Visual Vernacular: Misha Penton
Misha Penton, “Tassets, to guard my thighs (of firefly carapace),” 2016 (detail)
Surrounded by swirls of melodies, expression, and sight, musician and painter Misha Penton provides a wave of creativity in Houston and beyond. Working with poetics, improvisation, and energy, Penton fuses her musical ability to new and beautiful works as founder and director of Divergence Vocal Theater. As a vocal artist, writer, performance creator, and painter, Misha explores many platforms in an artistic voyage often embarked on to explore myths, marvels, and meditations. Her resume includes performances and exhibitions at the Menil Collection, Rothko Chapel, DiverseWorks, and Houston Grand Opera along with commissions of new chamber operas, music videos, and audio recording projects.
This sea of sound transfers into her work as a visual artist, harnessing the dreamlike state of abstractness in subtle hues and brush strokes. Deriving these landscapes from a place of inner contemplation, Penton sweeps color fields onto a canvas that reverberates tones similar to her musical performances. Her upcoming show, blood & salt at The Jung Center, features work that ties into her acknowledgement of humanity and the forging of armor that happens to oneself. Free Press Houston had the opportunity to speak with Penton about her boundless expression in music, art, and beyond.
Free Press Houston: What was your childhood like in regards to how the arts were integrated?
Misha Penton: I grew up in an eccentric and artistic family. My dad was a painter and a photographer, my mother an artist, and my older sister a photographer. My big brother, Mark Penton, is an amazing rock and blues guitarist who’s very well known in New Orleans, where my family is from. Growing up, I was super-involved in music and dance, and I studied theater and music in college, so the arts have always been a big part of my life.
FPH: Was there a defining moment or experience that made you decide to dedicate your life to music and art?
Penton: A shift in my practice began when I started creating significant performance works and to directly engage with the audience and their ideas and excitement about the work I share.
FPH: How do your two talents of music and art speak to one another? Do you feel they have similar artistic languages from yourself?
Penton: My work as singer shares a similar energy with my visual art. Most of my work in music has been as a contemporary classical singer and artistic director of new chamber opera works. I’m now moving into experimental vocal territory: using a classical voice palette, extended voice techniques, and improvisation to explore and create new works. This past summer, for my solo show Transparent Vulnerability at CAMIBAart in Austin, I created an environment of watercolor works and an audio-scape. I also performed in the gallery during that exhibit with contrabassist and fellow composer, Brent Fariss — so the project felt like a complete integration of music and art.
Sometimes my painting is an entirely personal, introspective, and cathartic experience — that’s one of the reasons I rarely show my work, but something is happening, energetically, that’s asking for the visual works to be shared, so I’m following that intuitive sense.
FPH: What is your preferred medium and style of music?
Penton: My primary instrument is my body, breath, and voice. Visually, I work with acrylic on large-scale canvas, and I also have an extensive series of watercolor works. Vocally, I engage with the natural acoustics of space and with adventurous musicians, many of whom have a classical and/or free jazz background. No matter what the medium, my practice is highly intuitive, and I work with fragments of images that have a certain resonating energy, asking me to explore their metaphors and concepts more deeply.
FPH: Tell me about your upcoming exhibition.
Penton: blood & salt is an exhibit of my acrylic on canvas paintings at The Jung Center. I’m excited to share this new body of work and its rare showing in Houston. blood & salt explores the armor we create for ourselves. I’m interested in what we choose to show the world about ourselves and what we hide. At the opening reception, a new experimental voice work and poetry, both to accompany the exhibit, will be available via mobile access.
FPH: Any upcoming projects you would like to mention?
Penton: Next spring, for MenilFest 2017, I’ll be creating and premiering a contemplative new voice work for the Rothko Chapel, performing with contrabassist extraordinaire Thomas Helton. For Dionysia 2017, the annual festival inspired by Greek plays produced by the University of Houston Center for Creative Work, I’ll be creating a new dramatic and enigmatic voice work based on the Eleusinian Mysteries, the ancient Greek initiatory rites of the Underworld. My painting studio at Spring Street Studios will be open during the Fall Biannual on Saturday, October 1, 2016.
Penton’s “blood & salt” opens at The Jung Center (5200 Montrose) on September 10 from 5 to 7 pm. The exhibition is on view through September 28.