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Greely Myatt on trees and conversation bubbles.

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Artist Greely Myatt doesn't let his past life events go to waste.

Take the pine tree he planted decades ago in his mother's yard.

"When I was in the third grade, my teacher — Mrs. Davis — gave all the kids in the class a little pine sapling, and we were supposed to take it home and plant it," says Myatt, who is 65 and a professor of art at the University of Memphis. "Well, I was a reasonably good student, and I did. Fifty-five years later, my sister called me up and said, 'Hey, I cut your tree. Do you want any of it?'"

Their mother had the pine tree cut down because she was afraid it would fall on her house. Myatt said he wanted all 60 feet of it.

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Part of that tree is included in some of Myatt's works in "Making Marks," his new show at David Lusk Gallery. Indicating his giant Saul Steinberg-looking steel piece depicting a man contemplating a question mark, Myatt said the man's cuff links, the block he's sitting on, and the question mark as well as the ball on his exclamation mark sculpture and the shelf holding building blocks are "all wood I grew."

The aluminum quilts in Tablecloths are another story. "I guess some of that's kind of trying to purge a guilt. When I went to college, my grandmother gave me this beautiful quilt. And I was a kid. I didn't have respect for anything. Not that I didn't like the quilt. I was appreciative."

But he used the quilt to wrap up some sharp plaster pieces he had made. "These worthless things. To protect them. And tore the quilt up."

Cartoon or speaking balloons, which show up in his piece, Remarks, made of colorful steel gas cylinder caps, often reappear in his work. "The balloons started when I was making this piece for the old Memphis Center for Contemporary Art years and years ago."

Greely Myatt’s “Making Marks” is on display at David Lusk Gallery.
  • Greely Myatt’s “Making Marks” is on display at David Lusk Gallery.

Gathering wood in a dump, Myatt found "this title page of a little novel. And it was called The Lady. On the other side was a handwritten note that said, 'Grandpa's sick. I'll see you at the hospital.' I thought, 'Wow. This is really powerful. What do you do with it?'"

He made a steel speaking balloon and stuck the page sideways into it, so the viewer could read both sides of the page.

Later, he placed wooden quilt-pattern speaking balloons next to some old box spring mattresses. "It was kind of like trying to give inanimate objects a voice, in a way."

Myatt currently is using speaking balloons in his UrbanArts project, "Everybody's Talking," a series of five steel sculptures that "increasingly get larger" in Audubon Park.

The first segment is an empty speaking balloon and a platform, the second is two balloons and two chairs, and so on. The final segment has a small 15-foot stage with five balloons. "It was an opportunity to give the viewer the chance to say something."

A native of Aberdeen, Mississippi, Myatt read Beetle Bailey and other comic strips. "I tried to draw a few cartoons for our little school paper, and I wasn't very good at it."'

He grew up "in the South away from art, but in a big visual culture. We put stuff in our yards, and we'll call it art because if you don't, you get beat up or something."

He remembered the tree stump made to look like a bear in a yard down the street from him when he was a kid. "It's got two branches coming up that are his arms. And he's holding two mailboxes. That's the kind of thing I grew up around. Not only was it art, I knew what it was. It did something."

So, later when he was shown a box made out of steel in art class at Delta State and told, "This is art," he was confused. But not for long.

Myatt, who wants viewers to come up with their own take on his art work, considers his pieces to be "about talking, which is not communication necessarily. It's more about confusion and misleading and double reads and all those things than it is about clarity. My job is to confuse."

"Making Marks" is on view through September 30th at David Lusk Gallery.

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