“So, how did you like the concert?” I asked, after a rehearsal of the Rogue Valley Symphony.
“The colors,” she replied, “were beautiful.”
As she explained to me a year ago—it was the evening I first met her—Ashland artist Clista Prelle-Tworek possesses the gift of synesthesia, a condition in which the brain blends the senses.
“I can taste and feel colors,” she says. “I drink them in and they sing within me.” As a child, long before she was consciously aware of the gift, she recalls “feeling the vibrations of color in my body.”
Clista, 55, the third youngest of 11 children, grew up in a small farmhouse with a leaky roof and a rickety floor on the plains of western Nebraska. Often ill and in pain, she clung to the joys she found in nature.
“I didn’t have a life that was beautiful or one that felt good,” she says, “except in the parallel universe of my senses. I lived to see the sunsets; I lived to find the flowers on the prairie. I became good at finding the tiniest bits of color in the grasses and wild plants.” And, what she saw, she drew.
Those early years, seeking refuge in the fields, shaped Clista’s spiritual world as well.
“I could see the geometric patterns in a flower as the blueprint, the gesture, the spiritual map, that would give rise to that flower,” she says. “I knew there was a creator that had a design, because I could see that design in nature. I still worship the beauty I find in nature and in the human form and faces.”
Growing up in an abusive environment, Clista’s art provided a modicum of relief, and sustenance for her soul.
“Drawing the people I loved allowed me to redeem them in a way that was positive,” she says. “As much pain as there was in the relationships, I could see the beauty in their faces.”
For her day job, Clista works as a mental health therapist serving teenage girls consigned to the criminal justice system. She says her art and her work have always been interlaced.
It was, in fact, a year-long stint teaching art at the Rogue Valley Youth Correctional Facility in Grants Pass that influenced her to earn a Master’s Degree in psychology from Southern Oregon University.
Clista, who most often paints from the photographs she takes, recalls walking into the prison with her favorite landscape shots of the Valley. “The boys were touched beyond words to see pictures of a world many hadn’t seen for years,” she says. “From the first instant, we had an unbreakable connection.”
After initially finding success selling landscapes, Clista, working now primarily with pastels, has been painting nudes and portraits. (A few of her latest pieces will be shown at the annual Figurative Show at the Illahe Gallery in Ashland from Jan. 29 – Feb. 23.)
“I had always done nude figures, but only for myself,” she says. I didn’t think it was anything people would want to see. I had bought into the Victorian idea that the body was not to be celebrated.”
A tour of New York City museums and galleries three years ago, disabused her of that notion. “After seeing millennia after millennia of nude forms on the walls, I stopped apologizing for it.”
Within the past year, Clista began to realize that portraiture, something she began doing as a child, might be her greatest gift. While faithfully rendering a subject’s facial features, she also strives to capture aspects of character that represent an archetype. For instance, her recent portrait of Rabbi David Zaslow of the Havurah Shir Hadash, not only bears a striking resemblance, but also captures the universal sense of rabbi.
Like all of her paintings, the portrait existed in Clista’s mind’s eye even before Zaslow formally posed for her camera. “As soon as I see a particular face, or scene, that face or scene is imprinted on my brain, and I know I have to paint it,” she says.
While painting helps Clista cope with the inherent stresses of her work as a therapist, the pursuits draw on a similar skill set.
“Whether I’m painting a subject or working with someone in therapy,” says Clista, “I find it necessary to put my ego aside and enter that person’s emotional landscape. That way I can have a strong sense of how they are in the world, how they feel and what they think.”
(By the way, Clista is putting the finishing touches on a painting of me. You’ll be able to preview it soon along with the portrait of the rabbi and other recent paintings on Clista’s website: www.clistaspastels.com)
(Alan “Rosey” Rosenberg is a Realtor with Real Estate Depot in Ashland. You can reach him at 541-778-8949 or at email@example.com