Ten Questions for an Artist: Melissa Dickenson

Melissa Dickenson graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2002 and has been living and working in Baltimore ever since. Her work has been exhibited in Baltimore, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, California and Tokyo, Japan. We recently sent Dickenson a few questions about her work, and she kindly answered our questions and allowed us to post some images of her work.

NB: I know that you've lived in Baltimore for the past decade. Can you talk a bit about the city? Probably thanks to The Wire there's a perceived grittiness to Baltimore that I find really fascinating. Does the Baltimore (or any particular aspect of the city) play a role in your work?

MD: Well, Baltimore is definitely gritty. There are parts, of course, just like The Wire, gentrified areas, quirky townies and the "in between." I live in the "in between," which I love. I have transvestite prostitutes on my corner, but they know me and look after the block in a way, plus they always compliment me on my outfits! I also am surrounded by DIY galleries, yoga studios, the Symphony and the Opera and the Art House Movie Theater. As far as Baltimore playing a role in my work, I think a bit, not that I am painting images of guns and crack vials, but that I am really into paper and it's surface and texture and really exploring it. I guess you could parallel it to the love of B'more and really getting to know it and embrace it and all of its bumps and "texture."

The Get Away - Acrylic, graphite, and paper on vintage wrapping paper - 36" x 12" - 2008

NB: I know that you also spent some time in Japan learning how to make your own paper. What was that experience like?

MD: Japan was amazing. I felt like the smallest speck on the planet, so many people whizzing by you only stopping for a moment to notice you were not a native. That was Tokyo, Shikoku was different, it was a small Moutain town, and everyone in town seemed very interested in what I was doing. As far as paper making, it was really a very physically hard practice. I would constanly do it wrong and my Sensay would slap my hand and grunt (she didn't speak English and I didn't speak Japanese very well so this is how we commuticated, that and we drank LOTS of Green Tea). The olive branch came out the 2nd week of being there when Tune, the 87 year old grandmother, gave me a "sweet cake" and some Green tea as a kind of let's-be-friends gesture. I have never been so caffenated in my life!
Overall, the experience was great, and I was very happy with the work I made and the people I met. I did eventually make some great friends in Tokyo as well, but still felt the size of a pea.

Domesticate (triptych) - Acrylic, paper and graphite on vintage wrapping paper - 8" x 24" - 2008

NB: What goes into the creation of a single piece? From start to finish, what's the process like?

MD: Every thing is derived from everything else. So, I start with the fibers in a paper and pull out the imperfections with painting, drawing, or sutures, creating an imagianry landscape. I then take another paper which I have cleaned my brush off on and draw out images I see (they always tend to be animals or plants for some reason) and then cut them out and apply them to a landscape in which I feel they fit best.

NB: I know it's dangerous ground to talk about inspiration, but I'm always curious to know who or what has inspired an artists' work. In your view, is "inspiration," as a concept, even relevant to your work?

MD: Marcel Dzama, Amy Cutler, Alexis Mckenzie, Yoshimoto Nara, and Amy Stein, and Michel Gondry, and Coco Rosie. All of these artists create a world that you can't help but get sucked into, which is what I strive for! Ooh looks like that is the answer to the next question, guess I'll add on that I like cloud-watching and nature from a distance (read: on a raft not in the water, or in front of a fireplace looking out the window at the snow). And I find Monsoons really inspiring because I am fidgety and when it's raining so hard that you can't reallly go anywhere, you are forced to accept that you are in your space and either get out creativity, or sit and Mull. Both are good.

NB: [Note: this is a redundant question, but the interview was conducted over email, so what can ya do?] Along those same lines, are there any artists whose work you find particularly appealing?

MD: See above.

Candy Land - Acrylic, paper and graphite on vintage wrapping paper - 20" x 16 - 2008"

NB: Are there any trends in contemporary American art that you really respond to (positively or negatively)?

MD: I am kind of seeing this whole trend of the Diorama and the Diorama like installation (Marcel Dzama at David Zwirner in Chelsea this March and Cai Guo-Qiang at the Guggenheim). I really like artists that get out of there usual medium and expand an idea in the best material possible. Plus I have always had a thing for doll houses and those scenes in the natural history museum of cavemen and wildlife that once was.

NB: I realize that this is a huge question, but what's been the most challenging part of being a young artist?

MD: Challenge is really a cross between the financial and time. There are always things like jobs and socialness pulling you away from work and sometimes those are neccassary so that you have the $$ to buy supplies and pay rent so that you can support the Art Habit.

NB: Your bold use of color, the incorporation of vintage and handmade papers, and the use of plant and animal imagery in your work is quite beautiful. But there's also something disconcerting about some of the landscapes you create. Some of the images seem rather whimsical, while in others, there's something kind of overgrown, dangerous or wild about the image. Is that complete nonsense on my part?

MD: No, I like things that have a kind of darkness about them. I think this is very astute on the interviewer's part. Nice observation.

Garden Life - Acrylic, paper and graphite on vintage wrapping paper - 20" x 16" - 2008

NB: What do you hope that a viewer comes away with after seeing your work?

MD: I really never hope for anything in particular. I mean I definitely want them to feel something kind of disconcerting, but I want it to take a minute: at first they see this cute or pretty little rabbit in a pink forest... and then they notice it is running for its life as it escapes the blood thirsty Owl.

NB: Are you currently showing your work? Where can people go to see more?

MD: I currently have a show up at the Baltimore Museum of Art - August 3rd and An opening in D.C. at Gallery Plan B on July 31st. That show will be up until Aug 24th.


BJK said…
i love that she mentions my two favorite exhibits from the past year: dzama @ david zwirner and cai guo-qiang @ the guggenheim.

and i agree that what is captivating about those two in particular is the comprehensive crafting of entire alternate realities.
ezimmerman said…
Nice interview Nate and Melissa!!

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