans artist celebrates Gulf sea life

Giant crab hanging on my living room wall

Three years ago,
 when I was still new to town, I decided I some artwork was needed to pull my eclectic household together and create a focus. 

I remembered an artist I'd met at the Bywater Art Market who painted huge crabs and crayfish and tried to find him on the Internet. I recalled that he was commuting back and forth from Mobile. I soon located his paintings exhibited in a gallery near City Park and accidentally bought two!

I reconnected with Martin Welch recently and learned more about his background when I wrote a story about the Palmer Park Arts Market. He's now living in New Orleans, selling paintings all over the country. 

“There are so many people with a connection to New Orleans and they want to remember it through my paintings,” he mused.

Welch was recently honored at a Windsor Court Hotel reception I attended. Giant, brilliantly colored canvases encircled the hotel’s stately rooms. “That crab looks like it’s crawling right off the canvas!” remarked Susan Danielson, a University of New Orleans administrator attending the showing. “That’s how the shrimp moves in the water – it’s so full of energy!"

Welch has received multiple prizes at two International Shrimp Festivals and was chosen one of the 10 best artists by the New Orleans Museum of Art during its 2008 “Love in the Garden” series. Four of his works - a shrimp, an oyster, a fish and a dragonfly - were selected by “Treme” set designers to decorate the Bernette family’s kitchen.

Welch’s current work is daring and assertive, but that was not always the case. 
Though he painted at an early age, winning a fifth grade prize, his parents discouraged his budding ambition. 

“They really had no idea to send me to art or design school. They didn’t know what was possible,” Welch said. Growing up in the Mississippi Delta, the family had no access to art museums, he said.

After studying chemistry at the University of Mississippi and Delta State, he joined the U.S. Navy. Completing military service, he returned home to Greenville, Miss., and ran a jewelry business for 13 years.

Welch finally took a risk, following the untimely death of a friend.

“Even if I had to sack groceries, I was going to do what I wanted to do,” he decided.

Welch enrolled at Spring Hill College, a small Jesuit college in Mobile, Ala., where he believed he might find a supportive environment to nurture his creativity. He scrimped to support himself and ran a junk store, which he heated with $40 of kerosene. In 2000, he graduated magna cum laude and the Art Department President’s scholar.

Welch’s first paintings were introspective – a style that observers described as “dark.” My paintings were like a journey that I was on too,” he said.

Growing up in Mississippi, he had gone pole fishing, so began to use bass, brim and other freshwater fish as his subjects. That’s when he discovered his bliss. “When you get free, the flood waters open up.” Influenced in Mobile by the Gulf, he painted snapper, flounder and Royal Reds – shrimp harvested in the dark, cold waters 2,400-ft. deep, he said. Fishing led to crabs, he said.

“I didn’t worry about competition,” he said. “I just started my own distinct style.” His paintings combine Japanese brushstroke Sumi-e painting with Cubism, he said. I paint the way I feel – usually happy and bright – using a palette knife and big brushes, he said.

“The red is so commanding, you just have to look at it,” said Nancy Eaves, a jewelry designer and fellow Arts Market exhibitor. “That’s part of the energy.”

After Katrina, Welch and his partner Tim Buckless drove to New Orleans from Mobile three weekends a month, exhibiting in art show after show. Now they own a house a couple of blocks from the Arts Market at Palmer Park where Welch regularly displays his work.

Welch continues to paint almost daily, which engages him both physically and mentally. “It’s like playing the piano,” he said. “All muscle tension goes away.” His most recent artistic experiment is Assemblage – canvas on canvas and painting inside a painting. For Welch, his art just keeps evolving.

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