I met Melissa at the Jamaica Plain Arts Council's Projections II show in July 2017. She graciously offered to be the first artist I would visit to kick off this Artist Stories project. Melissa's current focus is mobiles. Melissa is a member of the JP Arts Council and is jointly coordinating the brewery site for the Jamaica Plain Open Studios in September. I spent a few hours photographing Melissa working in her studio. We also sat down for an hour and talked about her work, studio, and process.
I used to work at my home and just moved to this new studio. I come here like it is my office. I like going to a studio because there are other people there.
What keeps me making art every day is having new ideas, having new inspirations, and trying to figure out how to make them happen. That's my favorite part of it, and that will keep me coming back to the studio.
I started renting studio spaces a bunch of years ago, when I was living with roommates. There wasn’t enough space to work out of my home. Once I got my own condo, I started working at home a bunch, and I realized that working at home for me is depressing: it's isolating and I get really distracted easily. When I come here I actually work. For me, there's something about having other people around. If I am on my own I get distracted by everything that is happening in my life or around the house.
One way is to work outside of the house. The other way is by creating communities: meeting with different groups of artists so that I am not working on my own all the time.
I come to the studio. I will also set a timer for myself. At the end of the hour, I will check the text messages that are constantly coming in. Then I'll stretch my hands. I have no computer or wifi in my studio. When I want to do computer work, I have to go to Ula Cafe and buy tea. This means I will stay and do my computer work for a while, and actually do it. It feels like a treat.
My background is painting and printmaking. Then, in my 20s, I was mostly making just jewelry. I wanted something that was a little more interesting for me, personally. I like that mobiles are bigger; I like that they're like puzzles that I have to figure out how to make. I started making them because I could combine my different skills. I was able to use color theory again from painting. And, I used the metalworking techniques from jewelry making. I also started using mobiles a little bit in my social work practice. And, I noticed the effects they had on people. People get really mesmerized by them. They are calmed by them, and I like that. I like that mobiles are art that has an impact.
Yes and no. I'm not always thinking of life balance consciously, but balance is an interesting thing. When you change the balance of a mobile, when you change the weight on one side or the other, it completely changes the movement of every part of the mobile. That's on my mind all the time. Like, if you play Tetris, you start seeing Tetris pieces everywhere you go. When I am walking around, I think about how the flower on a branch changes the weight on a branch. That kind of thing is on my mind all the time, but not necessarily balance in a more holistic sense.
Yeah, but doesn't everything do that?
Yes and no. When I am working on a new project, time will fly by. I tend to forget time when I am figuring out a challenge— figuring out how to make something balance or how to make an idea into a reality. I think that is the part that gets into flow for me. However, if I am working on something that is more tedious, time does not fly by. It just depends on what I am working on. When I am working with colors things tend to fly by more.
The piece is going to go in this beautiful hallway, all skylights above, with sunlight coming in. The hallway is 40 feet long and 10-12 feet across. Each mobile is going to be between 8 and 10 feet across and I am going to be making 5. It's bigger than anything I have ever have worked on before. And, it’s in materials that I haven’t worked with before.
To be honest, it’s the first time time that I’ve had artist's block in a long time. I think it is because of two things: 1) I want it to be perfect. Striving for “perfect” is a bit paralyzying. 2) Somebody else is giving me the parameters.
I taught classes to high school students, and I asked for their ideas. My goal was to incorporate all of their ideas into the mobiles. I ended up with 400 different ideas. Trying to incorporate really different ideas is hard, and there's 400 of them. It’s also got to be mathematical; it’s for a math department. In the end, I’m working with themes from all of the different ideas and bringing my own voice to those themes.
I started trying to do small scale prototypes— maquettes, they’re called. But, I am not good at working small. Everything gets bigger as I work on it. The petals you see are close to full size, but there will be more petals, more branches. The ones that you saw with birds will be different, I have to figure out what those will be.
In this capacity, six years. I never made any when I was a child, but if I look back to my conceptual sculpture days from college, a bunch of the pieces I did are actually mobiles. Mobiles have been my exclusive focus for about three years.
So here is what happens at craft shows. The shows can be really chaotic for both the people vending and the people walking around. There is so much to see that people get overwhelmed. Then, they come into my booth, with all of the mobiles hanging around them, and they feel calmer. I like that response. I like that people feel calm; that’s a good feeling to me. I also like when people look at the mobiles and don't quite understand how they work. The balance of mobiles can seem counterintuitive and magical.
Yes. Although it's different now that I'm in business and I sell so many pieces. One of my favorite things is hearing from customers about where they put it, or where they look at it. It's nice to know where things go.
Yes. I'll listen to certain music as I'm making something. I don't know if you have this too, but when I hear that music I know what I've made.
I love when engineers come to my booth and talk to me about balance and physics and things like that. I like the question ‘what's the hardest part? What is a really challenging part?’ because that’s the part I enjoy figuring out.
I wish people knew how much thought and time goes into it. People assume you make things fast and that's just not the case. It's all behind the scenes, so it looks really simple. But it's not simple. Also, people forget about the importance of thought. A lot my work is sitting, thinking, sketching, and experimenting. Then, I have to tear apart those thoughts and start over. People can't see that part of the process. Today, we don't allow time or give value to that process.
This series is about linking one interview with an artist to the next artist, creating a linked chain of interviews and studio visits. I have asked each artist to suggest the next interview in the series.
Melissa talks a little about her friend and fellow artist Syd Hardin, Syd's work, and what questions she would have for her.
Syd is an animal lover, she and her husband have two dogs and her main gig right now is doing Pet Portraits. She paints animals and does it in a pop art style. She's an incredibly talented painter and she has a sense of style that's both realistic but very pop arty. Bright colors, a little graphic design-y but realistic. She's just really skilled and her art is very much a reflection of her. She talks fast, she thinks fast, and her art feels the same way. Bright and vibrant and energetic. Syd is energetic and her art is energetic. Her studio is actually a tiny closet space off of her bedroom at her house. She used to paint blow-up dolls and those paintings are all over her house.
Her work is happy. It's happy and it's quirky and it makes you smile. I'm also impressed because of her skill. That's what I see in her pet portraits. I'm just always really impressed with her creativity.
I talk to Syd on the regular, so I kind of know what her process is like, but I've never been inside her studio while she's working. Here's what I would imagine. I know her process isn't fast. I know because she is also sort of a perfectionist, so I have no doubt that she belabors, like “this piece of fur doesn't look right, I need to fix it.” I know that she does that, but I know she also works on the floor sitting on a pillow with the painting in front of her and her dogs curled up around her. I imagine she would be painting and sitting very closely to the canvas, the dogs interrupting her, crawling in her lap, her talking to them, checking her phone, doing 20 million things and painting. That's what I imagine.
Her art is perfectionistically done. I think people assume that it's much easier than it is. She puts a lot of work into her art and into her paintings. I wish people knew how much she puts into it. She's very detail-oriented. Syd is also crazy smart. She has big vision which is really helpful.
There are so many things that I'd like to know. Why pet portraits? I know she loves animals but why pet portraits? What would her art career look like in 10 years or 5 years ideally? When Syd is doing her work what does it feel like? What does it feel like to be working? When can she tell that something she’s working on is going well and when can she tell that it's not going well? When can she tell that it’s time to stop and start over?