Friday, February 20, 2009

Studio Visit with Melissa Webb

A studio visit with Baltimore fiber artist Melissa Webb at her Load of Fun work space.
Interviewed by Jaclyn Paul

JP: Would you mind telling me a little bit about where you come from? Are you originally from Baltimore?

MW: I'm from Westminster, which is 40 minutes north of here. I lived there until I was 17 and moved here to go to MICA, and I've been here ever since!

JP: So what made you stay in Baltimore? I feel like graduating from art school there's pressure to go to these “art centers” -- NYC, etc.

MW: Well, there are a lot of reasons. Family is one. I felt like I had a good network here, and it's inexpensive. I was able to move pretty quickly into the [H&H] warehouse space. I couldn't have gotten that kind of space [in New York] and lived off the very little money I was able to make when I got out of college. I also felt like New York would be too fast-paced for me. Philosophically I've always believed – and I was a lot more hardcore about this when I was younger – but I was like “who the hell does New York think it is?” You know, art is for everyone, and I want to spread it around here. I don't want to be like everybody else and run up there and try to stand out in this crowd of thousands and thousands of people.

JP: As someone relatively new to Baltimore, it seems to me like there's a great art community here.

MW: It definitely paid off to stay here because there's so much going on, so much good stuff. I think it rivals many places right now, the vast, rich amount of different mediums people are working in and how they're making hybrids of all of them. Everyone's collaborating, it's neat.

JP: So were you able to do your work full-time right after graduating?

MW: I've only had the opportunity to do that here and there over the years. But I got right into learning a craft. I worked for A.T. Jones & Sons, which is a masquerade and opera costume place on Howard Street, so I was able to learn how to sew really well there. That's what I wanted, and it was feeding my art. Then I got into theater. For about 10 years I was doing theater in either permanent positions or working commissions.

JP: So where are you now?

MW: Right around 2003, I was working at Everyman Theater. I met my current boss there, who is a company member and he also has a drapery company. They needed somebody in management. It was great because it was much better money than I'd made in a while and I didn't have to worry about it after I left. I could just go ahead and work in my studio or do projects, and since my boss in an actor, all of the hours are set up so he [can] go run tech. We have off Friday-Saturday-Sunday..and we get off at 4:00 so he can go to the theater. I've been there for almost 7 years. They're wonderful people and I get all kinds of [free] fabric and trims from them, so that's really good.

JP: How do you feel about living and making art in the same space (vs. having a separate studio)?

MW: I've done it a lot, in fact this is the only time I've had a separate studio from where I live since I was in school and I like it both ways for different reasons. I like getting away from home, and I like the fact that when you're in your studio, you're going to work because you're making time for it. But then again, it's out of sight out of mind sometimes. Before, my art was all over – it was, like, my d├ęcor in my house, so I was inspired. Then I lived at H&H, and that was cool. We had shows, and I had a full studio with my room there, and I was definitely very productive. I think if I could go back to that in a more adult form – as in, buy a building and rent out parts of it – and have a nice loft space with work area, living area, that would be the “winning the lottery” kind of dream.

JP: So tell me about this space at Load of Fun.

MW: This is a great space because there are a lot of other artists in here. It's a bit of a support network and you can kind of bounce ideas off of each other. It's just a lot of energy, you know? There is so much going on in this building.

JP: What's the strangest experience you've ever had here? Any late-night studio oddities?

MW: Well, there was one time we had a dance party in here, and I had made these gnome costumes a while back for a piece. We ended up putting on the gnome hats and dancing for hours, and I have these great pictures of it. And there have been so many..several-floor shows. We had the Transmodern Festival in here, and that's weird, lots of cool stuff going on there. There hasn't been anything bad-weird. Just fun, good weird.

JP: Speaking of pictures, I was looking at your Baker Artist Awards portfolio. I was interested especially in the Enchanted Forest photos and your decision to photograph your work there.

MW: That was a really neat experience. That place is so mysterious and beautiful in a way, and I've always been into the idea of nature taking back things that humans make. That was so poetic because that place is supposed to represent nature in a lot of ways. There's a lot of natural forms in there and it was integrated into this forest landscape and it's actually being eaten by the forest now. It's been abandoned and nature's crawling all over it, consuming, and it's just a fascinating place because of that. The people who were in my costumes, that's aminibigcircus, this group I've worked with for many years and we've done a lot of live performance and film. We just went there, put the costumes on, and sort of improv-ed and took pictures. It was an organic process. Then we wrote a story to go with it and made a video, so it wasn't like we said “let's go do this, and we'll do these actions, and then we'll show it.” It was the opposite way.

JP: So where do you feel like the real essence of your work is? Is it in the process, or that documentation, or the actual performance?

MW: I'm very process-oriented and I'm a fiber artist, so the exploration of materials is the most important part of it for me. But then, they're all great! Usually the kind of work I do with collaborators turns out to be situational, sort of a setting up of an environment, a set of motions or actions we're doing but everyone's sort of improv-ing. So all the performers are creating...and defining what's happening in the moment. That's a beautiful part of the creation and it continues the process into the performance for me. Then, the documentation is awesome because...I love the still image, I love the fact that you can say “this is what I want the world to see, this moment, right here.”

JP: So, if someone is just seeing photographs of your work, what do you think is the most important thing for them to know?

MW: What they're seeing is just a window in on a moment, and they did miss the the action. It's really hard with a photograph because you have to create context with this kind of work, just so they have an idea of what it is that they missed. That's why I can never just have one photo of any piece because that will not do it, it has to be a series. That way you get an idea, and at least there is the beauty of the photograph.

JP: So what's the toughest time you've ever gone through with your work?

MW: You know, there have been different ones, but they're all kind of hard! It's wacky because I do this big stuff and I work with lots of other people, and that's not easy. Collaboration is a big part of my work: working with my friends to create something bigger than we could have done on our own. It can be a little terrifying, and sometimes it can be exhilarating. At times it can be just like the heart of creation is right there with you and everyone, and sometimes it can be like “no, this isn't working!” That's good as long as there's something happening, but there have been times when there's nothing happening for long periods of time.

JP: So what have you been most proud of, in terms of your collaborative work?

MW: I'm proud of so many things. The thing I'm most known for, and I think it was the most successful, is this piece called Uppity Ladies which you can see on the Baker Artist Awards site. That was me and M. Jane Taylor, and a company of performers that we got together.

That was a beautiful piece and people loved it. They wanted to see it again and again, I mean, it's too big and crazy to put on again but we did things where we took the gnomes out to different places and did continuations of it. And that collaboration was a really nice one, so I feel like it's the most successful thing I've done in a long time.

JP: If you visited one artist to interview, who would it be and why?

MW: One? Oh my gosh...

JP: Well, how about two?

MW: Well, I'm a really big fan of Kristen Grey's work. She knows how much I love her work, it's just gorgeous and she's such a professional artist. She's got this great self-exploration in her work. I think it'd be neat to pick her brain about where she gets her ideas.

Also, Laure Drogoul. She has such a vast variety of things she's done over the years and it'd be neat to hear her stories of all the different projects.

I know I'm forgetting some important people, too. I'm friends with a lot of the people whose work I really respect, which is neat, I think my friends are talented.

See Melissa's work at the Transmodern Festival, April 2-5, 2009 at the H&H Building in Baltimore.

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