By Kathleen Stevens
I sat down with Melissa Dunn to discuss her artistic process on multiple occasions and in multiple locations; the following interview is the latest in a series of discussions we had over the past few years about art, life, living, being a woman, being Gen X, tea, pets, family, and other minutiae that matter not much to everyone. This time, we met at my sunlit kitchen table, surrounded by a child’s art and floral steam from a pot of jasmine green tea.
Kathleen Stevens: In a nutshell, what’s your current process?
Melissa Dunn: I live life, I draw, I paint, I read, I write. Repeat.
Drawing is consistently there. I don’t paint every day, but I draw every day. I also write every day. Life does have to be lived, and that’s a big part of the drawing. The writing helps me connect the life experiences to the drawing—they come together to come up with the idea for a painting. The writing is the bridge, the conduit, and out of the combination of those three things (drawing, living, writing), the painting emerges.
What makes art work for you? What’s the key component of your practice that everything else is built on? Why do you need a daily visual/handwork practice?
I draw every day to find shapes. The shapes are the backbone of my paintings, and I find these shape relationships so interesting that in 2002 I took imagery out of my work. I’m still making these various shape juxtapositions. They seem almost infinite to me. I keep coming back to my curiosity about shape. That’s not real glamorous, but that’s the purest, most honest answer I can give.
Buckminster Fuller said: “What is it on this planet that needs doing that I know something about, that probably won’t happen unless I take responsibility for it?” When I read [that quote], I realized, I can simplify all of this. I gave myself permission to say my work is about shape and color.
In my studio process, I’m taking full responsibility for [shape and color]. Sometimes I wonder if the world needs more abstract paintings in 2020, but no one is going to make these paintings. I feel like I’m polishing a stone. It takes me so long to make these paintings the way I want them. A lot of that time is just thinking and looking. I do a pass that takes two hours, but I may have looked at it for 2 months.
This person describing my work to someone else said: “She’s a painter. She makes these abstract paintings that don’t look like animals, but they’re, like, animals.” And I knew exactly what she meant. They’re alive. They’re alive and they’re vibrating, and I don’t know why these two squares are making me feel what I feel, but that’s what I want them to do—to become their own thing that people can engage with.
Why is repetition—repetitive motion, repetitive practice—important to you in your work?
Repetition is important because I want to be able for others to see my hand, my arm, my physical gestures—in the work. I want to make a certain line or certain mark or shape to have this sort of feeling that it does when I make a quick drawing. To make it so it’s not stiff or constrained, I draw it over and over and over again. In order to get the freedom in the painting I have to do the repetition. I want to be able to do it quick and do it fast. There’s a lot of planning vs. discovery. In the drawing, there’s a lot of discovery. When I go to make a painting, I usually have a plan. I want the feeling of discovery without losing the ability to plan.
If I spend three hours drawing something, I embody it when it’s time to paint. It’s a bodily thing; my art is very physical.
I love to paint big because it feels so good in my body. It’s not always the right thing to do, because you don’t move all the work you make and I have to tell myself, “You may live with this, do you have a space to put it?”
Art is often a solitary act. Why do you choose to bring a social component into your studio practice?
I thoroughly enjoy learning about other artists and seeing other artists work on Instagram, but it doesn’t replace one-on-one conversation, people coming into my studio and having conversations about my work. That’s real important to me—having someone see what I’m working on, and then asking me good questions about it. I don’t want to make work in a vacuum. It’s important to invite people into your studio.
In Memphis—it’s a small art community, but it’s a kind art community. Artists in Memphis are incredibly generous. Every time I’ve asked people to come into my studio, they have.
What are some of the benefits of inviting people into your studio practice? What are some of the disadvantages?
When you have your nose up to the glass in your studio practice, you don’t see your own evolution, whereas someone else might be able to point it out. My work is kind of like a river; it’s these ideas and they wash down, and they’re a continuation. If I want to see the evolution, bringing someone else in helps me see I’m doing something different here. Inviting artists into your studio gives you a sense of perspective.
The disadvantage is when someone slips in as though they’re in a grad school critique: “I see you’re doing this, why don’t you try that?” In art school, it’s all about what you can do differently to move [your art] forward. I’m doing exactly what I’m doing because it’s what I need to do now. We have to be careful when giving each other feedback NOT to fall into those habits.
Sometimes I want a fixer, and sometimes I want a witness.
How do you incorporate social engagement into your solo, in-home studio practice?
In 2016 after the election, I felt very helpless and hopeless and did not know how best to direct my energy. What I decided, for me, was to have more small gatherings around the act of making. That could be someone knitting and me drawing—I have a friend who works with wire while I draw—what it does is this, sort of, sewing circle idea.
You’re gathered with other people with something occupying your hands, and there’s plenty of room for comfortable silences where conversations could potentially go below the surface of chit-chat. So we can grieve together, commiserate, and talk about as artists what our role is in the midst of all of this.
Your work often contains references to textile patterns—to traditional “women’s” crafts—but they’re subtle. How important is it that people get that aspect of your work?
It’s not important if people get it. I do a lot of research—part of that is looking at craft, at textiles, thinking about women’s work, domesticity, feminism, all of these things. When it comes to my paintings, it’s just filtered in—you might see a thread or a pattern or joinery or a gradation I pulled from a drag queen on a YouTube makeup tutorial. It’s not a matter of what I make work about; it’s about how I take one thing and pull on this thread for this painting. A big part of what I do in the studio is editing.
I’m definitely very conscious about taking my eyeballs out into the world—having experiences that are very tactile is very important to my work.
Your work also often contains a lot of interior space. We’ve talked before about how your paintings can almost function as vessels. Do you feel that relates to how you want viewers to construct meaning from your work?
I have an interior life that nobody sees—it’s mine. I’m trusting that when people see my work, they too have that, and maybe we can connect on that level. It’s non-verbal, experiential, and it requires a lot of trust in them from me. So sometimes that does influence the actual shapes that I make—they’re womb-like, or vaginal, or organic, and sometimes they’re linear and geometric—but those are different types of holding spaces.
Where does that difference come from, for you?
I like the contrast between the two. I need both—that visual tension. I love when straight lines intersect with organic lines. I’m very inspired by striation, by layering in rocks, and the symmetry is so soothing especially when it comes next to a container (which is a craggy, organic, non-linear thing).
And those are just metaphors.
Kathleen Stevens is a Memphis artist working in multiple mediums.