Interview with artist Melissa Webb

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In a Material World… An exhibition of costumes by Melissa Webb
Gallery Imperato
Opening Reception: August 14, 7-10 pm
August 14 – September 12, 2009

Local Artist Melissa Webb is preparing for a Solo Exhibition on August 14, 2009 at Gallery Imperato in Baltimore, MD. I caught up with her to ask her questions about her studio practice, her development as an artist, and her new work.

CO: Where did you study art? When did you graduate? What did you study? How did this experience shape your view of the role of the artist?

MW: I attended Maryland Institute, College of Art and received a BFA in Fibers under Annet Couwenberg and Piper Shepherd. While I was there I became interested in public art that could be experienced and appreciated by all types of people, not just other artists and art patrons. I saw many students there who were very focused upon moving right to NYC and getting gallery shows and I decided then that that was not the thing for me. I wanted to try something different than the average gallery exhibit format, to expose my work to people who don’t normally go out of their way to view art. I wanted to make public work that steps inside people’s daily lives, to throw a little monkey wrench into their perception of reality for a moment.

Back then a lot of students at MICA seemed to like using the word “craft” to insult one-another. I poked fun of this tendency for a little while when I was there by using things like puff paint and glitter in my work. As a fiber artist I grew to feel that craft, in the most serious sense of the word, was a very important thing to me. I began to think of myself as a crafts-person as well as a visual artist, and have worked hard since then to make things that anyone could potentially appreciate from that standpoint. I wanted for someone that had maybe turned away from an abstract painting feeling like it had gone over his or her head to be able to look at my work and say “Wow, that is really beautiful”. This artist put a lot of care and hard work into this.” Then perhaps they would feel at ease about taking a moment to look deeper and see the other layers of meaning in the piece.

CO: Also, how has your work evolved in the decade since you left art school?

Bigger stronger better… I am actually happy to say that I still have the same goals and ideals for my work that I did even in college, but I can execute them with much more efficiency and skill. Working in costume professionally really honed my skills as a designer and a fabricator. My years collaborating with local performance and filmmaking troupe aminibigcircus took me away from the self-centeredness taught in art school, and gave me the joy that I have for working with other artists. (Image: aminibigcircus’ production of “Sorry for the Coldfusion”, photo by Scott Pennington) Just recently I’ve made effort to focus on solo work as well. Right now I am trying to get myself back into the process of exploration and experimentation with materials that I did so much of in college.

CO: Where are you originally from and how has this impacted the art you make today?

MW: Westminster, Maryland, just like you Cara! When I was a kid, Westminster was so different than it is now. Our house was surrounded by farms and woods, and now it is a total strip mall sprawl-ville. I ran around in the woods all the time collecting samples of bugs, worms, salamanders, and crayfish, and bringing them home to examine. I have always admired nature and all things green and leafy… I am still completely obsessed with the color green. I just can’t seem to get enough of it. I feel so lucky to have grown up around a lot of natural beauty, and I just can’t imagine that my work would be the same had I grown up in the city with only a concrete park to play in, like so many kids in Baltimore.

(Image: “Grassman”, photo by aminibigcircus)

CO: What kind of jobs and occupations have you had to support your art career?

MW: When I got out of college I worked for three years at A.T. Jones and Sons Costumers, where we made lots of opera and masquerade costumes. I consciously took the job to become better at sewing so I could make my own stuff. This turned into a career-oriented focus upon becoming a costume designer for theatre. I spent 10 years trying to gain as much knowledge about all of the angles of theatre costume- wardrobe, manufacturing, and design. I worked at many different theatres in the Baltimore- DC area, and did a lot of costume commissions on my own as well. Through all of this I was making my own costume and installation work and performing with aminibigcircus. After a while, professional theatre turned stale for me. It just wasn’t paying me enough for all of the hard work the jobs demanded. The knowledge that professional costume gave me did feed and influence my own work, but the emergency room style panic of the commercial theatre world eventually started draining the life out of me as well as my art.

I was costumer / asst. designer at Everyman Theatre for about three years. It was at this point when I met actor Stan Weiman, who owns a custom interior design workroom. In 2003 I took a management position there that pays a lot more than theatre ever did, and with better hours. It has been a great job with great people, and it is only 30 hours a week so that has allowed me to spend lots of time on my work and maintain a studio away from home. Also, for the past six years I have taught stage production classes to middle school students at Baltimore School for the Arts. Looking at theatre from and educational perspective has been so much more rewarding to me than professional theatre ever was.

CO: What are you working on currently? What are you most interested in exploring in your upcoming projects?

MW: Currently I am getting ready to mount a show of my costumes and related collaborative photography at Gallery Imperato. Yes indeed, a gallery show… my first in a very long time. It will feature costumes from 1998 to present. I am busy re-vamping everything right now, because all of the pieces have been used in past performances, and some are quite worn. I am really enjoying revisiting some of my old work, because it is all still quite valid and exciting for me.

As for new projects, I recently completed a large, interactive, four-story outdoor installation piece involving costumed performance called “The Temporary Nature Ideas”, which was part of the 2009 Transmodern Festival at the H&H building. With this one I was working mostly solo for the first time in a long while. It was a wonderful chance to start an intuitive language with myself, and to let the materials speak for themselves and even lead the way at times. I am really looking forward to continuing this new dialogue.

(Images: “The Temporary Nature of Ideas”, photos by Eddie Winter)

I feel very happy with the new piece, and with the other large-scale work I have done or been a part of, though these endeavors tend to take a lot out of me. All of my big projects, collaborative or otherwise, tend to take a lot of energy, time, and money. I am looking forward to finding ways to keep making large works without putting the rest of my life on the backburner. I would like to work in series for a while, and make componential pieces that stand well on their own and can eventually be combined to create an environment.

CO: Who are your artistic influences and why?

MW: Julie Taymor, Bread and Puppet Theatre, and Pat Oleszko. These three were early and consistent influences of mine because each of these artists are big-thinking, multi-disciplined convention-smashers. They all think outside the limitations of established formats to clear their own, brand new path with their work, and are able to inspire masses of people through their use of touring shows and public art.

Julie Taymor does not compartmentalize her talents. We are a society of specializers, from when you pick your major in college all the way through our careers. Taymor proved to me that people can be and are more complex than this. She is a world-class sculptor and crafts-person, a puppet-maker, as well as a costume and set designer, director, and writer for experimental and visually oriented theatre and film. Her impressive range does not dilute the effects of her work. In her theatrical adaptation of “The Lion King”, Taymor’s credits include direction, mask, and puppet design, and collaborative costume and scenic design. The result of her multi-focused approach has revolutionized theatrical visual media, blowing all tradition out of the water. This is a woman who thinks big without compromising the details.

In 1998 I visited Bread and Puppet Theatre in Glover, VT, that fateful year that Peter Schumann and friends decided to end their yearly Domestic Resurrection Circus and Pageant weekend. I loved how they used the entire landscape to create a massive live performance, with visual elements appearing on the horizon and approaching from all directions. They recruited legions of audience volunteers to operate beautiful, ethereal giant puppets. Mystical puppet habitats could be found hidden in the dense forests surrounding the outdoor theatre. Costumed stilt-walkers created extra height and movement throughout the performances. All were welcome to the experience for free. Seeing Bread and Puppet create such visual and theatrical wonder without the use of the traditional stage format affirmed for me that this was not only possible, but could also be even more welcoming and awe-inspiring.

At MICA several students, including myself, we were asked to participate in a weeklong intensive performance workshop with NYC performance artist Pat Oleszko. None of us were ever the same! Pat taught us how to build a public performance using whatever materials we had available around us, and to do it fast and well. This was immediately following the fire that destroyed Clipper Mill, which at the time was filled with artists and craftspeople. Our production took place on the burned site, and memorialized the history of the complex. We tried to create a show that would bring closure and comfort to everyone who lost their life’s work. It was an emotional process, but an amazing one. After the workshop, all of us felt completely validated and motivated to create the work we wanted to. MICA was not big into performance at the time, but that changed after Pat’s visit. Groups and alliances formed, and suddenly we were out there in the community making visually exciting public spectacles and testing traditional artistic boundaries.

CO: What is your favorite medium to work with and why?

MW: Ha! I get to claim everything here because I am a fiber person. Fiber encompasses all pliable lines and pliable planes, standing on their own or used with non-pliable materials! If I had to pick one specific material though, I would have to choose thread. It does everything. I couldn’t possibly make any of my work without it. A sort of trademark of mine for years has been these tendrils I make by cutting strips of fabric and fusing the edges with my industrial serger (aka over-lock) machine. The machine is normally used to keep the seamed edges on the insides of garments from fraying, so I suppose I am using this tool in an unconventional way. This process uses quite a bit of thread.

I also want to mention photography here- it is very important for me to document the situations or performances I am involved in, since they are so labor intensive to set up and difficult to repeat or travel with. Photography is my chosen medium for this because it can capture the exact moments one wishes to present to the world. This moment on film becomes a work of art all its own. I love taking pictures myself, and I especially enjoy collaborating with photographers. I much prefer photography to video, which I feel distorts things, and there is too much junk to wade through to get to the meat of the work.

(Image: “Death Dance Bird”, photo by Uli Loskot)

CO: Your work tends to combine performative acts, often in large coordinated groups of people? How do you organize these events? How do you evaluate their success?

MW: I consider organizing a natural part of my work. Sometimes I even think I am better at organizing than I am at making the art itself. I think it’s actually easier to make something big come together organizationally than it is figuring out what that thing should be in the first place! The process of organizing is very fluid. It has to be. You have to roll with it and not demand too much of the folks you are working with, yet take full advantage of the resources and people available to you at the same time. It is important to make it fun and enriching for folks, so they can get as much out of a project as they wish to put in.

Facilitation and collaboration in lieu of direction and dictation is the key. So is keeping your cool no matter what, which is sometimes hard when you work with large groups of folks on projects that mean a lot to you. I always tell people, if there is somebody you don’t like working with, I think it is better to just get through the project and finish peacefully than to make a big stink about it and ruin everyone’s good time. You can always decide later whether you wish to work with them again in the future.

I would say success in working with other people for me is the measure of how much fun everyone has doing it, of course how much observers and / or participants enjoy it. It is also about what everyone takes away from the experience, and how much was learned and built upon in the process of making and performing the piece.

(The image shown is of “@$#%!!” aka “Gnome Booth” by Melissa Webb, M. Jane Taylor, and Company, Artscape 2007. This interactive installation featured 46 performers over 3 days. Photo by Melissa Webb)

CO: Feminist art of the sixties recognized and elevated traditional female crafts, such as sewing, knitting, and other fiber-based practices, which were seen as ‘mere craft’ and not ‘high art’ before that. Do you consider yourself a feminist artist? What do you think the art world has gained from the feminist art movement?

Topiary Woman

MW: I wouldn’t specifically refer to myself as a feminist artist, but there are definitely elements that relate to feminism in my work. As a female who works in costume, most of my work has sort of naturally focused on the female body, and some of my pieces have dealt with issues of femininity, sexuality, and social perceptions of our bodies. One piece, entitled “Topiary Woman” (pictured, photo by Lisa Dietrich) compares historical alterations of the female body to that of a constantly pruned topiary bush, speaking to the tendencies of humans to control nature as well as the human form. Another piece, entitled “Ballerinas- The Three Fates, Maiden, Mother, and Crone” (shown here in a scene from aminibigcircus’ “Cari Amici: Our Magic Show Moovee”, photo by Alexander Webb) illustrates age-oriented stereotypes of women dressed in over-the-top pink ruffles and frills.

Fiber-art and performance art share a commonality in that they tend to be female dominated mediums. To appreciate feminist art, one thing to do is just look to the sheer volume of great work that has been added to the pool since the sixties, and specifically to the vast addition of new materials and approaches. Many talented women came on the scene during the feminist art movement and started getting people’s attention with their unapologetically raw imagery and subject matter… they weren’t afraid to speak about taboo subjects relating to women’s bodies, love, sex, and so many other previously taboo and unexplored topics. These women broke down boundaries that for one thing, allow artists working today to say what they want with their art, however they wish to with out it being perceived as simply about shock value.

CO: On your Baker Awards Site, you have documented a performance piece called ‘Uppity Ladies’ which has received a lot of interest and attention. How did this project come about? Why do you think people relate to this piece?

MW: Uppity Ladies was collaboration with M. Jane Taylor, and with the company of folks we chose to play the different characters in the piece. I was asked by Sarada Conaway to do some stilting at the Transmodern Festival in 2007. The idea came to me to have Victorian tea party on stilts. Jane and I decided to collaborate, and together our ideas developed into something much larger than we imagined it would be in the beginning. We wanted the piece to speak partly about class-system and labor issues, and originally the workers were going to be people in sort of stylized rags or something. One day though we were staring at a “worker” costume, both feeling like something was wrong, and we decided that the missing element was humor. It was just too serious. So Jane says, “How about garden gnomes?”… and there we had it.

I think people related to “Uppity Ladies” in lots of different ways- they loved the Ladies’ costumes for example, and the energetic butler who was the go-between for the other characters, but I think the gnomes were what really did it for a lot of people. The idea of garden gnomes as slaves that use their bodies as croquet wickets and mount protests for cupcakes really amused everyone, I would say all of us especially. It was such a fun thing to do, and we were all really proud of it.

(Images: “Uppity Ladies”, photos by Uli Loskot)

CO: You have a studio at the Load of Fun Building and seem to participate in many events there. How does being a part of a creative community influence your work? What are the advantages and disadvantages to keeping a studio in a communal artist building?

MW: There are so many advantages to being part of an art community like Load of Fun, and no particular disadvantages that I can think of. In the past I lived and had a studio at the Whole Gallery at the H&H building for 6 years, and after that I worked for a time at my home in Sowebo. Now at Load of Fun I think I finally found the perfect way to work, separate from my or anyone else’s living space. When you work out of your home there are so many excuses not to make your art. I always felt like I had to have my plate clean to be ready to make stuff, like I had to make sure the laundry was done or do the dishes or whatever before I could get going. When I am at my studio now I am there to work.

The size of my work is an issue too- in the couple of years I lived in Sowebo I didn’t have room to store parts of installations, so my work focused only on small costume pieces during that time. Since I moved my studio into the Load of Fun and got more space, my work has gotten very large.

Several of my good friends also have studios at LOF, and we get to talk to each other about the work we are doing and the goals we have for ourselves. It such a valuable thing to get feedback from other artists while you are in the process of making… also it is really nice to take breaks and chat or go get a bite to eat together! Load of Fun is filled with people who are serious about their work. It helps me to be motivated to keep my own work going strong.

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