This series gives you a peek into what’s behind some of the art you can find at Vintage Karma. Each object is created with care and creativity; behind every handmade item, there’s a story and a person.
This week, meet Champaign artist Melissa Mitchell, who creates funky assemblage, colorful collages and whimsical photographs. Also a writer, she crafts up clever names for her artwork, too!
What was your first piece? What inspired you to create it?
I made my first assemblage about 12 years ago — a 3-foot sculptural piece I dubbed “Tina the Ballerina.” It turned out to be the first of a series of three featuring architectural salvage. All were influenced to some degree by my interest in Louise Bourgeois and the sculptures she referred to as “personages.” Tina grew from an unusual “thing” I picked up at a garage sale. I have no clue what its original function was, but it has what assemblage artist Michael deMeng would call “inherent thingyness.” The base is made from a gold resin-like material that appears similar to what’s used to manufacture bowling balls. Extending upward from the base is a metal rod. I slipped a hollow architectural-salvage piece on top of that, added a rusty Rototiller blade then capped it with a glass-doorknob finial. I also attached burgundy fringe around Tina’s “hips,” hence the ballerina reference. When I was a child, I took ballet lessons and loved listening over and over and over to a song called “Tina the Ballerina.” I still remember the words. But I will spare you.
How long have you been creating?
I’ve been a “maker” all my life … always doodling, drawing, painting, crafting. And writing, writing, writing. I wrote my first (and maybe only!) play at age 7. In college, I majored in English literature, but at one point switched to interior design. When I was supposed to be writing, I tended to procrastinate by making art; and, of course, when I was supposed to be making art … well, you know. Through the years, I also took random classes in photography and ceramics.
How did you get into making your art?
About 20 years ago, things kicked up a notch again on the visual-arts front when I became friends with an artist who lived near me. The two of us would sometimes just hang out and make stuff. That act of communing through art-making made me realize that, for some reason, as adults, many of us have suppressed so much of the natural creativity that was always there bubbling up as children. It was a liberating experience. Even though I self-identified as a writer — because that’s what I was paid to do — I realized I could make art if I felt like it, and I certainly didn’t need anyone’s permission or approval to do so.
Describe your creative process.
Whether I’m making assemblage, collage or taking photographs, for me, it’s all about the moment — seeing things suddenly in a way I’ve never seen them before. I’ve probably photographed every inch of my backyard 20 times over, but then the sun hits a flower or casts a shadow on a piece of garden art just so, and I see something totally fresh. And simply must capture it! Definitely borders on obsession or addiction. A similar effect takes place in my studio, which doubles as a repository for all the odd bits that I accumulate to make assemblage. My best work there happens spontaneously as well — especially if I immerse myself there for several hours at a time (typically, far into the wee ones). Even though I may have looked at a particular object many times over and been uninspired, for reasons I can’t explain, all at once the pieces start to come together … divine inspiration, maybe? (Ha!) Sometimes I will finish an assemblage in its entirety in one sitting. More often, there’s a testing period involved, in which I try configurations, change them out, then rearrange and rethink them again before attaching the pieces permanently.
What drew you to your chosen medium?
As mentioned previously, my original assemblages were loosely inspired by Louise Bourgeois’ “personages.” My “associates,” as I called them, were an amalgamation of parts that ultimately assumed vaguely humanistic qualities. To create them, I did what many artists, especially self-taught ones, do by necessity — worked with materials that were readily accessible. Also, all of my art — regardless of the medium — tends to be narrative in nature. Considering that I worked as a reporter and feature writer most of my adult life, it’s not too hard to figure out the connection there. It also explains my interest in photography; early in my career as a writer, I realized photography was one more useful skill to have in my toolkit. It’s also something I’ve been exposed to all my life. (Yes, pun intended, sorry!). My dad was into it, so I grew up watching his slide shows as Saturday-night entertainment. I still have the first black-and-white photos I ever took with my own camera when I was 12 years old.
What is your favorite part of the creative process? What is your least favorite part?
My favorite part is that aha! moment … when I know in my gut that something is not only finished, but that it has turned out better than what I’d imagined. Least favorite: When I’m working in my studio late at night, overtired, and know I should just quit and go home before I get clumsy and break something. But I don’t quit. Then I break something!
What inspires you?
Rusty junk, bright colors, sunshiny days, music, nature, travel, my own backyard.
What do you do when you’re not making art?
I’m the volunteer communications coordinator at The I.D.E.A. Store, a fabulous creative-reuse marketplace in Champaign, so a lot of my time goes into promoting the store. In the cracks, I enjoy gardening, swimming, listening to music, “junking,” traveling and hanging with friends — including my best friend/sweetie Jim. Oh, and I may as well admit that I have a reputation for being one of those crazy cat ladies and add “entertaining and being entertained by cats” to the list. Well, make that cat. Singular. Sadly, we lost three of our old kitty friends this past year.
Don’t forget to stop by Vintage Karma and check out a special display of Melissa’s art!