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Michael Spears spent a career in art before he really found his own.

He worked for years in graphic arts and design for the Government Accounting Office, but it wasn’t until he retired and earned a degree at Maryland Institute College of Art that he found his natural self.

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And now his one man show “Visual Music: The Parallel World of Rhythm and Melody” occupies the Chaney Gallery at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts which opened with a reception Thursday.

Born in Bristol, Va., his family moved to Washington D.C. just after World War II.

“Southeast, but my mother always wanted us to live in Northwest and go to better schools,” he said.

Spears has been drawing since he was about 11 years old. After graduating from Coolidge High School he took classes at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design. Then he did a stint in the Air Force and returned to Corcoran and the Washington Technical Institute before landing a design job at the U.S. Post Office then the Government Accounting Office where he rose through the ranks before retiring.

“I was working, painting the whole time. But then I was stuck. There was no progress in my work. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong.”

So he enrolled in classes at Montgomery College in Rockville. Where he excelled and professors encouraged him to apply to MICA.

“They made an abstract artist out of me. Or should I say they found the abstract artist in me.” Spears said during an interview in the Chaney Gallery.

“What I like about them is they applied a lot of theory with foundation work,” Spears said. “Then one day in the third year the professor came in and said, ‘All you have learned — forget about it. Now is the time to be creative.’"

After finishing his degree at MICA, it was not long before Spears found his place, expressing himself through “mark making” inspired or driven by music.

“Natural mark making expresses inner feelings, and the music is making its mark in my mind coming through my hand,” he said, trying to explain the natural impulse.

In 2010, on a family trip to Las Vegas, he took a side trip to the Grand Canyon.

“I had not expected what I saw," Spears said. “As I looked down, it was so massive, it seemed like the work of God right in front of me.”

It was as if the moment pared the world down and he was left with his core, his art and the music that inspired it.

“It kind of changed me,” he said

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The works hanging in this show are the result of that moment and all the training that has come to him when he needed it.

The first four paintings he did expressing the rhythm and blues music of the 60s and 70s occupy one wall of the gallery.

Each is a song. Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” Sam Cooke’s “Change is Gonna Come”, the Isley Brothers’ “Harvest of the World” and Stephanie Mills’ “Home,”

In each, his mark making in swirling layers reveals elements of the songs, their stories and also the church music important to so much music in America.

“I can’t paint a song until I listen to it, I don’t know, three, four hundred times,” he said.

And he takes time to research the background of each song.

He pointed to ribbons of black and white found in each of the four paintings.

“Those represent the women of the church who have such an influence, not only on the church but in our lives," Spears said.

The element is from a pattern he found in Sunday dresses.

The art is asking the viewer to make a similar journey to Spears and find themselves in the work.

“We are in this world for a short period of time," Spears said. "What we know is really nothing. You just do the best you can with what you have.”

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