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Narrative portraits
"Most creative people are not afraid of failure. It's important in creativity to lighten up. You have to learn to relax and enjoy it. If you're not enjoying it you're probably not in the right area. It's OK to make mistakes. You're always learning; it's a process."
- Michelle Ranta

by Norma Smith Olson

Michelle Ranta challenged herself to create a traditional artist's self-portrait several years ago. She painted a picture of herself taking a break for dinner - the paints, brushes and pallet on the table along with a P.G. Wodehouse book of short stories, an escape for her.

In the portrait, she is surrounded by favorite images - a painting of a lone tree set in a landscape in Michigan's Upper Peninsula - "a symbol of me," she said; a Finnish candlestick that represents her heritage and also illumination.

"It's symbolic of truth or seeing the light," she said. "I like to think of Virginia Woolf's book 'A Room of One's Own' and the idea of having this intellectual independence, to be in your own world, to create."

Landscapes lead to storytelling

As a high school student growing up in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., Ranta took landscape painting lessons at a community college across the Canadian border in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, from a painter who was from the school of the Group of Seven - an artistic movement in Canada in the 1920s that focused on nature.

At the University of Michigan's art school and later, in graduate school at the New York Academy of Art, Ranta added to her skills with figurative work, portraits and narrative painting.

"Figurative work is more like keeping my chops up - my skill level up to date," Ranta said. "Whereas, doing the story work [narratives] is about what I'm observing. It's coming from within me, who I am, vs. [painting] portraits or figure work or still life."

For her narrative paintings, Ranta prefers to work on a large scale - 3 by 4 feet or larger - most often painting with oil on wood. She says she paints slowly and methodically, usually having several projects going at the same time. "I can sit on an idea for a painting for years," she said.

"The painting 'After the Flood' took me quite a while to paint. I finished it two years after Katrina," she said. Ranta was inspired while watching television during the aftermath of the hurricane on the Gulf Coast. Her narrative painting was inspired by seeing a woman cooking on her porch for the people on her street.

"It was a horrible tragedy, and yet people were helping each other out, pulling together as a community," she said. "It can be such a beautiful thing that you see when tragedy strikes, people being a community, building strength and giving hope."

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Creative balance

Another reason that it takes her a long time to complete her large paintings is her time commitment to teaching art. She has been a professor at North Hennepin Community College for nearly five years, teaching introduction to drawing and painting classes, two-dimensional design and art appreciation.

She likes the balance in her life of teaching art and creating her own art. "I think it's very common for anyone in a creative field," she said. "[Teaching] helps your own creative work in that you really need to focus and learn your materials and craft."

It all can be exhausting, she acknowledges, adding, "At the same time, it's inspiring.

"Being around young people who are excited about learning something new is very encouraging," Ranta said. "If I didn't meet any artists, if I wasn't at school, it could be easy to forget about the passion that is there with art."

Ranta encourages her students to explore and discover their own artistic paths.

"I think everyone has unique skills. You might be better at sculpture than at painting, fiber work than at woodworking. Find what you really enjoy doing, then find out everything you can about it. Develop confidence in your skills and abilities," she said. "Then do what feels right for you to do, despite what is popular or what people want to buy. Find your heart, your talent and what's good for you."

FFI: michelleranta.com

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