Ann Welles (director of Exhibit A) : Hi, Melissa. You know I love talking with you about your art. You and I have talked a lot since... 2013, when we started working together. In any case, I've come to view you as a purposeful artist who is thoughtful but never lacking a sense of wonder and spontaneity.
Melissa Zarem: Wow, 2013! Well, that went fast.
You just perfectly described the artist I want to be. That you see me like that delights me and makes me feel as if my approach to my work is actually coming across. Thanks!
Ann: Sure. And thank you for having this particular conversation for posterity's sake! I guess I'll start by asking what started you on your path as an abstract artist?
Melissa: I was first tasked with making an abstract painting in my first semester at Cornell, with Eleanore Mikus. She had a mischievous grin like she knew that that assignment was going to change me. She was right. For the first time, I felt that each decision guided me to the next one. I could work without the fear of ruining something I felt precious about. It opened me up to taking chances, and I never looked back.
Ann: There is definitely a fearlessness in your work, especially in the bold gestural marks.
Melissa: Fearlessness is a marvelous concept, a feeling we all pine for these days. Active painterly gestures have always appealed to me, mostly because I find them visually compelling, also because they inhabit a contradiction. They are static portrayals of expressive movement.
Ann: They add a sense of poetry and poignancy to your work to be sure. The character of your work also develops through your use of a wide variety of materials. Why did you start combining paints, inks, graphite, and even metal leaf?
Melissa: My origins are with oil paint, but as a young artist starting out in Brooklyn, I had to find a way to become nimble with materials so I could travel and work in small urban spaces. I started collaging with whatever I could get my hands on. Eventually, the layering that spontaneously happens in collage became integral to my practice. Later, when I had more space to paint, mixing media was a natural progression.
Ann: Yet, even with more space, you haven't gone back to painting on canvas. You still work on paper.
Melissa: I've not found a good reason to stop using paper. A good sheet of paper is so friendly and plays well with virtually all materials.
Ann: I like the thought that paper 'plays well with others.'
Melissa: Playfulness is part of my character, so, naturally, it is integral to my work. I try to keep in mind that practice is play and play is practice. I enjoy the taste of discovery, even a small one, so the studio is a place to experiment and take chances.
For example, I recently added a relief pattern to a giant spool, so I could print dots in a continuous line - like a rolling pin. I like the results so far. Whether I will still like it tomorrow is another question, but that's all part of the process. Failed experiments make the successful ones that much more satisfying.
Ann: Playfulness and fearlessness, both are good for gaining momentum when making art. There's also working through challenges, wouldn't you say?
Melissa: I guess I have two modes while in the studio. First, I play and discover, and then, with a bit of luck, I move into a more serious mode of pushing and pulling the discovery to connect it with more well-established elements in my practice.
Ann: I think that process is evident in each piece. That pushing and pulling. The layering and working towards the integrated whole.
Ann: Something people may not know is that you regularly make time to work alongside other artists, Elise Nicol being one of them.
Melissa: I have a few artist friends that I like to share studio time with, but Elise and I have an ongoing practice that has lasted over a decade. Elise's roots are in printmaking and photography. Between us, there is a great blend of varied information and skill.
When she had a printing press and lived nearby, we'd do monotyping in her studio. That was how we started working together, in fact. It was so much fun that we kept going well beyond that period.
Even without a press, I still use a crude monotype process in my mixed media work. The marks I can make through printing cannot be made another way. Plus, I love the surprise when I peel the paper off the plate. Surprises like that often seed new ideas
Ann: There is great value to artists working in close proximity, or collaborating. It can be a source of some fabulous synergy - something artists may not realize they will miss when they leave school or move out of communal studio spaces.
Melissa: Yes. Working together has tons of benefits, but most importantly, it makes the work stay fresh and engaging. Elise and I introduce ideas, materials, and techniques to one another, sometimes collaborating on the same piece.
Experimentation goes further when more than one person is asking questions and imagining solutions. In fact, my rolling spool relates to a printmaking experiment that Elise played with over a year ago.
Ann: It's always revealing to learn about what happens in the studio. There is uncertainty about how things will play out. The work is physical and time-based. It can be messy. A finished artwork is edited to some degree or another. It is a conclusion, or maybe a better way to put it in the case of your work, it is a highlights reel of what you experienced while creating it.
Melissa: I appreciate the awareness that the work is time-based, an evolution. I want viewers to look at the work and imagine what might be involved in making it, see that the materials underwent a process. Art doesn't just pop up out of nowhere. It grows.
A highlights reel is a fun way to think about it, sort of like an abridged version of accrued experience.
Ann: We should probably wrap this up, but I can't let you without bringing up titles. Titles are odd sort of value-added tidbits offered up in specific settings, typically when the work is exhibited. Or documented, though online, things have gotten quite informal. But that's another conversation!
I work with many artists. Don't tell the rest of them I said this, but you are possibly the best at coming up with titles. Your titles are gem-like addendums. For me, they offer glimpses of where your mind may have been wandering while you were fearlessly playing and working away in your studio.
Melissa: I enjoy working on titles. Words can provide an additional tool for visual thinking, so when I hit the right note, a title can enrich the work. It is one more way to experiment, play, and reach out to other members of my species.
Ann: Well, I feel lucky we're members of the same species!
Melissa: This was fun. Thanks, Ann. I hope we do this again in another seven years and see what's changed.
Ann: It's a date! Until then, keep up the great work. It's been a real pleasure talking with you.