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Mentor author Claire McMillan spotlights surrealist artist Remedios Varo with new novel

Claire McMillan is the author of "Alchemy of a Blackbird."
Claire McMillan
Claire McMillan is the author of "Alchemy of a Blackbird" from Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Shuster, Inc.

A painting by surrealist Remedios Varo made more than an impression on author Claire McMillan of Mentor.

“I kind of needed to know everything about the person who painted this kind of portal of a picture,” she said.

With her latest novel, “Alchemy of a Blackbird,” McMillan makes sure other people will know all about the Spanish-born artist who fled Europe during WWII and eventually hit her creative stride living in Mexico during the 1950s.

The Varo painting that inspired McMillan, “La Llamada (The Call),” features an illuminated woman carrying an alchemical vessel walking past gray, sleeping figures embedded in the walls around her. While Varo’s paintings have garnered in the seven figures at auction and the Art Institute of Chicago opens a Varo exhibit later this month, she’s also remained under the radar.

McMillan said she hopes the book allows more people to appreciate Varo’s art as well as the work of her friend and fellow surrealist, Leonora Carrington.

“They have been a bit overlooked,” McMillan said. “And I think the interest in female surrealists in general is kind of on the uptick.”

In “Alchemy of a Blackbird,” McMillan imagines the relationship between these two creatives, from the ways they could have supported one another in their artistic pursuits as well as how they clashed at times.

“I certainly had been blessed to have female friendships in my life that made all the difference," she said. "I really wanted to see that on the page."

The book also explores Varo’s struggles, from creating art forgeries in her younger years to putting commercial art jobs ahead of her own work.

“She found success really in middle age, because it wasn't really until she was grounded enough and settled enough that she could kind of let herself and her creativity off the leash a little bit and come into her own as a painter,” McMillan said.

Coming into one’s creativity later in life is something McMillan shares with Varo. After working as an “unhappy lawyer,” McMillan said she was able to transition to writing after she and her husband moved from California to Ohio.

“Having to create space to make your own art is something we don't talk about enough, and how hard that can be,” she said.

McMillan also incorporates tarot cards in “Alchemy of a Blackbird” as a tool for self-discovery for her characters, and potentially her readers, as the stories unfold.

“Some of the chapters start with a definition of a tarot card,” she said. “Writing those definitions was a great exercise for me about: What do these cards mean to me? What have they meant to me at different times?”

"Alchemy of a Blackbird" hits bookshelves on Tuesday. McMillan talks more about the novel at several release events this month. She’s at the Cuyahoga County Public Library’s Beachwood Branch Tuesday at 7 p.m., Appletree Books in Cleveland Heights Friday at 5 p.m., and the Westlake Porter Public Library July 18 at 7 p.m.

Carrie Wise is the deputy editor of arts and culture at Ideastream Public Media.