Melissa Joseph

Melissa Joseph is a New York-based artist. Her work has been shown at the Delaware Contemporary, Woodmere Art Museum, Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, Rider University, and Collar Works, and featured in New American Paintings, ArtMaze, and Maake Magazine. She participated in residencies at the Center Substructured Loss (Berlin), the Growlery (SF), Chautauqua Visual Arts (NY), the Textile Arts Center (NY), BRIC (NY), the DieuDonne Workspace Residency (NY), and Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts (NY).
March 16, 2022
Tell us about your practice.
This question is easy and hard at the same time because art practices are so many things at once. I view my practice as using materials and imagery as a means to see things and to be seen by others. I went to school to get some language and context for what I am doing, and when I was younger I was trained as a textile designer, but my approach to making is as a conduit and is largely intuitive. My hope is that the work I make allows viewers to momentarily connect on a deeply emotional level to a forgotten part of themselves, possibly buried in the recesses of their minds. I work figuratively and abstractly. The imagery comes from my family photo archive, the materials come from everywhere.
Your practice spans a lot of mediums and incorporates a variety of materials. Can you talk to us about your process – what determines the medium and prompts you to choose a particular material over others?
I feel my way through this life: I mean that figuratively and literally. Sometimes there is an intrinsic impulse to be in proximity to something, and other times it is the physical weight or texture that is compelling. I have been drawn to found and secondhand objects always. I am scrappy by nature, but on a profound and serious note, if an object calls to me I pick it up. And they do call! These tools, garments, and natural materials all carry the history and stories of their past lives with them. This is just as true of stones, clay, and wool as it is of fabricated, functional things. It’s like my lifeline is crashing headfirst into theirs, and then we start a new path together. It is a paradigm of constant expansion. (Obviously, I didn’t make that up, I am just embracing lessons from the universe.) At any time, I can tell you the story of a sweater I am wearing from my grandfather or where the piece of metal I am using came from. More recently I have a co-conspirator in acquisitions, the multi-talented Jeff Adelberg, in Massachusetts. We have never met IRL, but he is such a good finder of things I love that I think we might share eyeballs.
Another way I think about crossing over mediums is as a way of code-switching which I have done all my life as a bi-racial person. Code-switching is not relegated to race, there are behavioral and vernacular switches to flip between so many groups: my rural upbringing to more cosmopolitan NYC life, or from family to friends, or honestly from one person to another. We are constantly reconfiguring the way we communicate so that it might be received most clearly/effectively. This relates to my practice because some messages lend themselves more readily to one material than another. Occasionally I need multiple mediums in the same work. Ultimately it is about communicating most accurately something intangible.
You mentioned that “felting changed everything” during your time at Textile Arts Center. Can you tell us how it impacts your current practice and process?
I am a material explorer and when I landed on “planet felt”, I already spoke the language. I don’t want to take this colonization metaphor any further, haha– but it was a magical experience to encounter something so innate. It’s like meeting someone you knew in a past life (which I believe happens.) There is so much that is understood between you that you can get right down to the soul work. That is what felt is to me. I can think in felt, I can experiment in felt, I can draw and paint and sculpt with felt, I can evoke with felt, I can provoke with felt, I can push the form felt to the furthest physical limits because I understand what it can and can’t do. It is a little insane because I didn’t learn felting in school, it wasn’t passed down to me traditionally – I learned by watching YouTube, and then by felting nonstop since. I practice numerology and learned it in a similar way.  Someone taught me the basics when I was 16, and I have done the numerology of almost everyone I have met since.  Both are deep, ongoing investigations, a search for meaning.
You’ve been working on an ongoing series of work based on your family archive. Can you tell us about the genesis of the work?
I came to my art practice the long way. I was always art-oriented, as a designer and art teacher, but it wasn’t until my father died in 2015 that I committed to my art practice full-time. As parting gifts, he gave me courage and time. When we were cleaning out his office, I found some before and after photos of wounds he had stitched up. I recreated these images in encaustic because by using wax, I was able to recreate his stitches, sewing these wounds up for myself, too. It was a way to grieve and spend time with his memory while also learning the power of transformation held within these snapshots.  Once I finished all the photos in the envelope, I quit working on them but didn’t quit thinking about them. Growing up pre-internet, halfway around the world from half of my family, and several hours from the other half, family photos were lifelines and portals.  They had to do much of the work that phones, computers, zoom, facetime, and planes do now.  We had a cabinet with albums that I would flip through almost daily as a kid, not unlike how I scroll through my photo library throughout the day. It’s a way of grounding and knowing. The house I grew up in and the cabinet of albums burned down around 2011. Luckily my dad was 1 of 8 kids and my mom was 1 of 9, so we have regained access to images from many of these events, just from different angles. But in a way maybe I am trying to recreate that cabinet. 
What has been inspiring you lately?
I have been moved lately by a renewed desire to meet all people from an open and loving place. This may sound really obvious, but it is not easy and requires constant examination and meditation. It dawned on me relatively recently when I found myself in a tense exchange with a long-time friend over something that we fundamentally agreed on, but tripped over ideological details. Since before the pandemic, it’s felt like the world (physical and digital) is a field of hidden triggers, like landmines. There are frequent, unexpected explosions fueled by things like unresolved trauma, high-stakes emotional investment, and a lingering malaise from the pandemic. The unpredictability leads to fear and unease, which I find to be the opposite of openness and understanding. I am in awe of the people measured enough to de-escalate these situations in real time. It’s not usually me, but I am working on it.
What’s next for you?
The first thing I want to share is that I am curating a show of my father’s unique photo practice that will open on May 19th at Soloway Gallery in Williamsburg. Before he died, he handed me a box of hundreds of photos and said, “Make me a famous artist.” I am so excited to finally be able to shine this light on him and his practice. I am finishing up my residency at Dieu Donne this month, and can’t wait to share those works with the world. I have a nice line-up of group shows for the rest of the year. One curated by Danny Baez just opened this week at Bradley Ertaskiran in Montreal, one in New York in May, LA in the Fall, Geneva this summer, and one at the Brattleboro Museum in Vermont in June.  I am also loving the opportunity to grow my art community with folks like you.

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