Interview: Melinda R. Smith – Expressionist Painter

Today, we’d like to welcome artist, Melinda R. Smith to Jung Katz!

Tell us about yourself, who are you, where are you from, and what do you do?
I live in Los Angeles, California, a city I love, although I’m always dreaming of leaving for more bucolic places with lots of water and trees and affordable space and moodier skies. I was born and raised in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and, on Halloween, I’ll be 50 years old, which I can’t say I’m terribly thrilled about, although I do like the Halloween part.

Painter Melinda R. Smith ArtHow did you get started doing what you do?
For my entire life, I was a writer—a poet and playwright, mainly. Writing was my life, I lived for it. In 2010, I had a book of poetry published by Finishing Line Press called “Tiny Island,” and I wanted to design the cover myself. In doing so, I became obsessed with visual imagery. At the same time, I was becoming increasingly unable to sustain narratives in my writing, and since I had finally reached my end of tolerance for difficult relationships, I had lost my muse for poetry. At that time, I would sit in the mornings attempting to write, basically biding my time until I could quit for the day and play with Photoshop. On January 10, 2011, I made the—to me—momentous decision to walk away from writing altogether in order to focus exclusively on visual art. I began with digital art. My idea at that time was to sort of trick people into reading my writing by putting it into the art. My first pieces I exhibited, at the Los Angeles Center for Digital Art, were images in which I placed stanzas from one of my longer poems I didn’t think deserved to languish in obscurity. I don’t think my trick worked. People looked at the pieces without really reading the words. Most people find poetry a chore. My solo show at LACDA was called “Post-Literate.” This referred as much to myself as to the world we’re living in. Although I still love the digital medium, I eventually left it for painting because I needed more immediacy in the work itself—I craved the vitality and vibrancy and physicality of paint. It’s such an incredibly sensual medium. The shift from writing to painting has been the greatest surprise of my life, and unless I sprout another head or win the Nobel Prize in economics, it probably will always remain so. My only regret is that I won’t have had enough time with it.

Artist Melinda R. SmithHow would you describe your style?
Messy. Expressionistic. I used to say that everything I did as a painter was an elaborate cover-up for what I couldn’t do. Being self-taught, I’ve had to make it all up as I go along, so although I no longer feel that I’m engaged in an elaborate cover-up, I’ve certainly developed habits and techniques out of that impulse. If nothing else, it makes my style uniquely my own. I don’t dislike it.

What’s your inspiration?

What is art to you?
Truth-telling via the circuitous route of make-believe.

What does your typical day look like?
I wake up early, before dawn, and hike in the hills above the Griffith Park Observatory. When I return, I drink coffee and come up with various clever ways to avoid starting work. But I do have to begin painting by 10—if I don’t start by 10, I won’t feel that I have enough time in the dayto do the work I need to do. I like to have two paintings going at once. This takes me through the day. A lot of painting, I find, involves…well, lying on the couch and looking at the work, deciding where to go next with it; I feel so ridiculously lazy, but it’s work! (Isn’t it?) At the end of the day, I’ll have a scotch and assess what I’ve done. Oftentimes at the bottom of that scotch are a few bold choices that complete the piece. At intervals throughout the day, I feel guilty because I don’t do enough networking. By “enough” I mean “any.” I just paint. Some days I’m miserable because I’m painting badly; some days I’m happy because I’m painting well. The wheel goes up, the wheel goes down. I prefer it when it’s up, except I know it’ll be going down.

Painter Melinda R. Smith ArtHow long does it typically take for you to finish a piece?
When I was painting exclusively on paper, which is how I taught myself to paint in the utterly misguided belief that it was cheaper than canvas, and even after switching to canvas, I would finish a painting in a day. Lately, though, I’ve slowed it down, becoming more deliberate. So, two days, three days. This saves me a little of the labor of having to stretch so many canvases, which is good. I think, though, that the paintings are really made in a couple hours. There’s the longish work of preparing the painting to be painted—the underpainting—and preparing myself to paint. I mean that crazy bit where I shut down the ego with all its judgements and thinking and just start acting. (All that couch time and deliberate work is really time spent drifting toward this kind of nothingness, this zero state, I call it. Although from the outside it must look quite lazy, it’s really not an easy state to arrive at. For one thing, it requires enormous amounts of solitude.) That’s where the real painting happens—and it happens fast and furiously. I love and trust this part. All the rest is preparation.

How do you keep motivated?
Motivation has never been an issue. I have trouble on the other end—making time for other things.

How have your surroundings influenced your work?
I’m deeply influenced by the bright, polychromatic landscape of urban Los Angeles, and the golden light here slays me. I often wonder how my work would change if I lived in, say, Northern Europe or Scandinavia. Would my colors survive? I’d like to find out. I crave those places.

Painter Melinda R. Smith ArtWhat do you hope to accomplish with your work?
To never die. Failing that, I aim for emotional truth. I want the paintings to breathe and tell you their stories. For me, art is not so much about ideas or concepts, but something ephemeral and uncanny. A painting’s purpose, like a poem’s, is to make possible the fleet apprehension of what can’t be named or pinned down. A moment. Frisson. Recognition. And it’s gone. Ultimately, it’s a soulful experience I’m after. But I also simply like to evoke character and story. I paint a lot of self-portraits, but not because I’m interested in capturing my likeness. Rather, I use myself as a sort of template to explore the vagaries of emotion and circumstance. The reasons for this are manifold. For one thing, I’m very self-contained, and it’s expedient to use myself as my subject. Also, on a personal level, I have the diarist’s compulsion to record as much of my life as I possibly can. If I get enough of it down, maybe I won’t lose it. It’s a futile enterprise, but it drives me mercilessly nonetheless. Taken together, I see my work as a kind of static filmstrip that tells me the story of myself, and this is how I know myself. But the personal is universal, and so the paintings also represent archetypes that tell your story as well. The viewer’s interpretations of my work are as important as my own, which is why I used to disdain titles. I considered them too suggestive. Lately, though, I’m coming to embrace them. Incidentally, it’s always surprised me that I don’t use words more in my visual work. But I think I’ve gotten so reductive that color and symbol stand for everything now. Color is its own extremely complex language. I’ll happily spend the rest of my life learning it.

Artist Melinda R. SmithHow have others reacted to your work?
People seem to enjoy it. I find the art world to be much more open and receptive than the writing world was. But that makes sense to me. The written word is under siege while visual imagery thrives—the attitudes in the two worlds reflect this. Besides which, looking at art is largely pleasurable and seldom an imposition. Writing, on the other hand, can be difficult, and it takes work to penetrate. I would far sooner ask someone to look at my paintings than to read my poems—and if you ask someone to read a play? Their eyes get heavy, very very heavy….

What do you want others to take away from your work?
Whatever it is they take away from it. Art is completed by the viewer.

What, if anything, would you tell your younger self?
Why bother? She wouldn’t listen.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
“Keep doing you.”

Artist Melinda R. SmithAny words of wisdom to aspiring artists who want to pursue a similar career?
Trust yourself, and understand that oftentimes the advice people give you about your work has more to do with them than with you. It is the rare individual who doesn’t project him/herself onto you. Develop eyes to see this—it will save you lots of grief.

What are your thoughts on art school?
Obviously, the essence of what it is to be an artist, in any medium, can’t betaught. I learned to write by two means only: reading and writing. That’s really all you need to do. Apply yourself, and do it. I’ve learned to paint in the same way—simply by painting and by studying the work of other painters. Certainly, I understand the value of being taught technique—I’ve spent many long and frustrating hours wishing someone would teach me what feels impossible to learn on my own. On the other hand, I’m grateful that as a painter I have nothing to unlearn. Unlearning is much, much harder than learning. But beyond the time-saving aspects of art school, surely its primary value is in the relationships and connections made there. Never, never underestimate the value of connections—a mistake I’ve always made.

Melinda R. Smith PaintingHave any future aspirations that you’d like to share?
I want to see my paintings going into the world, and so I’d like to find a gallery to represent them. Also, near the end of my time with writing, I wrote a beautiful and sad book about the failure of my second marriage. I’d like to see that published.

What’s your dream project?
It involves a much larger studio than I have now, that’s all I know.

What art supplies do you use?
Because I live and paint in the same very small space, I use acrylics. I long to work with oils, but as it stands now, I can’t. And since I work on a fairly large scale, I’ve been using Golden Acrylic Flow Release and Golden Acrylic Glazing Medium to make the paints more fluid and voluminous. It suits my messy style. It also forces me to limit my palette slightly, which is good, since I sometimes lack restraint when it comes to color.

How could the artindustry become better in your opinion?
I don’t know enough about it to have an opinion.

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