Originally an oil painter, Melissa became more and more attracted to the immediacy and gratification of acrylic paint. Her work has been previously described as “pop meets Freda Kahlo”, and it’s easy to see why. Beautiful colours, decorative patterns, and romantic characters are rendered with a contrast of meticulous detail and expressionistic looseness.
Having held shows numerous locally and internationally (not to mention forays into the world of curation), Melissa’s profile as one of Australia’s most exciting talents is becoming more and more validated. Recently she has attracted notoriety for her portrait of Aussie rocker Courtney Barnett, placing as a finalist in the coveted Archibald Prize.
We caught up with Melissa and asked her about her early memories of art, her recent works, and her upcoming art class “Introduction to Acrylic Paint” at the RVCA gallery in Collingwood.
I remember trying really hard to find different ways of impressing kids in my class when it came to “show and tell”. I made stuff at home that I would bring to school and carry around to show my friends. I had a lot of “how to” books that I would look at for instructions to make or draw things. I think now I look back on that as a time that I was discovering that I felt motivated and enthusiastic when it came to making paintings, sculptures or objects on my own and leave people scratching their heads wondering how I did it.
My mum was definitely encouraging it at the time too. I never forget the time when surf brands were really popular and pricey in primary school but I so badly wanted the Billabong hibiscus printed bucket hat like all the other girls at my school. My mum refused to buy one but went out and got the material to make it, creating the meaning of sentimental value to me. Making things by hand is always more meaningful to me and I always look back on that being a great mentality to have been brought up with.
I begin my process with a lot of thinking first. Throughout my day I am constantly thinking of new ideas for paintings, even in the most mundane situations. I have accepted my bad habit of not keeping a sketchbook a long time ago which got me in a lot of trouble at university, as its never easy to just explain how the idea got in your head! I think over time you develop ideas that involve subject matter that you have visited before, they become a pattern and keep evolving. I still sketch but it’s basically a bunch of stick figures with annotations of what goes where on the canvas.
I collect a lot of books that I find good reference imagery in and listen to my records at home. The music I listen to has a great influence too! I find myself looking for more vintage matchbox labels and images of animals from the 60s and 70s where they look a bit quirky and funny. Overtime I believe that if you travel, research and surround yourself with subject matter your’e interested in, it starts to show more of an influence on your work. I have always enjoyed driving to countryside antique stores to see if I can find objects to put amongst my work. I want to be able to put paintings amongst sculptural subject matter more too.
The whole idea of myself entering the Archibald at first was just to try something new. I’ve had a few solo shows and I wanted to test myself on what I was capable of. I’m not going to lie, I really did put a lot of pressure on myself and got quite obsessed with the idea. I was even planning on entering two other competitions at the same time! The Archibald is something I’ve always thought I would enter one day but I don’t think I ever really pictured myself becoming a finalist!
I don’t think I could’ve done it without knowing Courtney, she also made it very easy on me by simply trusting that I would paint something she would be happy with. To me that took the pressure off and I was able to feel more free with the composition. I don’t think its possible to capture the warmth and the genuine personality of someone if you don’t already have a connection with them on a certain level.
As for exposure I really freaked out the first few days, I was in all these different articles, blogs and on the news.I’m not used to it I guess but it really did feel good to finally get recognised on that level. The night before the winner got announced I was made aware that you could bet on our paintings on Sportsbet which was a bit strange. It definitely was another world when I got to Sydney to be at the opening. It took a while for it all to sink in that I got that far in the competition, but I felt the hard work paid off and I am so grateful for the judges to have given me the opportunity.
I’ve have been interested in teaching art from a young age. I went back to my old primary school in year 10 to do work experience in the art room. After university I decided to do my diploma in secondary education and did really well but really didn’t enjoy constantly disciplining the students. I found it mentally draining and also I just wanted to keep sticking up for all the kids that got bullied. In the end I decided that I still had it in me to want to teach art and its best to do it with those who want to be there. Teaching workshops is a great way to share skills and knowledge on more of a relaxed and fun level. I feel that painting is easy to translate and also versatile. I start the class with a bit of colour theory and then talk about different ways you can utilise acrylic paint. I have a still life installation set up ready to go so the students have a reference for imagery.
This time I will be running classes over four days so I’m able to have smaller groups to spend more time with if they need guidance.
I’ve always wished that after high school I had stopped to travel and get to know myself and my interests a bit more before diving into the deep end of Art school. So I would like to tell young Melissa that there’s no rush and give yourself some time to grow.
RSVP for “Introduction to Acrylic Paint” here.
Follow Melissa @melgrisa