As a woman, and maybe as a man but unfortunately I can only speak to one, there is a societal eye imposing a stage and prompting a performance out of us in our everyday lives, doing everyday things. What I mean by that is, women and their bodies are everywhere in society, and they're expected to act a certain way and appeal to certain people. There is a stage, and a performance, whether we are conscious of it or not. And yes, I include myself in this performative group of ladies, because after speaking with artist Melissa Johnson, I can see it. Miss Johnson is intelligent about her work, and I mean that. She knows how to talk about her work and the art sphere in general, and most importantly she knows what she wants to say. With a recent degree from MIAD in Integrated Studio Arts, she is confident to speak eloquently about her work and the process she takes to get there.
Melissa started the artistic process very young. She remembers always being drawn to, well, drawing, and that desire never waned. Puberty defined that desire for her, and she began to work more diligently and routinely on projects. She feels that the lack of mobility we feel as young people can be channeled into various activities as outlets of expression, and for her that form was art. She grew as an artist throughout high school, coming up with her own inspiration. I asked Melissa the question “how do you come up with what to draw when there’s the whole world accessible?”. Agreeing with my implication that it’s overwhelming, she revealed her process, at least her process as it was as a beginning artist. She likes to work in systems, or categories, as a way to isolate the world around her. In high school, she used to draw the things she read as a system of inspiration. “I did Alice in Wonderland a lot when I was younger, and I love Kurt Vonnegut. I did Cats Cradle, Poe poems, the classics, I guess.” This helped her grow from focusing on the technicalities within art (the basic skills, essentially) to focusing on developing her own visual language within her work. At university, she was able to reach a point where she gained enough vocabulary and had experimented enough to then create her own worlds within her illustrations. I couldn’t imagine that feeling, but Melissa explained it perfectly; “I felt self-actualized. I felt I could finally express what I wanted to say.”
When reviewing her work, I couldn’t help to feel her characters were watching me. Not in that semi-creepy Mona Lisa way, but in the bluntly direct and almost haunting manner that seems to perfectly balance the beauty and dreamy aspects within her work. We talked about this at length, and her answer was far more wonderfully complex than I had anticipated. “I view my drawings as stages. I’m really interested in young women feeling like they're constantly being looked on.” The characters in her work stare bluntly at the audience in order to acknowledge that stage, and comment on how the female body or form is being presented. Melissa plays with this idea a lot in her work, often presenting women outside of imposed beauty norms such as not shaving body hair or labeling themselves as “effortlessly nasty.” What is most interesting about this theme personally, is the conversation about identity and performance within each piece. Male or female, there is something relatable about identity presentation and the acknowledgement that you as an individual present yourself to the public domain everyday, and by understanding this, how does that presentation change. Melissa describes this interest simply; “I’m interested in watching people watching you and how you perform then. It’s so constant; women are always on stage.”
In addition to the somewhat political conversation Melissa’s work engages in, there are also strong personal elements within her art. She describes the characters she draws as various versions of herself in a way that adds a personal and confessional feel to the pieces, in addition to the detail of the objects she chooses to draw. Her work doesn’t always have to hold the feel of a diary, but she speaks confidently about every element being at a level ground for her. She says, “they’re only important to me, and that’s okay,” when speaking about the various objects strewn about in her work. And that’s important to note, because it speaks to her motivation as an artist. Ultimately, her work seems to be for her, and it’s okay that the audience doesn’t know, and might never know, why certain objects in her work are so special to her. By doing so, her illustrations are simultaneously private and public, and personally, that is pretty impressive.
Melissa’s process normally takes place in the late night private hours or in the fresh mornings, and each piece typically takes a few months. Some are easier than others and therefore take less time. The ones that fall into systems and categories she's already developed, so each piece really varies. She primarily uses chalk pastel, colored pencil, and graphite, but she likes to keep things simple and direct. She’s participated in several different art shows, one held by a dear friend to her, and now seems confident to move on to new and exciting artistic adventures as a recent graduate. She hopes to collaborate with artists in the future and potentially animate her drawings as well. Overall, there really isn’t anything she would produce that she wouldn’t be comfortable showing to the public sphere; “Being a woman who is going to be vocal and not chill, I’ve had negative responses to that, but it doesn’t bother me as much. I’ve thought about this, and I think what I’m making and saying is important. In general, when I’m nervous about if something is too personal, I find more people can connect to it.”
Lastly, I asked her to describe a moment for me during her creative process that particularly resonates with her. She tells me, “There’s just this feeling I get when I’m working on a drawing and I know it’s going to be a good one, even if it’s only five percent done. Just knowing I can overcome the challenges in the process, no matter what.” Melissa’s work can be found on her website melissaleejohnsonart.com where she continues to present inspiring images regularly. Wherever she wants to go, I’m confident she’ll get herself there.