Sunday 15 July 2018

What Lies Beneath: Sylvia Plath by Melinda Hagman

Sylvia Plath by Melinda Hagman, Acrylic on canvas, courtesy of the artist

Sylvia Plath by Melinda Hagman
Sylvia Plath by Melinda Hagman

Niall MacMonagle

'I put down my paintbrushes for seven years to raise my two children," says Californian Melinda Hagman, who wanted to be an artist since her early teens.

Returning to painting, she "wanted there to be some rules, so I wouldn't always be wondering what to paint next, which would make it too stressful or have the potential to keep me from completing the project altogether."

The result was the Flower Project - 52 flower paintings, done one a week.

Hagman, a bibliophile, also works in a book store in Orange County and the Author Project came next.

"My all-time favourite book is Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle," and she's also painted Hans Fallada, Emily Dickinson, Jack Kerouac, Carson McCullers, Virginia Woolf and this compelling image of Sylvia Plath.

There is an unease in that shadowed face; her eyes gaze at something beyond and above the viewer. For Hagman, "Plath was the first writer that spoke to me in a relatable way. Up until then, I didn't realise that girls of that time had such deep thoughts, as ridiculous as that sounds. It was very eye-opening - and it showed just how naive I was."

Using a black and white photo, Hagman researched "eye colour and other details" and listened to an audio of Plath reading while working on the portrait.

"In the whole of literature's long history," says Clive James, "Plath must be the supreme example of a poet breaking through to masses of people who know nothing about poetry at all."

She is known for her intense, driven, troubled life, as much as her words, and when her mother, a week after Plath's eighth birthday, told her that her father had died, the fledgling poet said "I'll never speak to God again."

Later Plath would write: "I am terrified by this dark thing/ That sleeps in me." Towards dawn on February 11, 1963, Plath, aged 30, and separated from her husband Ted Hughes, left food for her two sleeping children, aged three and one, opened their bedroom window, closed the door and sealed the room with tape and towels. In the kitchen, Plath took her own life.

That was 55 years ago today. Her final poem begins "The woman is perfected./ Her dead/ Body wears the smile of accomplishment."

www.melindahagman.com / ArtbyMelindaHagman on Etsy

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