If you follow my social media accounts, you’ll know that my cousin, Melissa Thorne currently has an installation at the MCA as a part of the current exhibit, Aftereffect. I’ve been obsessed with checking in on her work from time to time and encouraging friends and followers to go see the show and share their experiences. The first time I saw it at the opening, I was so overwhelmed that I burst into tears! Since the show is entering the end of its run this week, I thought I’d check in with her and get her perspective on the exhibit, her process and how she built a career out of a lifelong passion.
Melissa, first off…… I STILL get emotional when I see your mural and paintings on the wall when I visit them. It feels like I get to connect with you in a profound way. What is it like to work on a specific concept for so long and leave it behind for the rest of us to enjoy?
I’m thrilled that you feel connected to this work! While I’ve been painting for over twenty years, I’ve only been making site-specific wall paintings for the last ten. Much of my past work examines the human experience of architecture, specifically domestic spaces. At some point, it seemed like a natural evolution to address the physical surface of architecture as a painting space. The wall paintings provide a counterpoint to my smaller paintings; I can work on a monumental scale that would be difficult on traditional surfaces, and I can work with other people in a way that’s more social and collaborative than my solitary studio practice. I’ve made architectural paintings in galleries, artist-run spaces, museums, public spaces, and abandoned cabins. The fact that most of these wall paintings have been transitory is also a nice counterpoint – it’s the opposite of the preciousness that can develop around a painting that you’ve held in your hands and lived with for months. I think the impermanence of the mural allows for a different type of permissiveness in the painting process, which is a real pleasure.
As you worked on the paintings for the show, and later conceptualized the mural you hand- painted onto the wall to compliment the painting, did you have a plan in mind or did you allow the process to guide you in different directions?
I had a fairly structured plan, which evolved during the process of making. I wanted the mural and the individual paintings to function together, to evoke a sense of place. For several years, I’ve used a process in which I document the color and vernacular forms of a specific place, as a method of creating a visual archive for making paintings. I make color chips based on objects found in nature and local architecture, and I collect patterns from the details of local interiors and crafts. Since my work is abstract, I am trying to find a way of indicating the unique qualities of a geographic place; through color, surface and form. In this mural, I think of the pattern as an abstract interpretation of a sheltered tree space: for instance, the feeling one has standing beneath a grove of very tall pines, in which light filters through the shade of the branches. The four small paintings installed on the surface are meant to function as close-ups, or more clearly delineated moments of observation. Similar to past works I’ve made, the paintings use motifs from needlecraft, knitting, weaving, woodcarving, carpentry, and architectural details. In this work, the color palette and the patterns are derived from direct observation in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York, near my current home. Like O’Keeffe, I hope to convey a sense of this place, its colors and images, light and atmosphere, through a language of abstraction.
You chose to take elements of nature as inspiration throughout the entire installation for Aftereffect. O'Keeffe was famous for her interpretation of nature, often exposing it in ways wehadn’t noticed before. You and O’Keefe both have a rigorous, precise approaches to technique, though yours is decidedly more abstract. When you were working through the studies that informed the final paintings, did you find that nature itself is more precise, or as random as we all perceive it?
I spend a lot of time outdoors, studying small details in nature. I don’t necessarily feel qualified to speak about the order of nature – but my experience always points toward the exquisite organization of natural processes, rather than the random. For instance, the precise geometry of a milkweed pod, the elegant spiral of a fiddlehead, or the complimentary color relationships of a budding maple tree; for me, each of these visual examples expresses order and intention, rather than randomness.
On a deeper level, I am thinking about the way that our experience of nature is influenced by our formative experiences of interior spaces. I have been re-reading The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard, which emphasizes a psychological/ phenomenological reading of space through the archetype of the home or interior. So, while I want to describe the sensory experience of being sheltered by a grove of trees, I am using an abstract pattern language that references domestic space, or the shelter of the home. From a feminist perspective, I am interested in collapsing the distance between the heroic/sublime experience of nature, and the internal/day-dreaming experience of the interior.
Photo Credit: Wes Magyar
What has been your path to painting? Obviously, I know… but I’m sure a lot of my readers would love to know how what it’s like to turn a passion into a career that eventually leads to a wall in a nationally recognized museum.
I knew that I wanted to be an artist from a very young age, and I was lucky to have a supportive family that nurtured my interest. I went to art school and earned an MFA, and then lived in Los Angeles for about fifteen years. In some ways I think I’ve followed a fairly conventional path, but in other ways it has included detours. As a younger artist I was unsure of how to navigate the art world -- and I often found the solitary nature of painting to be isolating. For several years I became very involved with playing music as a way to connect with a different kind of audience, and a different social space. I eventually returned more whole-heartedly to painting, because I wanted to engage with a slower, more contemplative practice.
Along the way I’ve had every kind of job: waitress, cook, gardener, maid, house painter, faux finisher, carpenter, artist assistant, art shipper, fine art framer, office administrator, and now art professor. In all of these jobs I tried to put my art first – I chose work that was flexible, simple and lucrative enough to support my studio practice. And I always maintained a studio, even when I couldn’t afford anything outside of my house – at that time the living room was my studio because it had the best light. As soon as I could afford it, I invested in having a dedicated space outside of my home.
Putting my work front and center has been important; equally important is cultivating a community of like-minded creative people. Artists need other artists. In 2011, I moved to upstate New York, and I had to find a new group of peers. I’m lucky to live in a region that is thick with amazing artists, writers, dancers, musicians, curators, thinkers, etc. However, it takes time and effort to grow the professional and personal relationships that nurture your spirit and your work. This can feel like a sort of invisible labor, but it’s vital to creating a sustainable creative practice.
What are you working on now? Has being associated with Georgia O’Keeffe changed the way you look at your work?
I’m working on new paintings that scale up some of the ideas in the Aftereffect installation. The four paintings in that series refer to the four seasons – and now I’m working on a series of twelve paintings that each refer to a month. I’m excited about the idea of exhibiting them in a way that creates an immersive sensory experience for the viewer. I’m also working on new opportunities for site-specific murals; every situation is different and I learn a lot from each piece.
Being associated with O’Keeffe has been a humbling experience. I grew up looking at her work, but in my twenties and early thirties I distanced myself from what I perceived as an over- exposed, over-romanticized stereotype of the modernist painter. Luckily, a couple of significant experiences with her work in the mid-2000’s made a big impression on me, and I began re-thinking her use of local color, as well as her laser-sharp skill as a visual editor. This led to an immersion in the historical record of her work and life -- including her time in Lake George, NY, which is just an hour from where I live now. I have enormous respect for her work and her journey as an artist; it’s both surreal and a huge honor to be included in a show with her.
Melissa, thank you SO MUCH for bringing your work to my town. I will be really sad when this amazing exhibit closes.
Favorite Food/ Dish to order: Fried chicken (guilty pleasure)
Favorite Apps (on your phone): Spotify (studio tunes!)
Favorite Podcast: Lately I’ve given up podcasts for audio books: How to Change Your Mind, by Michael Pollan.
Favorite Swear Word: I only swear when I’m driving!
What advice would you give your 20 year old self? Stop doubting yourself.
To check out Melissa’s work, click through to the below links!
Facebook: Melissa Thorne