Out of Service Magazine; fall 2001
An Interview with Meshell Melvin
Edited by Dean Eyre & Janice Durant
Atlin is a small town at the end of a long gravel road in northern-most,
British Columbia. It is a strikingly beautiful place built on the shores of a big lake out of which rises a huge mountain. Meshell Melvin's studio is located on lst Avenue on the top floor of the old Masonic hall. It is a riot of colour: a huge table is covered with bright bits of cloth. An enormous half- finished painting hangs on the wall. We met there on a crisp evening in September to record this interview...
Out of Service: What's your art? How would you describe it?
Meshell Melvin: I describe myself as a painter and I describe my work as paintings. I started off as an artist, as a painter, and when I had to put my oil paints away in order to find a non-toxic medium, I came to textile... And began to play with textile, collageing it and layering it and I began to see that the way I was working and the way I was planning, indeed the whole process of cutting out shapes of colour and applying it was so similar to painting and the works themselves breathed in the same way that a painting does.
Oos: So this has a lot to do with finding a non-toxic medium because of children.
MM: Yes. The impetus was my pregnancy with my first son. Economics played a part of it too because I was working large at the time and oil paint was really expensive. The whole thing about painting is pigment. The important thing is colour, in the definition of a painting. So what makes a colour is the pigment and what quality is your pigment. A pigment is suspended in some kind of medium right, sometimes it's oil, acrylic, watercolour, sometimes it's textile. Now for me a pigment is floating in thread.
Oos: Your choices as an artist are being influenced by children and
economics in some degree...
MM: Yes, yes of course, I mean we can always relate anything that we do to economics. Obviously I've chosen two callings, motherhood and an artist's life, that are not conducive to making a whole lot of money. Sadly economics seems to be part of the physical life. I like thinking about money as energy. I think it flows, and perhaps at some point you get recognition and you don't have to worry about economics anymore or how you're going to pay for the dentist for the kids or whatever it is, a new skateboard, (Laughs) a ramp...
Oos: ls there a creative tension between the time it takes to be an
artist and the time it takes to be a single mom?
MM: I think if we we're just to talk about the time that it takes to
make a painting or even the time that it takes raising children, it's
pretty difficult juggling. It means being totally focused on both things.
And my life is really two different lives in a way: there's a life here in
the studio which is solitary and there's a life with the children which
is essentially solitary too, in terms of the three of us being a fairly
solitary trio. Life in the house and getting things done in a day means
that you stay at home. And yeah there's great tensions: getting the
dishes done, getting supper, knowing what's going to be for supper,
knowing what's going to be in the kids' lunchboxes the next day,
wondering, have they run out of clean clothes yet. There's all those
things to be attended to, as well as their own personal needs...
Oos: Do you have a big philosophy of art?
MM: That's a huge question. The easy answer is to say: if a painting
is speaking in its language then it's going to reach its audience. So the question then becomes what is that language and how does the artist use that language. And that's a pretty lengthy answer, you
know, volumes and volumes have been written about it. But essentially...
Oos: What would be the prologue to your first volume?
MM: (laughter) It's the elements of colour and line and form and texture and how those work together, their composition. Areas of activity, areas of stillness.
Oos: A lot of your paintings have a narrative theme to them or a narrative thread. ls a story something that's useful in a painting
MM: Yeah, some sort of sense of narrative certainly helps the image along, when there is a story going on the audience has something
deeper to relate to. I think that's the point. If a painting is working, if it is speaking to the audience then I think that the more layers that the painting can work on, the richer, the deeper the experience. If the
colours are working and pleasing; if the texture is working and pleasing; if the lines are interesting and pleasing; and then if there's a narrative or a sense of a setting that the audience can put itself into then that's yet another level. I think my paintings have an interesting
and different kind of level as well because they're textile. Textile is something we know intimately in a way we don't know paint. It's in our everyday life, it's on us now. I mean it's around us in abundance
right here but you know we have it all over our house, in our cars,
everywhere we go.
Oos: From the abstraction of a two dimensional painting to something utilitarian is there a point where you create a bridge because fabric's your medium.
MM: Well there's a tradition of textile being functional, right? Clothing, if it's decorative, usually, it's something that's adorned, it's something that's worn or perhaps it's something that's on a bed, it's a throw, it's a nice pillow, a beautiful rug they are definitely functional things.
And I realize l am crossing a line where... I never called them a quilt. Because I wasn't interested in making a quilt. It wasn't my intention, my intention was to make a painting. When I first started I... you know they were small sort of object things, just on a simple ground. I was working it the same way a painting was working so I did a big landscape piece. Just to say: ok this is painting, and see this.
People ask me, when I say I'm a painter, they'll say do you paint houses and then their next question is: are you abstract or landscape? And I don't know what to say to that because, you could just say yes because all art is an abstraction, right. Music is an abstraction, it's totally abstract what people are doing with their minds when they're listening to music even...even Donny Osmond. (Loud laughter)
Oos: ...is an abstraction?
MM: Yes, totally...
Oos: Maybe more abstract than anyone else. There's a tradition of women working in textile, is that something you're conscious of when you're working with textile? ls there any kind of comment on women and art?
MM: I didn't come to it from political analysis, but I really rejoice in being able to be using textile anew and also taking it into the gallery, taking it into the art world, to an audience as a higher form.
Oos: Do you find that there was a struggle to be granted legitimacy
by the art world? ...because of your medium?
MM: No. I haven't really encountered it. I'm sure it will come though. I think a lot of people find it difficult to see how textile could be a painting, until they're there in front of it. And honestly, from a distance, you can't tell that it is textile. And it makes it so interesting
to read up close, the texture really takes over on a closer level, along with the color. For me, it's almost more satisfying than paint. It certainly satisfies more my colour desire, in a way that I couldn't achieve with oil paint without a lot of toxicity. The old masters were able to achieve an incredible amount with layers and layers of pigment and glaze but then a lot of it wasn't even paint. It was pigment in some kind of medium. Michelangelo's ceiling, it's not actually painted, it's a fresco. But it's no less high art than one of his sculptures which is more obviously what we consider to be art.
Oos: What's your heritage as an artist?
MM: Well, I'm always saying Matisse is in bed with me most of the time, perhaps more and more and more so over the years. My first love though was Botticelli and work of the Renaissance: Rembrandt,
both his etchings and his paintings. I studied his self-portraits in detail and there's some 270 paintings alone and that doesn't even touch etchings and drawings or all the little doodly things he must have done that weren't ever recorded. But, to look at an artist's whole life passing through their self-portraits is a pretty incredible thing. That affected me. I have a practice of self-portraiture and I think it's inspired by Rembrandt.
Oos: Do you think this is a medium that you're going to stay with for a long time? Have you discovered something?
MM: Oh yeah, I'm pretty in love with it. And it continues to delight me. Some of these textiles, I've been able to collect now... it so much inspires me, it so much appeals to all my aesthetic yearnings that I can't imagine giving it up. There are other ways I'd like to work too, but that's a time thing... I'd love to have a print-making studio, and
I'd really like to learn more about the camera. I enjoy drawing, not only with my machine, but also with the pen or pencil. It all continues to grow but this is certainly the focus.
Oos: You should tell me about your machine, it's almost like your brush...
MM: The Universal Movement Machine.
Oos: That's the best name for a machine I've ever heard!
MM: It's the best title for anything! Yeah, what a metaphor:
Universal Movement Machine. And I like the whole idea of thread
too, and talking about the fibre of the Universe. So that across the fibre of the universe I've got to drive the Universal Movement Machine. The handle gives it universal movement, sort of like the computer mouse.
Oos: Kind of like an elaborate sewing machine, or is it beyond that?
MM: No, it's a totally different thing. A sewing stitch is a certain stitch that actually functions, right. This is an embroidery stitch, it's purely adornment so it's not something you want to use to build a teepee with or construct a piece of clothing. If you cut it, because it's just a chain of one thread, if you cut it at any place and pull you can pull it all out. It's more related to a crochet hook because it's essentially what the basic crochet stitch is: a chain stitch, pulling a loop through another loop through another and another. ad infinitum.
Oos: How did you stumble on this machine?
MM: It was a life shattering experience. I can say that with all sincerity. I was in downtown Nairobi at the time, it was 1985, and I had this piece of cloth that had been dyed for me as a birthday gift that a friend was having made into a gown, &West-African style gown. Part of that West-African style is embroidery on the front and the cuffs. She was leading me to this place where they do embroidery. It was rush hour or so it seemed to me just because there were so many people on the streets and we seemed to be walking forever and ever and it was hot. I was following this woman through the crowds and we came to a corner. I looked for traffic and I didn't see anything coming and I stepped out and I heard this screaming and yelling and I turned the other way and there was a Range Rover coming. It stopped 6 or 7 inches from me and someone yanked me back onto the sidewalk. I was quaking. I had never come so close to being flattened, my heart was pounding and racing and I was pretty out of myself. Then she led me across the street and on the opposite corner was the building. We went right up into this warehouse. There were 6 or 8 tables set up and these fellows were going so fast on these machines. I was still shaking from having come so close to dying. You go to Africa and maybe you're gonna get eaten by a lion, but you re not gonna get flattened by a land cruiser .That’s sort of an unromantic way to die. But I never forgot the experience of this machine. Yeah, so that was the first time I saw it and it certainly stayed in my mind.
Oos: Was that quite a while before you started doing this?
MM: Yeah, that was l985 and I was just about to start
university. I was interested in doing other things with my
life at that point.
Oos: What did you want to do when you grew up? When you were 10 or 12 or whenever you thought about that?
MM: Well I wanted to be a singer, or an actress for a long time… a poet. I never really thought that I would be an artist because I didn’t know how to draw, I think that holds most people back. I don't know, who created that myth. Not very many people actually have the talent to draw without leaning it, exercising it. You know, most people
Just can’t sit down and play like Debussl at the piano without spending a lot of time just doing scales. I was thinking about
that summer in Kenya. It was also the first summer I made a painting.
The friend we were staying with, she was a painter, and she got me all set up one day, she stretched me a canvas and said "Here. Go." I had a blast. I was involved in visual art because I had been quite into art in high school. My teacher, who was a fabulous teacher, her specialty was the history art. And that is when I had fallen
in love with Botticelli and the Renaissance period. She took mc to New York. So I had a lot of experience in art but I still didn’t see myself as a maker until that summer that I made a painting. So I set
my mind to do a combined degree with visual arts and English literature and what happened is that I got way more interested in the studio portion of the visual arts as it went along and by my fourth year, I was totally committed to the visual medium.
Oos: So, why Atlin?
MM: Well, I was in the area. looking for a place to live.
I was living in the Hazelton area at the time but I wasn't happy there.
It was the summer ‘92, and we'd been at a great folk festival in Smithers and then we heard about the Dawson festival. We drove up to Dawson and we came down to Atlin on our way home and on day two in Atlin I was able to find a place to live. I loved it just
driving down the road, it's quite a driveway. I love that Atlin road.
Oos: what are the pros and cons about making it as an artist
artist in a town of about, I don't know, 300?
MM: The town has been supportive of me throughout the years. Financially, to a moderate degree. but more than that I think people’s
encouragement and people’s respect has given me courage. And it’s been a safe place. There haven’t been a lot of critical eyes judging me, judging my work. (laughs) Who knows what they say about me.
Because I've been doing something on the edge of the fine art world in terms of textile and the way I'm approaching the medium, having a quiet isolated space to develop that in has been really important. It's given me the chance to figure out how I'm going to do something, how I'm gonna make something appear like a sink or a jar, or the technical things of dealing with fine or silky or iridescent
fabric. In a place where there 's not a salon of artists, this has been just my very own thing. And it's kept me from starving, metaphorically and maybe physically as well... l've been
able to make some bread and butter.
Oos: How important is a critical environment?
MM: I think it's really important for an artist to develop a critical eye of their own and that's allot of work. School sort of teaches it, hopefully. And if you haven't had that and you don't have people around you then it s hard to see where you can grow, where you need to grow. Or even where a painting needs to grow, or where the problem is.
I really appreciate having other people's eyes on my work who can speak about it critically. That’s a gift in itself, not all of us are able to give critical information to another artist in a constructive way. And a lot of people aren’t able to hear it either. I like to think that I can hear it.
Oos: What about that self-portrait of yourself as an angel, out of a series of self-portraits, is that an evolution to angels?
MM: Well, I was getting to feel like I was painting my prison, you know, the kitchen is my prison. And actually to feel the energy of being in prison. This seemed to be an easier way to go at this drama that's implied in the painting, to ascend from this life drama, from this
physical, physical life.
OOS: You've got this quote on your wall: 'What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open”. ls that comment on this show?
MM: Yeah, it's easier to be honest in the paintings than it is for me to speak honestly in an interview or... but I think that's a place that I aim at, to be able to speak with utter honesty. I think that really does shatter things. Because if we can speak really honestly from our core
then just about everyone can hear. In hearing secrets maybe, or deep intimacies of another person, there's a power created in that kind of giving away that enlivens both the person who's giving away and the person who's hearing. We're relieved of our own shame and our own
protective shields when we can hear another person speak so honestly.
Oos: Let's talk about the idea of a divine geometry...
MM: Well, I have a hard time with the word geometry but the idea of perceiving the divine shape, the sublime perhaps, the ultimate beauty in whatever object you're perceiving, and that act of perception, is an exercise of the imagination which takes us out of our selves. We're in a place of seeing beauty which I think is much the same journey that we'd use to go to a spiritual plane. I then equate the act of exercising
our imagination, in reaching out to see or to hear whatever it is, with exercising that muscle in us which is a spiritual; which gives us our
spiritual experiences, our ways of leaving the regular world, of apprehending beauty beyond every day and perhaps a higher order; a sense of balance in the world.
Oos: And it's also an ability maybe to see the beauty in the functional
and detach it from its function...
MM: I believe that there is a touch of the divine in all physical things. And that if there is, if any common place pile of physical objects can lift us out of our regular way of seeing, we see them in their beauty in their symmetry, in their colour, whatever it is that inspires that sense of beauty, if we're exercising that all the time then I think we're living in a pretty cool world.
Oos: Let's walk over to one of the still-lifes. So tell me about what you're seeing here.
MM: This is the kitchen corner. There's the sink and the rack of dishes and a pile of dishes waiting to be washed, and there's an assortment of things on the counter, there are shelves below with things on them, objects, and there's shelves above with objects and... I think this painting came from a moment when I glimpsed it and I was overwhelmed by the depth of objects. by the amount of objects by, the amount of physical things making up my space, I mean just the whole, the bulk of it... It's sublimely chaotic. It's not like seeing a beautiful water _ fountain with cupids or anything flying around it. This
painting is more of a release of the burden that's placed on us by these physical objects; a way of transcending that weight that I felt at the time; to say well you know that's a really beautiful thing. And of course, in the process of making the painting it becomes more and more beautiful. It also becomes less and less about the things
themselves, and more about the colour and the form, and something
else takes over in the transference from objects to painted objects. It all gets filtered through the imagination and out the other way. come at it with my own sense of aesthetic and ideas so that when I'm choosing a blue for the floor for example, I want to choose the blue that is one of my favorite blues, and one of the ones I love so much,
and also one that resonates with the other colours that are
around it. So then my own sense of choosing, my own aesthetic desires... you know, the best colour I could use at the moment would be... this one!
Oos: Does it make it easier to go back and finish the dishes?
MM: It makes it easier to leave the dishes there...
Oos: (Laughs) Because they're beautiful?
MM: Because they're beautiful just the way they are. I begin to see
the world around me, the dishes, the murky water in the sink, the dirt on the floor, whatever that residue of the physical flow is that we think we should have all cleaned up, and tidied up... There is no shouldness, it doesn't exist. This is the way it is and it's beautiful. I think there are ideals about how you keep a house, or what is beautiful, and I don't know who made those things up but I didn't make it up. I think there's a whole lot of things we live with that somebody else made up along the way and everyone believes. For a long time they believed that women didn't have the right to vote.
We've been able to at least make some progress. I hold all of those shoulds in some scrutiny if I can. I like to be discerning about what I believe and come to it on my own terms.
Meshell Melvin is currently working on a show entitled
"The Kitchen Dance" , which will be on display at the
Yukon Arts Centre Gallery fro* March 2l -May 19, 2002.
Published in 2001 in Out of Service Magazine, reprinted with the kind permission of the publishers.