Alumnae Spotlight: Melissa Jay CraigMarch 30, 2015
Chicago-based artist Melissa Jay Craig first came to WSW for a papermaking residency in 2009, when she produced the installation LISTEN. Her sculptural works of handmade paper explore multi-sensory readings of the natural landscape and suggest messages in the environment. In addition to exhibiting internationally, Melissa teaches workshops throughout the country, including at WSW’s own Summer Art Institute.
This summer, Melissa returns to our Hudson Valley studios to create a site-specific installation for the au·gust art festival and teach Unusual 3D Techniques for Papermakers, which for the first time, is being offered for a full week! We catch up with Melissa to see what she’s been doing since her time at WSW.
Seven year ago, you produced LISTEN, an installation of vibrantly colored paper lichen that suggest messages we’re unable to decipher. How has your work has evolved since?
My work’s always evolving in different directions at once. LISTEN was a pivotal piece that directly evolved into a series of works that toyed with the idea of communication offered by lichens and fungi. Though I’m not completely sure that that series is finished yet, it has evolved into another series examining possible messages coded at the cellular level; I’m currently working with imagery derived from microscopic cross-sections of plant roots and stems.
I’ve moved other works out into the landscape since then, and I continue to make bookworks that compare and contrast cycles in nature with the way we ingest and process knowledge. Fungi, lichens, trees, the patterns of plant growth and the dispersal of seeds all suggest languages to me.
After The Monitors, you began creating site-specific outdoor installations. I’m thinking of Required Reading (2013), where your work creates a book form by interacting with a tree, and Mirror-Touch (2013), where a moss-like hand climbs up a tree. Tell me about that shift: what moved your work in this direction? Why paper outside?
In some ways, The Monitors returns to a much earlier way of working. When I was in my 20s, I worked with a group of friends, surreptitiously altering urban spaces in Cleveland in the dead of night. We called what we did non-commissioned public works. The thing that excited me most about them was how they transformed the urban landscape, functioning as portals that hinted at another existence.
When the first of The Monitors went up, the landscape just leapt, and it brought that experience back in a personally satisfying way. I’ve always admired artists who work with materials they find on-site, so moving plant-based paper back out into the landscape is simply a longer trajectory of harvesting and processing before returning cellulose to its origins.
In your statement about (S)Edition, I love the story you tell about being a kid, feeling as though the earth contained messages for those curious enough to look. I’m fascinated by the magical worlds your work hints at—a place where forest trees might have ears, or fungal books might take flight. Your writing suggests that this otherworldly place is actually the one beneath our feet. How do you “listen to” and “read” these stories through your work?
I’m glad you used the word “suggest” because that’s exactly what I’m doing, really all I can do. I’m someone who experiences the land in an intense, deeply personal way. Being in any kind of natural environment is where I feel the most alive, most attuned, most connected. Robert Macfarlane recently wrote, “There are experiences of landscape that will always resist articulation, and of which words offer only a distant echo.” There is also the Japanese concept of yūgen, an awareness that triggers emotional responses too mysterious for words. Those are the zones in which my work operates, the multi-sensory “reading” I try to manifest or at least hint at. And always keeping in mind that we are not simply on the earth, we are of it.
How has losing your hearing influenced how you think about communication, information, and knowledge?
I’ve talked many times about the pivotal experience of suddenly discovering that I was reading lips rather than hearing, and how astounding it was to realize that my body and/or brain had made such an enormous substitution without my conscious knowledge. Losing one of your senses brings how you use the others into focus. We understand and read with so much more than conventional language. This fascinates me.
The bodily knowledge you’re describing plays an important role in your process. Is one of your goals to encourage or challenge your viewers to experience their environment in a multi-sensory, intuitive way?
I hope so; it’s one of the reasons I rarely use conventional language in the work. There’s a moment when information that arrives through our eyes can suddenly engage all our senses simultaneously and totally; then the intellect follows, parses, creates explanations or (better yet) stories, possibilities about what’s been seen. The closest term for it might be resonance.
That’s what I’m always looking for in my work, and I’m the first person who must experience it. I believe that all our reactions are multi-sensory, though the part of our intellect that deals with words can be so arrogant that it may negate or override what we experience “intuitively.”
Lately, you’ve received quite a bit of recognition; your work exhibited with the Morgan Conservatory and ZIA Gallery, and featured in Surface Design Journal and NPR Books. You teach workshops throughout the summer (including one at WSW this August), and exhibit internationally. How do you set aside time and space for art-making?
I’m adaptable. I can work quite well in intense environments but I prefer to experience that energy in small chunks. The studio is simply vital to me. Setting time aside has been a lifelong practice that adapted to fit whatever my other circumstances were, and it began long before my work received any recognition at all, well before I decided to get a degree, well before I had my first show.
I try to hold two or three classes each summer; I really enjoy that vital exchange (and I love teaching at WSW—really, being there for any reason.) I factor in time for my small garden, where I grow some papermaking fibers for annual harvests and processing. I’m incredibly fortunate to set aside time for a yearly residency at the Ragdale Foundation. Often, I’ll find a second residency, too.
After blocking out the time for exhibitions, the rest of the year I keep open. I have two small studios and an office in our house; when time opens up, I grab it. There are a couple of other spaces in the house where I hang work in progress, intriguing test results, sketches, quotes and things I’m thinking about. I see them every day, so my work is never out of my consciousness.
Lastly, one question we ask all our alumnae: what advice would you give to emerging women artists?
I can’t improve on Louise Bourgeois: “Tell your own story, and you will be interesting. Don’t get the green disease of envy. Don’t be fooled by success and money. Don’t let anything come between you and your work.” She’s just spot on. Make sure you always keep the work in sight. Nothing is more important; everything else springs from keeping your work at the heart of your life.
This summer, catch Melissa teaching the seven-day workshop Unusual 3D Techniques for Papermakers during WSW’s Summer Art Institute. Space is limited, so register for Melissa’s workshop today! She’s exhibiting with ZIA Gallery and Minnesota Center for Book Arts this April. View more of her work at melissajaycraig.com, and follow her projects on Facebook and sometimes on her blog.