I have a bit of an obsession. It’s with the subtitles of artist Melissa Monroe’s paintings. I know, it’s a very specific obsession but I can’t get enough of them. They speak volumes about her artwork, her life, her journey as a painter and her observations of the world around her. Themes of forward momentum, striving for more, personal improvement and pushing ahead are often referenced in her subtitles, which at a deeper level, speak to Monroe’s courage and desire for self-determination and stability. You can see these themes in the likes of 3 Months Later and Soft Sky:
“3 months later and you can barely see the past. Never go back. You will only forget if you let yourself.”
“Soft Sky. Here maps can be found. Forward not behind. Stop. Listen. Keep going.”
I was overjoyed when Monroe shared her new collection with me and I got to feed my obsession for her subtitles. Having selected five new pieces for the gallery, I wanted to find out from Monroe how her work has been developing and what she hopes to achieve over the next year and beyond.
Recently Monroe has had some time, after an insanely busy period, to reflect on her work. She shared with me that she has been looking at her paintings and noticing how they have evolved and deducing extra meaning from them. When Monroe first started painting she would work on her pieces for months, building layer upon layer but without a clear picture in her mind of the direction. Now she has more clarity and is using a more limited color palette in each piece. This is evident in the five new paintings we’ve just added to the gallery. Monroe has been paying more attention to her paint and colors, which she mixes from primaries.
Her paintings also have fewer words in them. She was concerned that people found the words distracting, focused too much on a particular word or were preoccupied with the spelling. Minimizing the number of words in her work wasn’t a conscious decision by Monroe but looking back on her work it’s something she has noticed. It also points to a downside of showing her work. She remains sensitive to the comments people make about her work, good and bad. She heard a curator of one show say she really liked a particular piece and wanted her to make more work in a similar vein, which in Monroe’s words, “really messed with my head.”
The concept of maps has been a recurrent theme in Monroe’s paintings. This is evident in Soft Sky. They are a reference to her journey, the path she is taking and the direction in which she is traveling. A symbol seen more recently in her work is the cross. Monroe grew up in a Christian house but then left the religion, shunning it in its entirety. Recently she was watching a show about the Vikings. In the show, one of the Vikings met a priest who was wearing a cross. This got her thinking about how she could take the good parts of Christianity back into her life and create her own spirituality.
I asked Monroe about the beast-like figures in her work. Rather than them being literal representations, they are symbols, some of human behaviors that we associate with particular animals. For example, the painting Sheep (2016) represents people or personality types that blindly follow each other or the crowd without knowing where they are going or thinking for themselves.
The Day I Ride A Giraffe (2015) is a reference to Monroe’s aspirations and the time in her life when she achieves her goals and accomplishes everything she wants. Monroe has a love for giraffes and used to collect them as a child. While she may have some way to go to riding her giraffe, she did get to feed a giraffe at a zoo during her recent trip to Mexico.
A trip to Mexico, where Monroe met artist and sculpture Brewster Brockmann, and visits to the natural history museums in Chicago and Vancouver, have played an influence in some of her recent work. Her interest in Native American art is also evident in her paintings. Less evident is the fact that Monroe took up pottery last year. In conversations with her partner, artist Jesse Reno, about how clay work had influenced her paintings, she discovered that paying attention to the shape of the pot helped her shape her figures in her 2-D pieces.
Monroe has been thinking a lot about her goals recently. She has had a number of shows in Portland, which she really enjoys but the amount of time it takes to prepare for shows has taken time away from painting. As such, she has decided that pursuing shows isn’t a priority for currently. Rather, supporting herself and her family by making and selling her work is the priority. She wants to develop her style in an unencumbered way, free from the influence and direction of others.
Monroe has moved a lot in the last two years. She has moved houses and moved studios but she is feeling very settled right now. Spanning her professional and personal life, the present and near future is all about her paintings and her kids.
She is now accepting that her work is good and she has grown in confidence as an artist. More comfortable with the label ‘artist’, when people ask her what she does, she’ll now say, “I’m a painter” or, “I paint pictures and sell them.” Monroe has received an abundance of positive feedback about her work, through her shows and through her social media channels. People have told her that she’s going to be the next Basquiat but with her own distinctive style. A sign of the recognition Monroe’s work is receiving is a conversation her sister was having with someone she had just met. Her sister was telling the individual about Monroe and her success. The individual knew of Monroe’s work, had been following her and going to her shows.
Monroe is at the stage where she has collectors that have been to all of her shows and her work is selling internationally. To date she has artwork in private collections in the United States, Canada, the UK, France, Greece, Mexico, Israel and Qatar.
So what does success look like for Monroe over the next 12 months? Continuing to grow and evolve her work, selling a lot more work, gaining more attention for her work and having more stability in her life for her and her kids. Monroe is at a point in her career and her life where she feels this is more possible. Mentally and emotionally she feels strong and has regained a lot of her energy. She has lived in the same home for the last year and is feeling more settled. Her kids are really proud of her and she is excited for their futures.