Therese Knowles’ stories unfold through her artwork
Therese Knowles was one of those people, the kind she imagines holding their breath, waiting for life to happen.
Waiting instead of living.
There was a time when life’s circumstances demanded all of her time, leaving no room for creativity. Now, when standing in a gallery filled with her mixed media paintings and ceramics, she thinks about it.
She thinks about how she was holding her breath.
Because Knowles can’t even imagine what her life would be without her artwork. She paints in her sketchbook during breakfast, teaches art at University High School during the day then discovers the day’s experiences seeping through her paintings in the evenings.
“Painting takes me away,” Knowles said. “I’m moving in the direction of stories.”
And some of those stories can be found here in Caffery Gallery, told through the exhibit Therese Knowles; The Secret Language of Women.
The show runs through Monday, July 2, and Knowles will conduct a gallery talk on Friday, June 15, where she not only will tell viewers about her stories but how she puts them together.
For Knowles’ work is immediately recognizable to area art lovers. Her paintings are created in layers and sealed in a shiny, thick casing of polymer.
She’ll talk about how she achieves this result, but she’ll also emphasize that the most important process is the end result.
And that is telling the story.
Because isn’t that one of the most important parts of life? Remembering?
“Our stories are about us,” Knowles said. “Our world is real. It’s not about things like Facebook. I left the students in my class thinking in stories. They became connected with what they’re doing. So, the grading process isn’t the end product.”
No, Knowles strives to help make her students learn about being human, people who breathe in the life around them rather than holding their breath. People who connect with the past as much as the present.
People who simply connect.
“And art is really one of the last ways in which we are really, honestly, humanly connected,” she said.
It’s true. Art brings past and present together in Knowles’ world, a world that began with a childhood in New Orleans’ midcity, where the cemeteries were her playgrounds.
Her grandfather was a stonecutter, and he created many of the statues that stand as monuments to the dead buried there. Knowles remembers tagging along with her grandfather as he pointed out the statues he carved.
And she remembers him now through a new phase of her own artwork.
“This is what I’m working on now,” she said, unveiling a box-like work.
A three dimensional face peers out from within. It appears to be something you’d find in, well, a cemetery.
Perhaps one of New Orleans’ midcity cemeteries?
“It’s the face of one of my grandfather’s statues,” she said.
“I’ve started making molds of his work and using it in my own work. We can’t forget about the past, the people who influenced us in our lives. We live in a society that doesn’t honor the people who have been a part of our world, and when we do that, it makes those people not valuable anymore.”
So, Knowles keeps mementos of grandparents and parents. But these items are more than objects; they’re connections to the past.
“It’s almost as if these people are still with me,” she said. “And I think my grandfather gave me the need to be conscious of people who are here as well as people who are gone away from us.”
People often chide Knowles about her cemetery playgrounds.
Morbid, right? How could she play among the dead?
Then again, they were people. But many of them have been forgotten, and even as a child, Knowles would take time to read the stories etched into their tombs.
“I learned the history of people’s lives there,” she said. “They didn’t go away.”
That’s the kind of reality that she relays to her students, the reality that shows up in her work. Experiences, thoughts, stories. It’s all to be discovered in her paintings, as well as in her ceramics.
“As long as I can remember, I had a need to take things that were broken and put them together to create a balanced composition,” she wrote in her artist’s statement. “It is a need in all of us in whatever we do to find a sense of stability, order and harmony.”
Knowles earned her bachelor’s degree in fine arts and master’s degree in education from LSU. She is both a certified art and English instructor, and she has taught in the Middle East.
“I was teaching English to Arab women, and I saw the potential for artistic expression,” Knowles said.
“They are emotional, and their culture is strong in belief and rituals.”
Some of the women began developing their talents, a memory which gives Knowles a smile. She connected with them.
And now Caffery Gallery’s walls display her own connections. Her son, her daughter, her granddaughter. They all show up in her paintings.
Her students, her emotions, her past.
And her husband, David Dunaway, shows up, too, in her ceramics, which are exhibited on shelves below the painting, each set equipped with its own meaning. But it’s the set of tea cups in the corner, the ones with pictures of birds and handwritten words imbedded in glaze where Dunaway’s presence can be found.
These cups hold the haikus he writes for his wife each morning and the photos he takes of the birds that frequent City Park Lake.
And they connect his work to hers, where moments become memories.
Where Knowles breathes freely.