Melanie Janisse-Barlow paints in a sunny corner studio, tucked inside the historic Capitol Theatre, in her hometown of Windsor, Ontario. Near the end of the twentieth century, this section of the building was a thriving hive of artist spaces. When Janisse-Barlow returned here to live, two years ago, she asked the Windsor Symphony Orchestra, the building’s tenant, and the municipality, its landlord, to reinstate the since-shuttered spaces, and became the first artist on-site in years.
Janisse-Barlow’s current passion is a round-robin series of North American writers. After painting portraits of several poets, including Damian Rogers, Christian Bök, and Paul Vermeersch, she asked each to suggest another poet subject, and each of those subjects to suggest yet another. Two years later, the Poets Series stands at more than seventy entries and counting.
Janisse-Barlow was inspired by Ann Mikolowski’s miniature portraits of poets at the Alternative Press, a small literary and artistic press in Detroit, as well as her own love of poetry. Her 2009 collection, Orioles in the Oranges, was short-listed for the ReLit Award, and she recently completed a new collection. “Poets are mindful, ever-questioning individuals who guide me every day,” she says.
Janisse-Barlow begins each portrait by asking the poet for a photograph of themself. After creating an initial black-and-white sketch, which she often shares in an on-line gallery, she interprets the image into a formal painting, trying her best to “bring compassion, clarity, and mindfulness into each work.” Reading the poems of her subjects is an important part of Janisse-Barlow’s creative process, and she inscribes one of each subject’s poems onto the frame of their portrait. “I spend a long time with the poem selected for the framing and this, of course, affects the overall work, as well as my reading of each poem,” she says. “I try my best to hear the poem in this way. It’s a unique way to read a poem.”
This fall, Janisse-Barlow displayed a selection of the Poets Series at 26, a gallery space run by the artists Michael Davidson and Nicole Collins in their Toronto home. The exhibition included back-garden readings by eleven subjects, including Liz Howard, Catherine Graham, Damian Rogers, and Stuart Ross. A twelve-venue Canadian gallery tour and reading series is planned to begin in 2019.
Time and funding are the biggest constraints for the Poets Series, Janisse-Barlow says, but she remains ambitious: “I have begun to add new threads to the project, and intend to do this more in the coming year. Each of these gestures implies a continuous impetus to keep adding to a dialogue, to expand the thresholds of community, and to create generous space.”