NJ: When I interview artists, I like to bring together my two worlds of psychology and art. As well as giving people insights into your work, through this interview I want readers to gain a deeper understanding of you, your background, your values, what drives you and what matters to you. I believe that the more the audience knows about an artist, the more meaning they can derive from that artist’s work. With that in mind, can we start with your background. Tell me about your upbringing and early years.
MM: I was an only child until I was 12 when my parents adopted my sister. My parents were very religious, so I went to church on Sundays and church camp. This wasn’t my decision; it wasn’t left for me to decide. My parents told me I had to be a Christian; my dad was the pastor and I was home-schooled until third grade. Church taught me moral values and I met some really good friends there but it screwed with my head. I realized recently that I didn’t make decisions for myself. I didn’t have a choice; I couldn’t say, “I don’t believe in this.” At 15, I rebelled in all the usual ways, drinking, smoking cigarettes, getting into trouble. I moved out as soon as I could at 18.
MM: My parents weren’t happy together. They were very disconnected and did their own things. My dad very depressed. He isolated himself and felt that nobody cared about him or loved him and that the church didn’t understand him. He put a lot of that on me. It was hard for my dad when I moved out. I had a boyfriend at the time and he would stay at my apartment because his parents were drug addicts. My dad would drive by the apartment and see my boyfriend’s car outside. He told me, “If he doesn’t stop staying at your house, I won’t pay for your college any more.” My response was “Ok, I’ll just get married then.” The next day we went to get the paperwork and were married later that week. I was 19 at the time and it wasn’t a good relationship. He was very dependent on me but I still wasn’t able to make decisions for myself. I was at community college but I had no real goals. He said, “Lets have a baby” and I got pregnant two months later. I had to stop school because I was working full time and had a baby on the way. I always wanted to be passionate about something but I never had any direction. I was never told I was good at something. My teachers at school thought I was depressed. I couldn’t spell or write well. I think I’m dyslexic.
NJ: You were dealing with a lot at a relatively young age. What outlets did you have away from all this? Did you have other people in your life that you could talk to or confide in?
MM: No, not really. I was alone a lot. I had a friend who was like an older sister at the church. I confided in her that I had been drinking and smoking weed and she told on me. The church was very judgmental. By the time I was 18, my mum was severely depressed. She’d go to work, come home and go to bed until my dad went to work. My parents got divorced when I was 22. My dad relied on me for emotional support and I said to myself, “Fuck you, I’m not going to do this anymore.” We still have a lot of friction.
NJ: As a teenager and as you made the journey into adulthood, what was your view of yourself. What was your self esteem like?
MM: At school, I was always the nice, funny one; the class clown. I liked to make jokes. I didn’t take things too seriously but I didn’t make my own decisions. I also saw myself as a hard worker and that I could take care of myself. Five months into my first pregnancy, my husband cheated on me. It really messed with my head. Someone from the church came over to counsel us and said Christianity is all about forgiveness, so I just forgave him.
NJ: With all this going on, and with a sense that you weren’t in charge of your own decisions, did you have any view about the job or career you wanted?
MM: I was working at Michael’s, the arts and crafts store, as a manager and got good pay for that. I took care of my three kids and tried to take care of my husband. He had drug problems the whole time we were married. Every now and again I thought, “maybe I’ll go back to college.” I originally wanted to be a high school teacher or maybe a doula. I did a lot of pottery in high school and college. I really liked doing it but I didn’t have any examples around me of people who had done anything awesome. I had a lot of sad people around me. I was stuck in a marriage that I didn’t realize I was allowed to leave. This was my life; I was depressed and drinking a lot. My fun thing to do was go out with my friends, get drunk and dance.
NJ: I’m really eager to know, what was the turning point?
MM: My sister-in-law got me a job at a coffee shop in a cool part of Portland. I met really cool people, including Jesse (Reno). People liked me. The customers were so involved. They got their coffee every day and I could talk about whatever I wanted. I had one customer say to me, “What are you going to do about it? You need to go to a counselor.” Then my husband did some things that were totally horrible and I came home one night after being out and I said, “I’m done.” I had no plan.
MM: I remember seeing Jesse paint a mural at the cafe. I didn’t look at him and think, “I could do that” but I saw that people can just paint, it doesn’t have to be your job. I was home so much at night and after I put the kids to bed I’d drink or watch TV. One night, I decided to paint. I used house paint and no brush. I just poured it on. I felt like I was doing something, making something. People at the cafe asked me the next day what did last night and I told people them I painted.
NJ: How did your confidence and sense of worth grow at this time, given everything you had been through?
MM: My confidence grew when I started working at the cafe. When I left my husband I realized I could do whatever I wanted. He used to put me down about my painting. “Why are you doing this? It’s ugly. You made a mess.” My sister-in-law was supportive of me, especially during the last year of my marriage. She was so supportive of my painting. Jesse has also played a big role. We became friends at the cafe and helped each other make decisions by telling each other the truth instead of diluting it with what we thought the other person wanted to hear. I remember our first long conversation and I told him things that I had never told anyone. It was just so easy and we told each other all these things you probably wouldn’t say to a new boyfriend or girlfriend. That was such a cool part of our relationship; we were friends first. Jesse has been a full time artist for 10 years but he just pulled out a painting and let me paint on it. He is amazing to watch. He wouldn’t tell me what to do. We just painted together. At the same time, we bought the cafe I was working in, together with an investor and another partner. I was working in the cafe and painting as much as I could. I started posting my work on Instagram and for my birthday, Jesse set up my website. I wouldn’t be here without him.
NJ: It sounds like everything was starting to move in a really positive direction and was coming together for you?
MM: It was but that May, my business partner dissolved the LLC and fired me from my own business; he kicked me out. The cafe had been a huge part of my transition and I felt so helpless. I remember saying to him, “You are taking my most important things away from me.” We called the cops and they told us we’d have to take him to court. The day he kicked me out the cafe was the day I was going to my final divorce hearing. I learnt so much about how horrible people can be. I’m generally over-trusting. At that time, the cafe was more important than painting. It was doing well and making money. After that, I didn’t get another job but started painting more and painting became more important to me. Then Jesse opened up his gallery-studio, which wouldn’t have happened if we’d still had the cafe. I started understanding more about painting and was painting 40 hours a week but I didn’t know who Basquiat was until about a year ago. I just knew the likes of Van Gogh. I never went to galleries.
NJ: Did you start sharing your work with other people as you painted more?
MM: Instagram has been huge for me. In Portland, I’ve been going to show people my work and I emailed one of the biggest Outsider Art galleries in Chicago. They emailed back and said they really liked my work but they weren’t taking new artists. I have been lucky. I look at other people’s work and I can see how my work is good. I paint a lot. Pretty much I can pay my bills from it at this point. I help Jesse out with his gallery-studio. He lets me use all his equipment. He encourages me. My dad and mom, despite the issues we’ve had, have been very supportive of my artwork and are happy that I am happy.
NJ: That’s fantastic. How has your work been evolving as painting has become your primary focus?
MM: I am trying to do what I want to do. I’m not just painting more of what people have said they like about my work. I am trying to be in the moment. I really like making this brush stroke right now or using these colors right now. I don’t want what people say they like about my work to define what I am doing although I do want Jesse to like my work. This is the only thing I have ever had for myself. I’ve always done things for everyone else but this is the one thing I have for myself. I am trying to evolve as myself, not based off other people.
NJ: Do you want to go back to school and take art classes or do you want to evolve and grow on your own as an artist?
MM: I am going back to pottery studio. I’m really excited about that but I have no desire to go back to school. The best way for me to learn is to just do it.
NJ: Have you noticed your work changing at all in the last year and if so, how?
MM: Yes, I have been working on a lot of abstracts in the last month. I had two big ones and I sold them almost right away. I feel like that’s going back to where I started by breaking glass and making a mess. I really like doing faces and figures but the abstract work has been a nice break from that. I was getting caught up in making faces. There is no plan though. I may do these crazy abstracts for a while and then go back to the faces and somehow bring the two together into one.
NJ: When I first saw your work, it fell into two camps. On the one hand there were the faces and figures and one the other hand the structures, buildings and igloos.
MM: I was just speaking to Jesse about this. I always liked architecture, shapes and angles. I was sitting in our studio and there was a big house across the street and I said, “I know, I’ll draw this house.” It was a wonky-looking house. That started it. As for the igloo, it just appeared. I never set out to draw an igloo. I was just making shapes and then painted over part of the piece and discovered the igloo. Once the igloo appeared a few times, I started to think about what it makes me feel. Obviously, I’m painting it for a reason, so why? It’s something small and cozy but it’s temporary and made of ice and snow. It’s shelter. When something is temporary but needed, like my marriage, I held on to it for too long. It’s about realizing what’s temporary and what’s not. I had a lot of friends I had to get rid of because they were bad influences or didn’t get me and what I was doing. I believe everything happens for a reason. Maybe that’s my view because I can make the best of what happens. Losing the cafe was hard and it was temporary but without it I wouldn’t have moved on. In a similar way, When I’m mad at a painting, I put ugly colors all over it and it makes me move on. With my paintings, there are many layers under a finished piece that are temporary but needed. There could be a really amazing part of a painting that I base the entire painting on and then at the end I paint over that part. But without it being there during the process the entire painting would be different.
NJ: I find that so interesting. We often associate something that’s temporary as not always being positive but you have found a link between impermanence, necessity and the good that can follow. But at the same time, it seems like you don’t start your work with a specific, intentional concept in mind. Rather, the process is iterative and the meaning can come after. As you continue to paint, what’s your definition of success as an artist?
MM: I’ve been struggling with that recently. The main thing now is to be able to support myself and pay my bills. I’ve always lived month to month. I’ve never had money. I’d like to be able to relax and have the money. Success would mean being able to paint all the time and not to be stressed about monetary things. I’d like to have a home, be happy and paint. I have these temporary highs, “I just got a show,” “I just sold a painting” but this can mess with you because it’s temporary. In the long term, I just want to be able to be home with my kids and show them this can be done.
NJ: I can completely identify with the temporary highs. I have experienced the same feelings with the gallery. As you think about your journey, what are you most proud of today in terms of what you have achieved?
MM: I think my biggest achievements are making decisions for myself and doing something I really love. I never thought I would be here. It’s unbelievable but it’s not luck. I made the decisions along the way. I could have chickened out several times. I’m proud that I allowed myself to be me and I just did it.
NJ: What was the feeling like of selling work internationally for the first time?
MM: Really weird. I put my work on eBay and one guy bought six pieces. It’s turned out to be the same person who had bought work from Jesse when he started painting. There is a guy in Greece that has bought about 15 paintings and I recently sold a painting in Israel. They found my work online. They were so nice and sent me a picture of where it is in their house and they like the fact that it came all the way from Portland. The relationships I have built with people through all this has been amazing. I never thought I’d be talking to you. I have sold 100 pieces in my first year as a painter. No one tells you that you can do that.
NJ: Based on your experiences, what would your message be to a struggling artist that is finding it hard to break through?
MM: First, you have to like it. I’ve met a lot of artists and some of them don’t even like painting. You have to like it and do it all the time. You have to be willing to sell your work for less. Letting go of your work is important so it’s out there and lets you make more. People expect thousands of dollars for their work straight away and then they don’t sell anything.
NJ: Is there one painting you are particularly proud of?
MM: A really transitional piece for me was Stone. I love that piece. I have it hanging in the studio. It was an igloo for a long time. The white part of the eye was an igloo. It was one of the first faces I did. It happened so quickly and felt so good. I like the way it looks. All the firsts in a new style give me a rush; when it’s something completely new that no-one has ever seen from me before. I had a psychic reading and she saw that I was an artist in a past life a very long time ago and that I’m able to do this because I have some experience from a past life. I don’t know if I believe it but it’s interesting. What if you are pulling stuff from the past you know nothing about? Maybe you are remembering something you forgot. Like a dragon, I have tough scales. If I hadn’t found painting and made decisions I would be stuck in my old life or something worse. Painting has saved my life be it my spiritual or actual life.
NJ: Our blog, 48 Minutes, is all about busy people with demanding jobs and full lives taking 48 minutes, the average commute time for a New Yorker, for themselves. What would you do with a spare 48 minutes?
MM: I rarely have 48 minutes. I enjoy listening to music. I’ve been trying to make it a point to bring new music into my life. That and journaling and writing out my thoughts. Giving myself time to think about one specific idea. I’d like to think through something rather than just floating between thoughts. Just being able to concentrate and actually think. My three kids are constantly talking to me so having time to think without having to answer their questions would be nice.
NJ: What’s one thing you want to achieve or do in your life that you haven’t yet done?
MM: I’d like to be able to travel more. I’d like to go on a vacation; backpacking through Europe and being able to really enjoy it and see stuff. Eventually, I’d like to take my kids with me and relax. I just want to be able to chill out. I’m getting better at it. I want to say to other people, to my friends, if you want something you can do it. You just have to do it. So many people think about what they want to do but don’t ever do it. Ego can play such a huge role so you have to keep it in check. A lot of my friends think, “Oh Melissa’s a painter now” but I am still the same person. They got the wrong impression. It’s important for me to keep my ego in control.
NJ: When I left the world of psychology after almost 20 years, I struggled with my identity. After I started the gallery and I met people, they’d ask me, “What do you do?” I found myself saying, “I used to be the MD …..” Finally I had to have a talk with myself and own my new life, which I am loving. So finally, how much of your identity is wrapped up in you being an artist?
MM: I do feel different now. It’s confusing for me when I meet people. They see me as a painter and I don’t know how to react to that. I put myself down. I’m learning to accept it without thinking I’m a superstar. People used to introduce me by saying, “This is Melissa, she has three kids” but that doesn’t define me. It bothered me when people introduced me that way. I remember a woman from the cafe, she is in her 80s and she went back to college when she was 75. She asked me, “Who are you?” and I didn’t have an answer. I’d like to spend time thinking more about who I am, what I’m trying to do and my purpose.