As we approached Molly’s home, aka Double Nickel Studios, we were greeted by her dog, Bear, and once inside, Molly made us cappuccinos. She showed us around the gallery that her husband “Super Dave” built, and then met the man himself, who was in the process of renovating an old haunted brothel. Molly is certainly the hostess with the mostess, a trait that is apparently hereditary, “Art and bringing people together,” she affirmed, “that’s definitely something that has been passed down through the generations.”
Her studio is full of tools of her trade, which encompasses a lot of mediums: photography, lithography, oil pastel, encaustics. There’s even an old wooden printing press. She got her degree in photography, preferring the solitude of the darkroom to the clamor of the painting studio, but then made a name for herself doing large oil pastels, which you can see in restaurants all over Portland. She has studied print making at Crow Shadow on the Umatilla Reservation, and taken plein air workshops with Jef Gunn, “The first thing I learned is that I’m not a plein air painter,” she laughed, “ but I had a great time.” A veritable renaissance woman, a Jacqueline of all trades, Molly has done it all.
“I just keep pushing things,” she explained,” it’s fun!”
Recently she’s started experimenting with charcoal to do larger than life portraits of birds. “I’m amazed at the detail you can get with charcoal. It’s fairly new to me, just started using it in the last couple of years”. Many of her large encaustic pieces feature birds, but they’re often small and in the distance, flying out of a big sky. But when she started using charcoal things shifted. “All of a sudden, the birds are close up,” she laughed. Now the birds are unique individuals with personalities all their own. “Bird life is rich and interesting,” she said, “They’re just a curious bunch.”
Molly seems drawn to all things skyward. Her landscapes could almost be called skyscapes. The horizon line is often low within the frame, sometimes absent entirely. “Part of it goes back to that image of being a kid in the back seat of a car, you’re parents are driving and you’re on vacation,” she mused,” I’d just be sitting by the windows and looking at the phone poles and the wires going by in the sky. Just that sense of littleness and looking up.”
Telephone poles and other such man made structures are often inserted into her landscapes, “I’m fascinated by how archaic they are now. How long they’ve been around.”
In her recent work, she’s been investigating man’s relationship to the environment, the western attitude of regarding the earth as a resource. She’s representing the land how she sees it, but is also attempting to view the landscape from the perspective of the land. In these pieces, she often combines encaustics with photolithography, “I like the ethereal, dreamy backgrounds, and the crisp imagery; the way the two play off of each other,” she explained. The juxtaposition of these two mediums creates an interesting contrast between the natural elements and the man made.
This combination of photolithography and encaustic was employed in her Author Portrait Project. “A lot of my relationships with authors and musicians developed because I’m always searching for talent for Live Wire.” Molly is on the Resource Council, and hence meets a lot of fellow creatives.
She did one such portrait of Kristin Hersh of Throwing Muses, who Molly’d been advocating to have come on the show. They worked closely together, and developed a lasting friendship, “I was her wrangler,” she laughed, “and still am.” The portrait shows her as a mermaid because she uses swimming as a therapeutic practice, a way to block out the world. Kristin loved the piece so much that she decided to use Molly’s artwork as the backdrop for her performances in Europe and Australia, debuting in the U.S. at the Getty Center in L.A.
One of the largest household names in this body of work is Tom Robbins. When meeting him, she was struck by this giant painting of a circus tent in his living room, so when it came time to do the portrait she decided to immerse him in that painting, making him the feature of the side show.
While Molly was meeting Tom Robbins, her son Wade was making a connection of his own. One of her most memorable portraits has been of Little Freddie King, a musician out of New Orleans. Her son is a blues player, which is how the two met.
The portrait shows Freddie sitting on an old porch with peeling paint, strumming a guitar. She wanted to include a bird, and so turned his shadow into that of a golden eagle, and placed another eagle in the sky. When she showed Freddie the finished product, he was overcome with emotion, and said, “That’s my daddy.” He told a story of a dream he had when he was young, shortly after his father died. He was in a field and saw his dad. He started running towards him, but his father stopped him and said, “You can’t come here, it’s not your time,” and then he turned into an eagle and flew away.
Working with Freddie made a lasting impression on her, “He’s amazing,” she said,” Little Freddie doesn’t read or write, his whole life story is incredible.” Molly’s portrait of Little Freddie King became the cover for his last album.
These portraits often culminate in a salon, featuring the finished work, and usually a performance by the person portrayed. For example, Tom Robbins did a reading of his last book, the autobiography titled “Tibetan Peach Pie”, at one such event. He held the reading before it was published, so they had to keep “on the down low”. Only a lucky 35 people were allowed to attend. For Little Freddie King’s salon, her son and Freddie performed together.
Just as Molly and her husband Dave are passing their love of the arts down to their children, so it was passed down to them. “My great grandmother was artistic, my grandmother was very talented,” Molly listed off a number of family members that were interior designers, musicians and the like. And it turns out, Molly and Dave weren’t the first in the family to host large events for artists. “Several years into doing the salons, I was helping my parents move in California and I came across a scrap book.” The scrap book contained paintings, drawings, musical scores and photographs. Apparently, Molly’s great grandmother, Mary Porter Sesnon, hosted large gatherings of artists between the years of 1911-1926. “They would go on for days,” she described people camping out in the lawn or on the porch. They even had a stage for theatrical performances in their living room. “She was an artist, but she was also really about community, bringing people together, artists of all walks.”
After years of coordinating and hosting events for other artists, Porter College (named after her great great grandfather no less) will be featuring Molly’s work for the gallery’s 50th anniversary. Authors from the Author Portrait Project will be in attendance, along with extended family, other artists, and musicians – just the usual crowd that Molly tends to draw. “And I’m not organizing it!” she exclaimed, “Usually I’m the one behind all these things.”
As a tribute, and as a way of coming full circle, Molly will be doing a portrait of her great grandmother for the exhibition. Although the two are separated by a century, Mary and Molly have a tremendous amount in common, and seem to share the same mission. “All these parallels, it’s interesting,” she said, “I feel like her spirit is coming through me.”
Mary Porter Sesnon’s passion for community and interconnection is certainly carried on in her great granddaughter. “When I graduated from art school I thought, how is this giving back to the world? If I just do a drawing and put it on my wall?” It wasn’t until years later when she began doing the salons that things fell into place. “There’s a social, community piece, where people are getting together and connecting. Talking about serious things and fun things. All of a sudden, art didn’t seem frivolous anymore.”
“Artists play such an important role. Some agitate, or get people thinking. Other works make people feel good. We all play a different role, but we’re all easing people along,” Molly stopped, not sure which words to use,” I’m not good at verbalizing this, that’s why I paint, that’s how I communicate.”