BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Walking through the doors of the revered Printworks Gallery for James Mesplé’s one-man show “Gem Myths” is like stepping into the realm of fantasy; like watching Ali Baba open his chest filled with brightly colored stones in some faraway cave.
It was not the tale of those forty thieves that influenced this current exhibit, however. Instead, William Shakespeare and the 18 stones the bard used to adorn the language of his plays served as inspiration. Of this connection, Mesplé relates:
“In The Tempest, the charming Ariel describes coral and pearls as she speaks of a sea change for her father. ‘Union’ is mentioned in Hamlet, but union is actually another name for pearl, so Shakespeare is really only talking about 17 stones. They are so beautifully a part of his work. Emerald is mentioned only once (in The Merry Wives of Windsor). Carbuncle is another word for garnet and chrysolite for peridot.”
In Mesplé’s renderings on display at 311 West Superior through October 15, each of these stones is represented in a brilliant bejeweled painting on paper, surrounded by abundant flowers and ensconced in classical settings.
Beguiled by mythology, plant life, and the language of jewels, Mesplé even used the mineral powders of soft stones he has ground for his paints. The results are collages, gouaches, watercolors, and ink drawings.
“I have cut malachite, lapis lazuli, and jasper and added each to water, saving that water and letting it decant. The green, blue, and yellow shades that are produced are spectacular.”
Growing up in the Ozarks in Nevada, Missouri, Mesplé heard the legends of the Osage people from his grandfather, who was part Osage. With this heritage, looking to these natural materials to create art was second nature and has always, at least in part, informed his art.
“I loved hearing those Native American stories which in turn reminded me of stories about the Greeks and Romans. In the classical myths storms in the sky, trees, and even giant rocks had hidden lives; each stream was sacred and each tree had a secret. I had dreams and visions when I was five or six which I drew. My feeling that the whole world is alive comes from some of these Osage legends from my childhood.”
Mesplé came to the Francis Parker School as a teacher’s assistant after graduation from Northeastern Illinois State University. He was asked to take over the art department when the head retired. It was there that he met the world’s most famous Osage, prima ballerina Maria Tallchief.
“The poet Elise Paschen was a favorite student of mine, but I didn’t know her parents. On class night, I looked up to see a familiar vision walking towards me. She held out her hand and said, ‘Hello, I am Maria Tallchief.’
“In our dining room in Nevada, Missouri, my mother had a photo of Maria and her sister Marjorie, also a famous dancer, on the wall. When I called my mother later and said, ‘You are not going to believe whom I just met,’ she assured me that it was the Osage connection that brought me to Parker.
“Years later, after Elise had graduated and was on her way to being the renowned poet that she is, I was asked to do ballet sets for the 150th anniversary of the city of Chicago. It turned out that they were for Maria Tallchief’s company. My mother would say it was another Osage connection.”
Whether in nature or in art, the brilliance of color is all-important to Mesplé.
“The iris, which appears in many of my paintings, is the flower of light. The iris has more varieties of colors than any other flower, all the colors of the rainbow, in fact. Flowers are glowing with color and actually radiate more than gems. I held a citrine up to a sunflower and the sunflower was more brilliant.
“Long ago, people started bringing flowers to sick people because their pure color actually helped with the healing process. That is perhaps why many people ask for flowers when they are ill.”
Printworks, which has held seven of his Mesplé’s shows, currently displays 27 of the artist’s works. A painter of great precision as well as technical skill, he began works for the show in 2014. In addition to Printworks, he has exhibited in numerous other galleries since 1976 and has even received an Award of Excellence for Outstanding Contributions to the City of Chicago Collections at the 125th anniversary of the Chicago Society of Artists.
His lectures, publications, and works in electronic media testify to his talent, and anyone who knows him would add that he is just about the nicest person you will ever meet. Bob Hiebert, Printworks’ owner and co-founder with the late Sid Block back in 1980, has been anticipating Mesplé’s show with great enthusiasm:
“I loved the idea of gemstones as the central idea. People are drawn to the stone representing their birth month and then the Shakespeare references are significant. Jim has such a beautiful palette and wonderful technique. He has a little bit of a child in him in the terrific way he is drawn to color.”
Printworks remains the only Chicago gallery dealing exclusively in prints and drawings, and Mesplé’s mixed media drawings in Gem Myths more than meets Hiebert’s criteria of excellence in the field.
“I have always seen drawings and paintings in a musical analogy. Prints are like a string quartet and paintings like a symphony. There is a gravitas in works on paper.”
Gem Myths will be open through October 15 at Printworks, 311 West Superior.
Photo credit for all images: R. Salm