Artist Profile: Meghan Fleming
Impressions of the Sabine Delta
Like the landscape painters of the late 19th century who created luminary images of Louisiana’s coastal marshes, rivers and bayous, Meghan Fleming of Lake Charles has found her inspiration in the coastal marshes of the Sabine Delta of Southwest Louisiana. But unlike her predecessors, Fleming is as much interested in the precarious balance between land and water and the loss of wetlands as she is in the romantic interplay of light, form and nature.
With a heightened sense of state’s rising sea levels and vanishing coastline, Fleming has painted and drawn aerial views and impressions of the marsh, especially in the Sabine delta. “The aerial views are more removed,” she explains, “but I am no less captivated by what I see. I am amazed by the transformation of thick, lush grass appearing as cartographic shapes. Even more stunning is the permeation of water from the waterways, ponds, lakes, and obstructed borders – both natural and manmade. I experience the land as strong and enduring as well as fragile and disappearing … Since I am often unable to distinguish which areas of the marsh are disintegrating and which are regenerating, the only constant I can rely on is shift between water and land, emptiness and fullness. Ultimately in working out these drawings and paintings I am compelled by the experience of both my external observations and internal reflections, and how these outward and inward experiences collide and convene with each other in the land, in the work, and in myself.”
In a sense, life in the coastal marshes and estuaries is a performance where everything has a part to play. “I am interested in the dynamic between land and water, and the necessary yet sometimes perilous balance between them,” says Fleming. “The marsh of Southwest Louisiana is full in every sense. It has a humming sound and a pungent scent. The wind moves the grasses, the current moves the water, and the animals move among both. The land is constantly shifting. Sometimes the change happens quickly, like when the sky is filled with dense, gray clouds, and then in one moment it shifts to open blue. Sometimes the change, such as erosion and subsidence, or restoration and growth, occurs gradually over time. And then there are the catastrophic and sudden changes of a hurricane. It is through the act of painting and drawing where I find myself within this flux, confronting the need for sustainability with the inevitableness of impermanence. As I work through a painting, I am keenly aware of how the land appears to gracefully accept impermanence, whereas I struggle with it.”
In 2010 Fleming executed a series of small paintings of the marsh after hurricanes Rita in 2005 and Ike in 2008 devastated that part of Southwest Louisiana. “While I was painting,” she says, “I kept thinking about how resilient the land was, and of course how resilient the people are, as well.” Large sections of the marsh disappeared. “Since the storms, my interest has turned toward ink and gouache drawings of the marsh because by stripping away the color, using just the ink and the paper, and by removing the familiarity of the horizon line, the marks on the paper symbolize the presence of the marsh and the absence of the marsh. It is either there or it isn’t. While my work has turned more abstract and conceptual, the meaning has become more assertive.”
In a 2013 series titled “Fluid Land,” Fleming concentrated on the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge in Southwest Louisiana by creating even larger drawings of the marsh. “I spent many hours poring over maps,” she explains. “I was able to compare the marsh over a period of time, particularly the years 1998 to 2010. My goal was not to make actual maps, but rather to use the maps to create drawings that show time and change. The maps provide an uninterrupted view of the marsh – there is a clear distinction between the areas of vegetation and the accompanying water, including ponds, open water, and waterways. The longer I looked at the maps, the more I became aware of loss.”
Fleming first learned to paint landscapes on location and from observation. Over the years, however, she has worked mostly in her studio from photographs, sketches and notes taken in the field. As a result, landscape painting to her is a personal response to nature. “I paint landscapes because there is so much freedom in it,” she explains. “It is both personal and universal. I have a strong affinity and reverence for nature. I am also really interested in how nature adapts and changes – changes brought on by man, or environmental changes such as climate or weather.”
Greatly influencing her approach to capturing that “affinity and reverence” were the dramatic landscapes painted by the seventeenth-century Dutch or Flemish artists and later by the 19th century artists of the American Hudson River School. Fleming admired their understanding of space – “the big skies in the Dutch paintings and sense of grandeur in the Hudson River School.” Though her compositions differ, she admires their use of detail “because it brings such a sense of specificity to the places they’re painting.”
Fleming, who has resided in Lake Charles and taught art at McNeese State University since 1999, grew up in Southern California and Upstate New York. Beginning in high school, her goal was to be a professional artist. “My art teacher asked me what I wanted to do for a living,” she recalls. “I said I thought I wanted to be an English teacher. He said he thought I had a talent for art, and that art teachers have less to grade at home. It was the first time anyone had recognized any kind of talent, and I knew from that point on that I wanted to be a painter.” That desire took her to Smith College for an undergraduate degree in studio art and then to the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting, and Sculpture. In 1999 she received a Master of Fine Arts degree in painting from Indiana University. She has been at McNeese ever since.
When not painting, Fleming is in the classroom guiding her students through the maze of creativity. For non-art majors, many of whom believe they have no artistic abilities, she helps them find a sense of confidence in their artwork. “They are always amazed to see what they have produced at the end of the semester,” she says. For those majoring in art, she pushes them a little harder. “I encourage them to be fearless in making art, to take risks,” she says. “I encourage them to make mistakes along the way because mistakes can be our greatest teachers.”
WHERE TO LOOK
Meghan Fleming is represented by Harris Gallery in Houston. For more information, visit megfleming.com.