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UMHB artist, aspiring teacher wants to spark students’ creativity

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Posted: Friday, May 17, 2013 4:30 am | Updated: 9:16 am, Fri May 17, 2013.

BELTON — Art education shouldn’t follow a solid outline, but should allow students to define their own bounds, according to Michelle Newton.

Newton, 26, a senior University of Mary Hardin-Baylor art major, hopes to graduate in December with a teaching certification, and is considering applying for middle-school jobs in Harker Heights shortly thereafter. She said Fort Hood brings a diverse population to Heights, setting a fertile landscape for art to grow in the community.

“Harker Heights seems really excited about the art education field,” Newton said. “They’re more open to the art community.”

Newton wants to give students “that creative spark,” she said. “I want to be the one to light that up. With art, you have a lot more leniency as far as being able to encourage (students) in certain ways. I feel like I can help kids to open up doors that they haven’t been exposed to before.”

Art isn’t rigid, Newton said. It can incorporate other disciplines and allow students to share their experiences, however bright or dark they might be, she said. Many of today’s kids must deal with more challenges than previous generations, including divorce and bullying.

She said her message to students will be: “It’s OK to show yourself through your artwork,” Newton said. “Go for it. Let it out through your painting, through your drawing, through the sculpture that you’re making.”

In her college’s senior art exhibition, Newton used acrylic paints, broken glass and smashed guitars to humanize rock stars who died at age 27.

“I wanted to portray them in a way that was not viewed by the public before,” Newton said. “That’s what got me doing this.”

‘27 Club’

Newton’s portraits included Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain, who are all part of the “27 Club.”

Contemporaries dismissed some of the artists, stereotyping them as typical rock stars who died early because of risky lifestyles, Newton said. They were shunned in some aspects, but some, like Hendrix, were glorified as guitar gods. “I wanted to get him down to the human level a little bit,” Newton said.

A red-purple acrylic blend weaves together three portraits of Hendrix, with each head encircled by pill-formed halos amidst a backdrop of broken bottles and flowing wine. The piece, Newton’s favorite one in the exhibit, took more than 30 hours to finish, she said. She drew from Byzantine art, which prominently featured halos.

Newton said the sense of mystery associated with some of the featured artists fascinated her. One of her pieces portrays questions surrounding Morrison’s death. “Jim Morrison never had an autopsy performed,” Newton said. People still question whether his body is in the marked grave in Paris.

On a wood block, plastic molds of hands surround a portrait of Morrison, who stares and outstretches his palms toward the viewer. Newton applied acrylic paint on her lips and put lipstick marks on the portrait, she said.

The opposite side of the wood block features Jean Paul Marat, a French revolutionary, lifelessly lying in a bathtub, with Morrison’s face superimposed. Newton said she made the piece to juxtapose Morrison’s passionate life with his lonely death.

“To me, that was the standout piece because of the complexity of its parts,” said Hershall Seals, chairman of the UMHB art department. Seals, Newton’s student adviser, praised her ability to bridge painting and sculpture.

“She’s a risk-taker in many ways with her art because she imagines these far-out concepts and finds a way to make them happen,” Seals said.

Struggles

Another mystery Newton captured is Cobain’s apparent suicide. Some suspect that Courtney Love was involved in Cobain’s death. Newton pinned a black electric guitar head to form a devil horn on the head of Love, who wraps her arms around Cobain behind a crime-scene collage of shotgun shells and spattered red paint.

The struggle of Joplin also was brought to light in the exhibit. Newton said Joplin was “homely,” and that her peers ridiculed her for being awkward. In her portrait, Joplin’s alluring, confident, bright-colored face contrasts with a dark shadowy background. “I wanted to portray her as beautiful,” Newton said.

Newton said art has led her through her share of hardship, including the death of her father in October and a July 2011 divorce. She feels connected to the artists, the “underdogs,” she portrays. “I understand those dark areas they might’ve been through,” she said. “I’ve donated a piece of me to each of these pieces of artwork.”

After becoming a single mother of two children — now 6 and 3 — Newton put her projects on hold, but has since revisited them with a new passion, she said. She demolished a mirror and a guitar for her portraits of Winehouse and blues guitarist Robert Johnson, respectively.

“I got to do a lot of destruction and piecing it all back together,” Newton said. Art has allowed her to “sort through the anger” and press on with balancing school, work and raising her children.

Newton has “taken a lot of experiences of pain and suffering and turned them around to something positive and life-affirming,” Seals said. She’s “able to make pieces of art about tragedy and have them be so engaging, and shines a light where there needs to be a light.”

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