An Interview with Artist Susan Melly
Tell me a little bit about yourself, about your life?
I was born in Detroit, Michigan to a salesman and secretary/seamstress. My father was very restless, so we moved frequently all over the country. My Mother created a warm family environment in each new location, and she sewed all of our clothes. I often fell asleep to the sound of her sewing machine. We finally settled in the San Fernando Valley where I attended high school and enrolled in art classes wherever I could.
Where did you go to school, and what classes did you study?
My freshman year at UCSB, I participated in a research project and identified as having an unusual ability to fit objects into space and perceive a finished object from a pattern or layout. It was a great time for art in California and I frequented museum exhibitions and became familiar with many wonderful artists. I majored in art, specializing in Lithography and Ceramics. Later I enrolled in design and painting classes at Otis College and photography classes at Santa Monica College.
What helped prepare you to become the artist that you are today?
As a young student I covered margins of my school papers with pencil drawings and hash mark doodles. This compulsion to draw actually caught the attention my high school art teacher. My Mother framed my work and hung it all over the house. At college I continued drawing, learned etching, lithography and became a skilled potter. Manipulating clay is very physical as is Lithography, which involves moving heavy limestone blocks and operating huge presses. When I felt bound to the space or equipment needed to produce pots and prints, I turned to hand built sculptural work or drawing with fine lines. Years later I took up abstract painting incorporating charcoal and ink lines into my compositions. In 2013, I discovered my Mother’s industrial sewing machines from the 40’s and tissue paper dress patterns – the precise lines and symbols printed on tissue as instructions for creating clothing was an inspirational moment! By adding tissue patterns to vintage mannequins and on canvas – incorporating lines onto a 3D world – I was able to pull my various art experiences together.
How would you describe your artistic style?
Expressive Abstraction was a term used by Shana Nys Dambrot to describe my style and it felt right. I began my painting career with gestural abstraction using forced perspectives and other manipulations of space and surface to satisfy the composition. My earlier work was quite colorful using loosely drawn images, but the incorporation of ochre dress patterns drew me to a more limited palette with impressionistic images on top of the precise and detailed pattern designs.
Do you have a preference for a particular material? Do you think your work lends itself to one material or another?
I prefer acrylics because of its versatility and quick drying time. When I enter the “zone” of creation, I can move impulsively and freely without having to wait long for the paint to dry. It can be used as a wash almost like watercolor or piled on in thick layers and everything in between. I would not be happy however if I was restricted to paint. Bringing in found objects and other materials that fit the concept is truly a joy.
How would you describe your personal iconography, and is there something you can look back and see consistently in your work?
I love fine lines and bold gestures. The eye instinctually follows line so awareness of where each line leads is critical. Sometimes I start with a line (or stoke) of my own and then decide on a focal point based on that line’s direction. Other times I lay in line(s) later to emphasize a focus point. Lines have always been part of my art – both 2D and 3D. At any given time, I have several pieces in progress and during the process, I may white out most of the lines, leaving the more dramatic ones and simplifying the work. In creating a piece I go back and forth between established lines in the patterns, self-created forms and gestural marks until I find harmony between them. This may take a while – even months to resolve. If I get stuck, I change focus to work on something else.
How do you define success as an artist?
Art as creation brings satisfaction which is a primal form of success. When viewers are drawn to an artist’s work and can engage in the experience, the artist may be considered socially successful. As we all know, general audience acceptance of great art may take years or decades. I do not see “sales” or even “monetary value” assigned to art as a necessary sign of success – though it is certainly necessary for many artists to have income from their work so they can continue to create.
What is the coolest art tip you have ever received?
Look around with a willingness to see new resources and don’t be afraid to “ruin” your work by trying something new – discover.
What can we expect to see from you in the future?
For now I am still obsessed with the graphics on dress patterns and symbolism that can be derived from using them in different ways. I am moving towards my abstract beginnings and away from figurative painting which was a temporary interlude. I am having great fun combining paint and lines with found objects.