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Artist of the Month - July 2002

Monica Tibbetts-Sparks:
Painting Soul

by Sydney Francis

For a week, I mulled over my interview with Monica Tibbetts-Sparks. We had an excited and uninhibited conversation about that energy that many artists seem to be chasing through their artistic practices. At the beginning of the interview, Sparks told me that her paintings were concerned with “human interest” subject matter. But, more specifically I believe Sparks is concerned with revealing rare glimpses of the human soul in her paintings.

In broken sentences, we came to a meeting of the minds about the presence of something larger than ourselves assisting and guiding our lives. We agreed that the artist has a special relationship to this force, because we get to get knee deep in earthly and divine inspiration as the means to creating our art. I have had similar conversations with many artists about that special spark that compels him/her to do his/her best work. The muse is not particular to portraiture or painting, but it seems to be a theme that runs across artistic disciplines. As artists we are lucky because this feeling or state we are chasing gives us meaning and fulfillment and a sense that we are part of something greater.

In all of Sparks’ paintings a sense of personal time is represented. In each painting there is something of what she is feeling or experiencing in the moment, which fixes each artwork on an historical continuum. On one level, she uses her art to express poignant events in her life, such as, her watercolor painting of September 11th, which she painted in one night in response to the tragedy. September 11th shows the majestic bald eagle with his symbolic tear over a smoking World Trade Center. Sparks painted this image as a way of grappling with the magnitude of the tragedy experienced by so many American families.

On another level, Sparks also uses her painting to process significant dreams and ideas that come to her begging for further inquiry. For example, Memories of Many Hunting Seasons is an oil portrait of a Medicine Man that came to Sparks in her dreams. The Medicine Man’s gaze is fixed on the viewer, as he is silently conveying his story through his eyes. He is not merely symbolic of the Medicine Man or the Warrior; he is a real apparition, a being of flesh, memory, and experience. His humanness is expressed in his character— his wrinkles, his clothing, his hair and, especially, his eyes. In contrast, he is painted in a ghostly black and white with very subtle coloration; and his torso fades into space. In this way, he is like a memory himself: interesting, profound, defined by life’s events, but forever intangible.

The background of Memories of Many Hunting Seasons shows the rhythmic pattern of simplified horse and rider figures, imagery which echoes late 19th Century Sioux teepee paintings. The background figures move like a procession of memories contained in the life experiences of the Medicine Man.

Sparks has done a large series of Native American portraits and imagery, which were part of an exploration of her own Cherokee heritage. She expressed to me these particular paintings were a means of gathering up historical (and perhaps spiritual) information that she found to be timely wisdom for her life.

Sparks is a fourth generation Moabite. She is frequently asked why she has not left Moab to move to a bigger town. She answers with the fact that she is smart enough to recognize how great the town of Moab is. In addition, she has very fulfilling life with her family and with her job as the Manager of the Red Stone Inn (of which it is her 10th season).

Sparks creates further contentment and fulfillment in her life by focussing on the positive and finding joy in the little moments. These “little moments” often become the subject of her paintings. For example, Mother’s and Baby’s Feet in watercolor is a literal representation of a “little moment” between mother and child. However, symbolically the painting expresses a piece of the human story: our genetic heritage, the lifelong connection between mother and child, and the individual paths and choices we choose. In looking at Mother’s and Baby’s Feet, I was moved by the way that the delicate baby’s feet are cradled in the larger, stronger mother’s feet. Again I am brought back to thinking about Divine support and guidance. We are the baby in this image, and we are supported and protected by a benevolent force, which loves and nurtures us with a capacity we simply cannot fathom.

I want to conclude this article with my thoughts on the way in which Sparks represents Divinity in human terms. What really grabs me about her “human interest” paintings is that a relationship between the human and the Divine is made clear. Sparks does not paint godly subjects that are seemingly unattainable in our daily human struggle. But rather, she paints, in very human and accessible terms, the soul and its manifestation in the apparently mundane. Rather than depreciating the Divine, her work exalts the human condition. In this way, the special little moments and the life altering big moments are seen in their proper light: with due reverence for the magic that runs its mysterious course through our daily lives.

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