Noah Post: At first glance, especially on a computer screen, your drawings look like photographs. These are large-scale graphite drawings that have a magnificent tonal quality. I have seen your work in person a few times and there are hardly any pencil lines. What is your method of drawing? And how did this style develop?
Melissa Cooke: I started using powdered graphite in January of 2008. I was in a point of my work where I was feeling stagnant and confined, making these tedious, time-intensive, small pencil drawings. I knew I had to make some changes. My solution was to visit an art store and leave with an armful of new supplies, including a can of powdered graphite. I tried watercolor for about two days, and was miserable. Aggravated in the studio and mourning over some horrible wash of blue that I was attempting to paint, I grabbed a can of powdered graphite and a huge sheet of paper. No one had ever shown me how to use the medium; I just grabbed the nearest brush and started feverishly dusting the graphite onto the paper. Within four hours, I had a new drawing and was pulsating with excitement from this new process. I was immediately addicted.
My drawings are made by dusting thin layers of graphite onto paper with a dry brush. The softness of the graphite provides a smooth surface that can be augmented with details by erasing. No pencils are used in the work, allowing the surface to glow without the shine of heavy pencil marks. Illusion dissolves into brush work and the honesty of the material.
The scale of the drawings demands a physical interaction with the work. I traverse a path, back and forth, first to work intimately with the surface and then to see the piece from a distance. This dance with my drawing has become a ritual, and ultimately, a release.
NP: I understand that these drawings take many hours to complete. You must have an all-consuming studio life. What is your ideal studio setting?
MC: I’m pretty adaptable. After I left grad school in 2008, I was studio-less. The basement of my house became my makeshift studio, which was less than ideal. Ironically enough, the fumes from the basement furnace were suffocating me while I was making the “Vacuum” series, a series of self-portraits with a plastic bag over my head. After a few hours of drawing, I would stagger out of that dark cement room, covered in graphite and slightly high from the gasses. Since then, I’ve been making work in my bedroom, jazzed up with caffeine and dance music. My floors are always dark with graphite, but besides that, it works well enough. Environment can really dictate the type of work that is produced. I’m really looking forward to having a huge studio space when I’m an Artist In Residence at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art. Not only will I be able to focus all of my time and energy on my art, but the space will be freeing. I’m excited to see how my work changes and grows from that experience.
NP: Do you prefer to work in long sessions? At day or night?
MC: During the week, I come home after a full day of office work and immerse myself in my studio. I usually draw for about 6-8 hours a day on the weekend.
NP: There are a lot of masks in your artwork. Costuming and roleplaying seems to be a part of your content. Are the majority of these pictures self-portraits? What is the significance of the mask?
MC: All of the portraits are self-portraits. I cast myself as both actor and director in my drawings. Costuming and theatrics have helped me explore my identity and digest recent events in my life. Masks have given me confidence to embody things I was once afraid to be. Much can be discovered through roleplaying.
NP: I am looking at the series Lost Inside You. I love how the drawings of objects are amidst the portraiture. Afternoon Delight and The Honeybears really make the whole group much more interesting. There is an underlying presence of sexuality in the work, without ever being too self-explanatory. What differentiates this series from the others? Was Lost Inside You an exhibition? If so, when and where?
MC: “Lost Inside You” portrays situations where inhibitions have been let go, allowing exploration of sexuality, relationships, and events. The images delve into states of vulnerability, points where I am open to the viewer and honest with myself. Impulses are no longer repressed; rather I acknowledge their validity and surrender to instincts. The work also acknowledges the complexity and fluidity of identity and desire. There is an element of fetishism and pleasuring the self, which aims to evoke passion while recognizing and reacting to the inherent narcissism of self-portraiture. The drawings of objects are my tongue-in-cheek take on the traditional still life. The figure is referenced without the presence of a body, so in some ways they can also be viewed as portraits.
“Lost Inside You” was exhibited at The University of Wisconsin-Madison in January 2011 and then at Ripon College in March 2011. The works are now being shown by Koplin Del Rio in L.A. and Jenkins Johnson Gallery in N.Y., and at art fairs around the country.
NP: I’ve always heard that University of Wisconsin has a great MFA program for Painting and Drawing. How is the art scene in Madison? Do you plan on relocating now that you have completed your MFA?
MC: Madison is a very supportive and nurturing place. It has been a great place for to learn, create, and launch my career. After living in Madison for ten years, I’ll be moving in October to start an Artist Residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art. From there, I hope to do some more residencies and travel.
NP: What are “Dress-Up Wednesdays”?
MC: When I first started working a day job, I struggled with my role as a woman and an artist in an office. To demonstrate that artists can be creative in any endeavor, I transformed my job into a work of art. I fully embraced office life, began calling myself “The Secretary” and purchased a closet full of vintage secretary blouses and pencil skirts. I dressed like a Mad Men character for an entire year. For the following school year, I realized I needed to take it to the next level. So, for the first day of school, I transformed into a Beatnik, the quintessential image of the bohemian artist. The reaction was overwhelming. Someone asked who I was going to be next week, which gave birth to the idea of “Dress Up Wednesdays”. Every Wednesday, I dressed up as a different character. The outfits pushed the boundaries of women and artists in the office, serving as an instigator for conversation and dialogue. You can see all twenty-four costumed days here.
Making other forms of creative work snowballs my studio practice. My life becomes intertwined with art and I can see my work from new angles and perspectives. It’s a myth that you only have so much creative power. There is no precious limit to imagination.
NP: I noticed on your website that you recently burnt a lot of your older works. I participated in an “Art-Burning” recently with a sculptor named Kardash Onnig . He destroyed about 50 sculptures and 30 years-worth of journals and sketchbook. It was intense and I am still trying to wrap my brain around it. How was the burning experience for you?
MC: My parents essentially had a gallery of all of my early work in their basement. Paintings of animals, past politicians, old lovers, and a life-sized Barbie lined the walls. Visiting that basement was like reliving growing pains. So for my birthday last year, I asked for one thing: a commemorative birthday bonfire where I could burn all of that old work. Reluctantly, my parents agreed. It was quite freeing, standing there on my birthday, watching over fifty pounds of paper burn down to a gallon of ashes. The lessons of that work live on, but now I can move on from that past. All of my archives fit into an urn, which serves as a reminder of where I came from.
NP: Any upcoming exhibitions? I think that after seeing these images The Glasschord readers will be eager to see the work in person.
MC: My work is currently on display at the Museum of Wisconsin Art until July 3, 2011.
From there, it will go to Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana in August, then to Brenau University in Gainesville, Georgia from September through October. I’ll be an Artist-in-Residence at the Bemis Center for the Arts in Omaha, Nebraska from October through December 2011.
In 2012, I’m slated to have a solo exhibit at Koplin Del Rio in LA from June through July 2012, and at Jenkins Johnson Gallery in NY in November. For the most up-to-date events, check out my events page. I would love to meet the Glasschord readers at one of the openings!