Melissa Gilmore received a BA in Art Studio in 2009 and a Master of Arts in Education in 2011, both from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She currently works as an artist and art educator in Birmingham, Alabama.
My paintings exist in a space between order and nonsense. I work in a call-and-response manner in which each action calls for a counteraction to bring the composition back into balance. The result is a mishmash of structured patterns that merge with improvised marks and riotous colors. For me, this practice is a way of creating my own sense of order amidst absurdity.
Can you describe your working routine? Do you have a daily studio practice? What is the most important part of maintaining a successful studio practice?
It’s important for me to spend time in the studio almost every day. In addition to being a working artist, I teach art at an elementary school, so maintaining that kind of practice is a challenge when school is in session. Those days, sometimes all I have time for is a quick collage or doodle in my sketchbook, but it’s something. I lose momentum if I stay out of the studio for too long. In the summer I’m able to paint for much longer stretches at a time.
Can you give us some insight into your process? How do you begin? Do you keep a sketchbook/does drawing play a part in your work?
I do keep a sketchbook, but I rarely go into great detail as far as planning my paintings. I make thumbnail sketches to figure out where I want to go, but the rest happens while I’m painting. My sketchbook is mostly a place to journal and experiment. Sometimes if I’m feeling stuck, I make quick collages with scraps from my studio taped to the pages. Or I make up patterns or motifs to use later in my paintings.
I like to work in layers. I start with a swipe of color, a grid structure, a textured ground—anything to get me started, and I keep adding elements layer by layer. Some of these layers start out as very controlled, geometric patterns. But because they are painted by hand, they never turn out perfectly. I like the idea of mixing mathematical precision with human warmth.
What are some of the most challenging elements in your current body of work?
Lack of space! My current studio is in what used to be the living room of my tiny apartment. Luckily I work small so it’s doable. Aside from that, just the usual frustrations. Sometimes I make several really bad paintings in a row and I feel like I’ll never make a decent one again. Eventually I get back on track if I stick with it. One of my professors in college said that there are a lot of crappy paintings you have to get out of your system before you start making the good stuff.
How does your artist statement function for you? Do you think it is an important element in the practice of being an artist?
I think an artist statement is a useful tool for learning more about the artist’s intent, but the full expression of meaning ultimately happens between the viewer and the work itself. Some ideas are best expressed verbally; others, through music, film, or visual art. I’ve always found it tricky to write about what I’m making art about. So to me, an artist statement is certainly helpful in steering the viewer in the right direction, but it can only take them so far.
In your statement you mention how improvisation is an important element in your process—can you elaborate on the function of improvisation versus structure and planning? How do you marry the two?
I like to have a plan—an idea of where I’m going. But even my best-laid plans tend to go to shit somewhere along the way. I embrace this uncertainty instead of fighting it. That’s where the improvisation comes in and the plan becomes more of a jumping-off point rather than a hard-and-fast rule. Each action I take while painting is a result of the one before it. I might say, “That color is kind of overpowering; I’ll scrape some scrape some of it away,” or “I put this shape here, but now there is too much visual weight on one side. I’m going to add something over here to balance it out.” I enjoy throwing the composition out of whack and then figuring out how to restore balance.
Can you tell us a bit about your studio? What are the most important requirements for a work space?
My studio is in my little apartment so the amount of space is not ideal, but I do love working at home. This makes it so easy to pop over and get stuff done when inspiration strikes or I when have a few spare minutes. Also I never have to put on pants if I don’t want to. So far, the convenience trumps the space factor, but just barely.
Are there a few artists that you are looking at currently?
Yes! Rebecca Morris, Mark Bradford, Alison Schulnik, Mandy Lyn Perez, Keltie Ferris, Monica Canilao, Agnes Martin, Cy Twombly, Philip Guston, Frank Stella, Gee’s Bend quilt-makers, to name a few.
Has your work been influenced by other disciplines that aren’t rooted in the visual arts?
I don’t know that it influences my work directly, but I love to read and I watch a lot of movies. Gabriel Garcia Marquez is someone I read over and over. I also like to listen to comedy while I’m working. If I’m not careful, I start doubting and overthinking and getting bogged down creatively. Sometimes it helps to have a reminder to just lighten the fuck up.
What do you listen to while you work? Any music or podcasts we should check out?
Right now I’m listening to Future Islands, Alabama Shakes, Pixies, and Courtney Barnett, among others. I love This American Life and Fresh Air. I like to stream reruns of my favorite shows and just listen to those; namely 30 Rock, The Daily Show, The X Files, Louie, and Broad City.
Do you think the internet and social media affect those of us who identify as artists and makers? Can you describe how you feel about the role of social media in the life and career of an artist?
Birmingham is a great place to be an artist, but it’s still a smaller city. Social media has helped me keep in touch with what is going on in the larger art world. I’ve found so many artists and publications that I love through the internet, and it’s helping me begin to get my work out there too. It’s an invaluable resource for me.
Any shows coming up? Anything else you would like to share?
I have a couple of projects in the works here in Birmingham. Thanks so much for the opportunity!
Thanks so much for taking the time to share your work and talk with us!