Childish Lady: The Playful World of Melissa Monroe
October 21, 2021
It’s hard to look at a Melissa Monroe tufted purse (or a mask, a rug, a painting, or a video, for that matter) without smiling. Across her wide-ranging studio practice, cartoon faces provoke, figures dissolve into abstraction, and “mistakes” are embraced as anything but. The result is a language of imagery that feels as psychedelically weird as it does intimate.
The story of how Monroe came to art-making is something of a modern fairytale. At twenty six, she was married with three kids and “pretty unhappy. Just kind of going through the motions of life.” One day, while working at a coffee shop in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, Monroe was inspired by an artist named Jesse Reno, who was painting a mural in the shop.
“I said to him, ‘People still paint?’ because in my mind, to be a painter you had to make representational art, or be in museums or something. I didn't know about the local art scene; I’d never even been to a gallery.” Melissa went home that night and found some supplies around the house from her then-husband’s construction job. “I broke glass, poured paint on it, splatted and dripped on a piece of wood. I felt alive. I let out all my emotions. Within a year, I’d left my husband and gained new confidence through community and creating.”
Now Melissa lives in her combination house/studio in Portland with her children and Reno, who is now her partner in both art-making and life. She and I spoke on the phone and over email about her world.
I’m so inspired by your non-traditional path into the studio. How did you go from discovering that you really loved to paint to making it your job?
By late 2012 I was painting almost every day with Jesse. By then we’d actually purchased the coffee shop with a couple of other business partners, but in mid-2014 we lost it. It’s a long story, but ultimately I was left without income to support myself and my children. Finding a new job with flexible hours proved difficult. I felt like the only action I could take was to try to sell my art. Within a few months I was selling on Ebay and at local events, and for the first five years, I was living art sale to art sale. Painting was all I wanted to do. Every chance I got I was creating, learning, and refining my style. I think it helped that I was poor, and had always been poor, because I was used to scrapping by and budgeting.
What first appealed to you about tufting?
At the beginning of the pandemic my sister sent me a link to a tufter. I was immediately fascinated by the process. At that time I didn't feel comfortable spending the money, but I spent hours watching videos. I have always wanted to create textile work but haven't had the patience, so with the quickness of tufting I was all in. Eventually I ordered supplies, then waited impatiently for weeks as I researched everything tufting.
What is your process like in the studio? Your work strikes me as coming from a pretty intuitive place, but it’s also really consistent across mediums.
Most of the time I just go for it. When I paint, I tend to put down layers and layers without a plan. With the masks, I'll draw a basic shape and start tufting. I work color by color, starting with one color and then considering, “What will look best next to this color?”, adding shapes as they come to me. Knowing in advance how a piece will look finished seems like a setup for disappointment. I'd rather be surprised by the outcome.
Of course, “just going for it” doesn’t always work. More recently I’ve been experimenting with different ways to plan my pieces while still keeping things loose. For example, I made a piece replicated from a collage I had created out of Vogue magazine clippings. I also tufted a piece inspired by one of my paintings, by doing a basic sketch and then just looking at the painting while tufting. Even so, I still make decisions in the moment, as I’m working. What color do I want next to this color, to create contrast or shadow? What shape will make this composition work?
The tufted mask is such a cool idea, but even before you were tufting, you were making paper mâché and latex masks. What interests you about masks?
In 2015 I saw some 1920s amusement masks at an oddities shop where I was selling my work. I was obsessed with them, but the price was way out of my range. So one night I came across the antique dealer’s Instagram, with images of the masks, and decided to paint a picture of the tiger mask. I sent an image of the painting to the mask owner and he loved it so much he asked if I’d trade the painting for it . . . I was excited, to say the least! It was the first of many trades.
Jesse and I started making videos with the masks and putting them to music we were making. I loved wearing them and performing in them, but I wanted to make my own, too. I think the masks help me explore the spiritual practice of play. I do occasionally sell them as art objects, but they’re the hardest to part with, because they feel like a part of me. Every time I make one and wear it, it causes me to examine a new part of my personality.
Related to the tufted masks, a lot of your work makes me think of imagery I associate with childhood (and more specifically, nostalgic, pre-internet childhood of the 80s and 90s). Do you see a link between your aesthetic and how it feels to be a kid?
I'm definitely a child of the 80s and 90s. I love bright colors, rainbows, stripes, bold shapes. Recently I made a Sesame Street rug, and in 2019 I did a series called Childish Lady, about the struggles of growing up. While working on those pieces, I was connecting with my younger self, remembering some of the pains of growing and the sadness I felt as a young person. Still sorting out these feelings years later, I realize I am both always growing up and always a child. At the same time, I find myself to be a very silly person, but I take my art very seriously. I like to think of my work as silly-serious; the best pieces make me laugh, or cry, or both.
You and your partner both have studio space at home, which makes me think that the boundary between “life” and “art” is probably pretty porous at your house. What does a typical day look like?
I would say there aren't many typical days around here, besides eating and sleeping! With two full-time artists and three kids in the house, there is always a lot going on. Jesse works with his assistant a couple of days a week, we both teach workshops in and out of our studio, and I run a print shop sometimes. We practice with our band, Soft Memory, once a week, and we spend at least one weekend a month camping at the coast. It seems like any week there's not much going on, it suddenly fills up with a project, studio visits, the kids’ activities, etc. As a full-time artist, it’s about fifty-fifty, between working in the studio and all the administrative and promotional stuff. And as many people know, when you work for yourself it's easy to work 24/7! It’s both the best and hardest job I've ever had.
The best days are when I decide I'm just going to make art all day. One thing that's helped me create more is letting the house not be as clean as I'd like. As a woman and a mother, I’ve had to release a lot of what I was taught I was supposed to be. Now I let things go a little more. Which makes for a messier house, but more art gets made!
Do your kids make art?
The kids are all so creative in their own ways, curious about different mediums and eager to learn. I love the questions they ask and how they process information. They understand colors and think about art they like and don't like, and they’re fascinated by the textures in tufting. As a kid, I wasn't around a lot of art, so to have my kids immersed in it is exciting.
What are you excited to tuft next?
More masks! I always have more ideas than I have time for, and focusing that energy can be difficult at times. But I’m thinking a lot about texture and larger shapes, and I’m wanting to make a super shaggy mask with my AK-III. I’m also excited to create work for a group show I’ve been invited to in LA next year.
Do you have any advice for artists or tufters who are just starting out?
Even if you don't know what to make, just start making. Oftentimes, the ideas don't come until I've started, and even a simple mark or color inspires me to keep going. Embrace making mistakes, and use them to grow. And make sure you feel passion for the act of creating, not just the outcome!