Category Archives: Melissa Dunn

14 May, 2024

I was away most of the week at my nephew’s wedding in Bentonville, AR in the Ozark Mountains.   It was a great time – lots of dancing

I brought with me both the printer glitch and the drawing of the printer glitch that I posted about last week to have on hand to look at and think about while I was away.  The bifurcation evokes a pressure and the curve at the bottom implies a connection, which is where I wanted to put my focus on the next iteration. When I got home, I made more copies of both, which altered the color in a way I really liked, and collaged the two together to see if what I saw in my mind’s eye would work.  It’s a good next step.

Bentonville is home to Crystal Bridges Museum, the closest museum to Memphis with my favorite collection (five hour drive).  I didn’t get to spend much time in the museum this trip, but I did pop in specifically to revisit Nocturn: The Solent, ca. 1871-1872 by Whistler.

Like an Agnes Martin painting or a Fred Sandback sculpture, this painting is hard to capture. I get lost in the negative space and the atmosphere and mood of the gray-green.  I didn’t know this until recently, but ‘The Solent’ is the strait between Isle of Wight and mainland Great Britain.  I like to imagine Whistler painting there.  

I also spent some time with Gems of Brazil ca. 1864/65 by Martin Johnson Heade, a series of paintings of hummingbirds and butterflies.  I want to make a new glitch drawing that’s very atmospheric but with a pop of color in the crook inspired by this Hooded Visorbeare.  

And finally, this is the cover image of the Joseph Buey’s book of drawings called Thinking is Form that I flip through a lot. For Felt Corners, 1963 was on my mind a lot while I was away –  it’s division, the mirror images of the triangles, the barely there marks in the background. 

7 May, 2024

I’ve been wanting to make a drawing of this printer glitch for a long time. I drew it from mostly from memory because it was tacked on the wall behind me. I’d occasionally turn around to see if I was getting the general feeling, which mostly was a sense of pressure.

I made this drawing in response to a copy machine glitch that’s been floating around my studio for a while now. I didn’t look at it as I drew it, but I did occasionally glance back on the wall it was tacked to behind me to see if I was capturing the feel. 

It’s hard to explain beginnings, how art grows out of itself. All I know is when I look at this this drawing I see it as both as something that stands on its own as well as a way into something else. 

Mary Ruefle’s book Madness, Rack, and Honey is in part about the art of writing poetry. It’s helped me reframe the ways I approach making art. I’m rereading it for a second time now. The poets get it.

“I believe the poem is an act of the mind.  I think it is easier to talk about the end of a poem than it is to talk about its beginning.  Because the poem ends on the page, but it begins off the page, it begins in the mind.  The mind acts, the mind wills a poem, often against our own will; somehow this happens, somehow a poem gets written in the middle of a chaotic holiday party that has just run out of ice and it’s your house.”

30 April, 2024

On a bottom shelf in the corner of my studio, I have a collection of  accordion files that hold echoes of a life in the studio – ephemera, scraps, postcards, tear sheets, this and that, what nots. The physical archive is slowly dying out – I certainly don’t accrue like I use to before I had the world at my finger tips in my pocket. But even so, twenty-four years into the 21st century, I still seem to gather, store and sift through stuff.  

I use this archive in all kinds of ways but I often use it as a starting point, and this week feels like a I’m starting to slowly form some ideas for what’s to come. I pulled out a few fragments I want to play with and look at over the course of the next six months or who knows, maybe the next couple of years: 

  • the blue and green of Dr. Spock and Captain Kirk  
  • Lavender fields in France
  • Stacks of storage containers
  • Begonia red and oakleaf hydrangea pattern
  • Mark Morrisroe
  • Poppy in the rough
  • Copy machine glitch pattern
  • Line drawing over neutral wash
  • Painting with arched lines – neutrals with color
  • Colors in a Munich napkin – maps
  • Stack of circles
  • Still from movie Sweet Life
  • Note to self: drawing marks to canvas

I’m also thinking a lot about art and ambiguity.  

Someone recently asked me “what does your art mean?” and I was struck frozen like a deer in the headlights. 

It made me think back to a fantastic studio visit I had with a fellow Memphis artist who asked me so many great questions about my process and how I generate ideas.  Just before she left I said with relief, “We talked about so much but you never asked me what my work means.”  She shrugged, as though the meaning is obvious – it’s in the process and the meaning is ambiguous at best.  We burst out laughing. I’d never before felt so seen as an artist. 

23 April, 2024

This is the last week for my show The Earthworm and The Hawk.

When the gallery was closed on Monday, I spent a few hours drawing all the paintings with a marker and / or graphite – a practice an artist friend told me about during a studio visit that I’ve since adopted.

The work always has something new to say in these post-painting iterations.

Muscle memory is a powerful tool!

16 April, 2024

My old friend Andria took this photo at the artist talk I did for my show The Earthworm and The Hawk on Saturday.  

I decided to share it here so in the future when I look back on this @HOME Residency period in my life, I’ll be reminded how much art helped me find my voice. Believe me, I know how cliche that sounds.

For years, though, I would totally freeze up talking about my work. I finally got so tired of being insecure and uncomfortable about it that I decided to face the fear head on. It took a long time, but I slowly chipped away at it bit by bit. Over time something shifted and I found the words.  I have a long way to go still, because just like the work itself, verbalizing the experience around making is an ever-changing lifelong process.  

The actual art object is the tip of the iceberg to what’s happening in the studio.  It’s so rare to have the opportunity to go below the surface, surrounded by the work in person and explain that which is so layered and vast and often times so wordless. Usually when someone asks in casual conversation how my work is going, I’ll kick the can down the road with a “pretty good – I’m working on a few things” or “kind of slow but I’m figuring it out”.

Andria told me after the talk, “We’ve been friends for 30 years, but I felt like I learned so much about you, your work, and your commitment to artistic practice yesterday that I never knew!”  

It was really good to let people in.

8 April, 2024

In 2017, 2024, and 2045 three solar eclipses will have been within a 150 mile radius of my house. What are the odds? (I’ll be 79 in 2045 so fingers crossed I get to experience that one.)

I made this painting last year called Carrying the Moon. I honestly didn’t know it was going to be an eclipse-inspired painting going in, but after I added those crescent shapes on the bottom I knew.

I’m lucky enough to have a physics professor for a friend. In 2016 (or earlier) she would tell anyone who’d listen about the Great Eclipse in 2017. She even carried around a scale model of the solar system in her trunk to help illustrate the phenomenon and a box of eclipse glasses. Her excitement was infectious and after seeing totality I understood why.

Seeing totality was the first time I comprehended the way the earth, sun, and moon work together. I’d watched dozens of videos, read about it, tried to draw it out, but being the visual learner that I am, I never fully digested the mechanics until 2017 in Pennyrile State Park, Kentucky. It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen and I was forever changed by the experience.

Around 5:30 yesterday morning, my husband, two dogs and I headed to Lake Charles State Park in Arkansas. This time I noticed the change in light more. The water and horizon line added so much to the experience. Rarely do I like going to places where people gather, but I like being in State Parks during eclipses because the cheer during totality is a beautiful human connection.

I’d like to make a painting that describes the feeling of awe I had in both eclipse experiences, although I’m not sure if it’s actually possible. But I do have these shapes I keep coming back to. In these two quick sketches I made before ever seeing an eclipse – a collage and a little painting – are the crescent shapes that have been showing up in my work since I made my first mark.

2 April, 2024

I made these two iterations of a couple of the ink drawings from last week.  I’ve noticed for a long while now that I come back to stacks and portals again and again.  

And I as look at this picture of a native grape vine that I took a few days ago, a line I see all through the woods around here,  I realize the crooked line is everywhere in my work.  I’m thinking in the coming months I want to pay close attention to what I repeat over and over and make a body of work of stacks, portals, and crooked lines. 

26 March, 2024

I keep this picture of Joan Jonas on my studio wall as a reminder that it doesn’t take much to turn reality inside out.   I also have her nearby because I’ve been looking more closely at artists working in their 70s and 80s, reminding myself that the seeds I plant today may lay dormant for the next couple of decades before they poke up out of the ground. 

I first discovered Jonas through this Art 21 video about her drawing practice. She uses speed and repetition of daily drawing as an entry way into of other mediums like mirrors, masks, performance, and sculpture.  

I play guitar and sing.  Whenever I tackle a cover song, I always learn something new but inevitably end up making the song my own.  After watching this video dozens of times, I decided to do a Joan Jonas ‘cover’. So I bought a couple of glass goblets, added ink and made quick gesture drawings.  

She usually uses images of animals as source material. I used this great design book first published in 1932 that I got at a library book sale to riff on.  It’s so beautifully categorized. For example, “The Crescent and Its Combinations’  and ‘The Rhombic Variant’.

Each time I do this exercise, there’s always a couple of drawings that lead the way to something else.  I want to play more with these two from “Segments and Its Combinations” and “Rectangular Variants”:

Joan Jonas is getting a lot of press these days because she’s currently having her first New York retrospective at MoMA as well as a drawing show at The Drawing Center. This New York Times article has some good insights into her life and work.

The book for the Drawing Center show came in the last week the day after I did these drawings.  Flipping through it is like having her whisper in my ear.  

19 March 2024

This was sunrise yesterday in Overton Park, one of the largest urban old growth forests in the country. It’s about a ten minute drive from my house.  I walk here year round, but between mid-February and mid-April I try to walk the trails daily to watch it slowly come back to life and the spring ephemerals pop. These woods are a powerhouse of vital energy.  

I get a lot of good thinking done here. I solve problems. I let go of nonsense. I see the big picture of an idea.

The other day I heard from a friend who had just gone to see my show. About this painting he said, “The dimensionality was almost psychedelic. It was as though I could walk into it.”  Then he went on to make an observation about trust I wish every viewer could have: “I wasn’t sure what I was seeing but I did recognize the feeling it evoked as I looked at it.”  

Maybe it’s the feeling of walking through the woods?

Here are two drawings in honor today’s spring equinox. Happy Spring!

12 March 2024

Back in January when I started the @HOME Residency, I was in that rare time (for me) of putting the final touches on an art show, finishing up what had been conceptualized long before.  I was in full production mode. 

In this tenth week of the @HOME Residency, my studio life is returning to the snail’s pace speed that I typically live, each day slowly unfolding into the next.

It’s been a month since the show opened and it will be up for six more weeks.  I appreciate this long run because the experience has had time to settle. Life has been happening all throughout – my mom started feeling better so after six weeks she moved out of my house and back to her apartment.  I’m still caregiving every day but now it takes up less of my time.  Emotionally, it’s an ever present hum.

In my empty studio, as I start slowly building new work, I go back to the starting point of my cycle of creation where I gather and sift, experiment and search.  This isn’t laser focused, far from it. it’s like a waterfall of ideas, notes, thoughts, scraps.  

In Rebecca Lindenberg’s poem “Love, An Index”, here in the section called “Fragment” is the perfect description of the ways in which amassing a pile of ephemera can lead to something whole.  

I wish I could use these few lines as my artist statement.

Some fragments from this week:

a few drawings in my sketchbook . . .

and a piece of  wall paper that has been my stash for years – I want to make a painting with this palette.

After my friend Bonnie’s funeral last week (see previous post),  I thought once again about this illustrated conversation between Terri Gross and Maurice Sendak that I regularly revisit, especially when I need to be  reminded that the foundation of my studio is “live your life, live your life live your life”: 

5 March 2024

I’m thinking about fresh starts as I resuscitate a drawing project I never finished.

Back in August, as a way to reconnect with nature, I bought a small sketchbook and numbered the pages 1 – 100 with the intention of doing short daily drawings out in my yard. Summer in Memphis can feel like moving through one air condition setting to another. It’s a different kind of cabin fever that pushes nature to the edge.

I can’t remember why one day halfway through I stopped this daily practice, but it doesn’t matter.  

Louder for those in the back:

It doesn’t matter!

What matters is I’m able to tap into the my most essential studio tool I have:  the restart button. 

Sure, I have butterflies in my stomach when I go to push that button, but usually as soon as the engine turns over it’s like meeting up with an old friend where we start right back up where we left off.

Working from nature feeds other parts of my practice that aren’t based in observation, but mostly it feeds my spirit. For a few minutes  “ I “ disappear and my senses take over.  Even if the drawings take 30 seconds, the feeling I get when my eyes and hand work around the edge of a leaf or build marks to make a bush is a type of medicine.  

As I think about this incredible gift of a fresh start, I’m also thinking of my friend Bonnie Lau who died a couple of days ago from lupus.

Bonnie wasn’t a close friend, she was more a clear steady voice in my extended chorus. I’m realizing more and more how much this chorus means to me.  Bonnie and I came of age in the same Memphis music scene in the 90s – a rich underground world of artists, filmmakers, and of course incredible bands.  Over the years as this extended group of misfits began living out their lives, Bonnie and I would run into each other regularly.  She was always so happy to see me and yet I always kind of knew she was like that with everyone.  She was one of those people that just made you feel good being in your own skin. I hope I can make other people feel as good about themselves as Bonnie always made me feel about myself. 

Here she is in the middle just a month ago at my art opening.  The woman on the left is Sharon Hevelka, an artist friend of mine (and one of Bonnie’s closest friends) who I feel so fortunate to have in my life. She’s a witness and a support to my practice. A few years ago a group of us, Bonnie included, had an afternoon of printmaking in Sharon’s studio.  I’ll never forget that day.  

You can check out Sharon’s beautiful work here

I’ll make nature drawings for us all this week. 

27 February 2024

Sometime 100 – 120 or so years ago, a pin oak and a willow oak were planted in my yard.  I think a lot about the way they catch the evening light, especially in winter.

I revisit this note to myself:

They hold so much poeticism and meaning to me, it’s difficult to know where to even start.

On an emotional level, I feel both awe and fear.  

Maybe that’s where I’ll start. 

Because abstraction doesn’t act as metaphor for me but a thing unto itself, framing them this way feels like a new way of thinking. Perhaps I need to depict them literally first? I should look at Mondrian’s tree paintings again.

Here they are in all their summer glory.

20 February 2024

I want to carry this yellow and green gingham upholstery in my visual memory long after the couch it covered is gone.

The previous owners of my home lived here for 50 years until they were in their 90s.  After they died, the house was on the market for two years and was still full of their 1970s furniture.  When we offered to buy the house along with everything in it, the family, who were all in their 70s and didn’t want the stuff, said ‘sold!’. We had a big yard sale but kept a few pieces, including this herculon couch that was the center piece of the sitting area in the attic that had been converted to a sewing room – green shag carpet, wood paneling and all.  

During lockdown, we cleared out a spare bedroom and turned it into an office for my husband. We brought the couch down from the attic and into the light of day. Even though it looked to be in mint condition, the fabric was brittle and pretty much started to disintegrate as soon as we started using it.

Fast forward four years, and with lots of sunshine by a window and many naps later (dog and human), the time had come to lay it to rest.

Usually when we put stuff out on the street it gets picked up right away, but after two days, here it still sits. It’s as though it’s trying to tell us something.

Studio life this week has been cleaning up the post-show clutter (it’s like a tornado came through!) and slowly turning my attention bit by bit to what’s next.

For now, though, I’m hauling furniture that’s had its day, tidying up, letting go, moving on.  

13 February 2024

My exhibition opened at the Memphis arts organization Crosstown Arts, located inside a converted Sears warehouse.    

The opening was wonderful.

It’s ironic that artists spend so much time alone, working introspectively, only to find ourselves in the middle of crowded cocktail party-like environment at our openings. And yet, despite how counterintuitive it feels, when I’m lucky enough to find myself at my own opening, I relish in the fact that other people are engaging with my work, giving it a whole new life that it can’t have here with just me in the studio.

Twenty years ago I decided to try my hand at a body of abstract work. I’d always loved abstraction but wasn’t sure if I could actually pull it off.  This show is about the process I’ve slowly built over the past two decades of generating abstract imagery from my imagination in my sketchbook.

The show will have a nice long three-month run, lots of time to gestate and sink in. 

Here’s the show statement:

THE EARTHWORM AND THE HAWK is the overlap between two states of being.

In the private and non-verbal world of my sketchbook, I burrow deep, generating drawings intuitively from my imagination. As the pages fill up, I step back and shift perspective, becoming more objective. The lay of the land comes into sharp focus. Here I map out, pose questions, and act decisively.
 
Because these modalities are distinct from one another, it takes time and patience 
to figure out ways of unifying them. Their push/pull tendencies can disrupt as much 
as facilitate. It’s a continual process. Like two rocks rubbed together just the right way, 
the friction between the searcher and the strategist can generate sparks or a 
full blown explosion.  

And here are some installation shots.

5 February 2024

Install-week finally arrived and I’m happy to report that all the work made it safe and sound across town in the rented van and the back of my car. 

Since I started the @HOME Residency in early January, the paintings for the show have been stacked in the laundry / art-storage room to make space to make drawings. It felt good to spend time with them before they left the studio.

It’s bittersweet when work leaves the house. I do get sentimental, I’ll admit.

This is by far the biggest exhibit I’ve ever had. And who knows? I may never get this much space again, so I’m trying to pay close attention to every detail of the experience, both logistically and emotionally.

After I placed all the paintings, I made a walk-through video of the layout and slept on it. I ended up waking up in the middle of the night rubik’s cubing all sorts of configurations I hadn’t considered before. The next morning I switched everything around and the placement clicked, the puzzle was solved and the work started to feel right at home.

Then it was time to hang the drawings.

Spreading them all out on the floor was an experience I’ll never forget.

Again, this gift of space has shifted my perception of what these shapes and marks can do on a bigger scale. It’s thrilling!

The registrar Jesse (center) and my dear friend Maysey (left) helped me hang 29 drawings on a 300″ wall.

I wanted it to have a salon-style feel but with room to breathe.

I think we got it.

Now that the show is up, I can breathe deeper, slow down, and let this work season.

More on the paintings, opening, and the space next week. Time for a nap. : )

30 January 2024

From recent studio notes:

Building the work

Having a blast

Turning my pockets insde out

Measuring time: day in, day out

Spirals

Sticky web

Hugging the trees

Wind Watching

Making an offering

Finding my courage

Stating my purpose

Healing myself

Availing myself to magic

Underthinking it

Speeding up and slowing down

Devoting my life to the shapes I’ve yet to configure 

These ideas are always burbling below the surface, both when I’m not consciously aware of them and when I’m in making-mode like I am now. Hello again. 

Over the weekend I finished the last few drawings for the show. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself when they were done. I’m feeling sentimental towards these final pieces – bookends to the experience of the last year.

I’m keeping them up on my wall until the last minute, even though I know they’re just sticks on the river. 

23 January 2024

The ‘home’ part of my @HOME Residency has been on my mind a lot this week. Memphis shut down with snow and a deep freeze. In the warmth of my house, I was reminded once again that my home is one of the many vessels my work relies on.  

Sketchbooks are another essential vessel.

I’ve slowly built my process out of these books. Here I draw from my imagination without much thought or judgment.  

I spend as much time flipping through the pages as I do drawing in them.  

I tag the drawings that are asking to live outside this contained world.

Vessels find their way into the work in cup-like forms and blobs that hold worlds unto themselves.

My physical body, though, is the most essential vessel for my work. Holding the memories of every shape I’ve ever drawn or painted, it often whispers to me on what needs doing in the studio. It requires a lot of tending to but I do keep trying. I especially like to turning this temple upside down to see the world from a different perspective. 

I have one more week of working on drawings before I shift gears from a year of facing inward and making the work to facing outward and sharing the work.  There’s nothing quite like giving the work room to breathe in yet another container, the one that shows up only here and there, but when it does I’m very grateful: the gallery container. 

16 January 2024

My source material originates where life and art overlap.  Life fuels the art and the art reflects the form of my existence back to me.  

Life can turn on a dime, though, and it’s going to play out no matter what’s happening in the studio. A lot of life is happening right now and yet these have been some of my best and tenderest of days. 

The last two years have been shaped by my role as a daughter as I help my 86 year old mother navigate her last chapter. She’s been able to live alone with help from me and we’ve grown closer because of it.  Two weeks ago, though, she became much weaker so my husband and I moved her in with us. We’re figuring out a rhythm of living together on one side of the house while on the other side of the house I’m continuing to work on drawings based on drawings. Perhaps she’ll gain strength and get to go back home.

Time seems to have slowed down as I work iteratively in the studio alongside caregiving.  Take my hand, time says, the exhibition will get finished, the old gal is well-tended to, and in the realm where art and life converge, the seeds for future work are being planted.

Also, we got a rare big (for us in Memphis) snow so the city is completely shut down.  It’s so beautiful!

“An extra special treat”, as my Mom calls it. 

09 January 2024

Hello and welcome!

My studio is both a room in my house and a frame of mind.  No two days are the same here.  Because a shift in perspective can open unexpected doors, I’m curious to see what comes up as I share my world through the @HOME RESIDENCY. 

It’s an exciting time for me because in a month I’m having my largest solo show to date.  The paintings are finished and now I’m working on a drawing installation, which like the paintings are based on drawings from my sketchbook.

I’m working fast on these to give each new drawing a chance to move beyond the original drawing they’re based on. They change in the process, becoming something new.

Drawing large feels good in my body, as does playing with materials on this scale. 

Drawing fast, though, requires letting go and moving on to the next one.