Interview: Melbourne Artist Melissa Fleming
Updated: Sep 1, 2020
"Nature can be really bright and bold and in your face; but it’s often the subtleties behind that which contain the meaning in the scene."
2020 has been an interesting year to say the least. With COVID restrictions limiting our ability to socialise, travel and attend live performances and sports, many of us have been picking up new skills and finding other ways to fill our time. Some of us blog, some of us create art.
Self-employed architect and founder of Metroworks Architects, Melissa Fleming, is known for her award-winning home renovation designs, but she is also an artist. Using alcohol inks, she creates vibrant wildlife and landscape artworks which are inspired by her travels in Africa and her love of animals and photography. Melissa also happens to be my wonderful aunt, and she agreed to let me pick her brains about her art and how lockdown has been for her artistic endeavours.
K: How would you describe your artwork?
M: I work in alcohol inks, which is a fairly new-ish medium. It can be quite precise, but it can also be quite free and abstract as well. I work somewhere in the middle; some of my work is abstract, some of it is a little more formal. I don’t tend to use brushes to move the ink, I use an airbrush. You can blow the ink around or just move the paper, and it’s all done on synthetic paper which has a plastic feel to it – you don’t want the ink to sink into the paper, you want it to move around. It’s a bit like watercolour, but the ink sits on top of the paper rather than sinking in. The inks sort of have a life of their own too, some colours will dry differently or they’ll present different colours as they dry. It’s quite beautiful to watch it come to life.
K: You’ve already touched on my next question, but can you tell me a bit about your process?
M: My process! Well, I’ve just deconstructed my home studio but let’s assume I still have one – damn COVID [laughs] – that had to go to make way for my home office now. But the key for me, even though I don’t have a lot of space to live in, is to find a space or create a space where I can just leave all my materials out ready to go, so it’s not a matter of setting up and cleaning up all the time. I’ve got to be in the right head space, some days it’s a bit more difficult to get there than others. You’ve got to have time, so I try to pick a time where I’ve got a few hours spare, not just a few minutes, because not every piece will work and you don’t want to sit down and create a piece of rubbish and then throw it out in a huff. You’ve got to give yourself space as well as time to produce something attractive. It’s just a matter of sitting down, and the hardest part is getting over the fear of the blank sheet of paper in front of you. Because that’s a scary thought when you’re an artist sometimes.
K: And for a writer too
M: Exactly, I can imagine. It’s that blinking curser staring at you saying, ‘come on! Come on!’. But if you can just start, that’s the beauty of these inks – the work is done fairly quickly, particularly in abstract pieces – so you can do a little practice piece and then move that to one side to get going. Like a little warm up. And then just let it happen. I look at the internet for inspiration sometimes and I’m a member of some artist groups on Facebook with people who use similar mediums or the same medium. They’re often inspirational. I draw inspiration from what’s around me and what’s available.
K: Well that leads nicely to my next question which is: what inspires your work?
M: The colours you can generate with the inks are very bold, but they can also be very subtle. It’s very similar to the natural environment in that way. Nature can be really bright and bold and in your face; but it’s often the subtleties behind that which contain the meaning in the scene. For example, you can take a photo of a beautiful flower but what it’s set against will often offset its beauty. I draw inspiration I guess from nature and my own experience. I’ve done a lot of artwork based on my travel photos because I’m a really keen photographer as well. I find myself flicking through my photo albums and getting inspiration from those. I do some landscape, wildlife, birds… it’s about finding a scene that has a look which will work with the medium I work in.
K: Do you have a favourite piece?
M: It depends what mood I’m in [laughs]. I don’t really have a favourite, but I have favourites in the different styles I work in. Like a couple of favourite animal ones, a couple of favourite birds, a couple of favourite florals. But I don’t really have a single favourite. Sometimes it’s what I’m working on at the time. Sometimes I don’t want to look at the thing I’m working on!
K: How has it been working from home?
M: From an art perspective it’s become a lot more difficult, and that’s because I’m now working my regular job from home – I’m an architect. So COVID has basically brought me back to a home office set up, which is how I first started my practice. It’s become a lot more restricted, so I now have to set up each time I want to make art. Although having said that, earlier on in the first wave when we thought [COVID] was under control, I was working on my dining table for my regular job and I had my spare room as my studio and I found that as my work dropped away, my artwork became like a therapy to cope with the lockdown. I could just burry myself in my artwork and hide myself away and I was happy as Larry. So from that point of view it was actually quite good at the start to have that outlet and that release.
K: Do you think art has a role to play in managing mental health? Not just with COVID but more generally as well.
M: Yeah look it has played a big role because I think it is a place where I can escape to – mentally escape to if you like – because you have to be completely focussed on what you’re producing at the time. I think that focus allows you to shut everything else out, so it’s almost like a form of creative meditation where you can, not hide, but sort of divorce yourself from what’s going on around you. Whether that be personal grief or COVID or something worrying you at work, it’s much easier with that distraction of some creative pursuit to put things to one side. Once you’ve done that, it’s almost like you give your brain a chance to settle for a minute so you can handle the problem with a much clearer mind. I don’t know, maybe the alcohol goes to my head or something [laughs], but it’s a means of clearing your mind to put things in little parcels and deal with them one at a time. It’s been really good and it’s something I really appreciate.
K: I suppose each time you do a work it gives you a sense of achievement?
M: Yeah, but not always [laughs]. I have days where I think, ‘I’ve got this idea, I’ve got that idea,’ and I sit down and I don’t know which idea to do first, so I end up doing nothing. Or I have lots of ideas and I go in and none of them work, none of them come out the way I expected them to. But that again is another mental exercise of being able to deal with, not failure, because it’s not a failure, but another step in the process. You’ve got to learn from those mistakes. You can’t practice art; you just have to do it. And if it works, it works, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. And as they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So what you think might work is what’s important, and what you’re prepared to put your name to as an artist. But there might be parts of it that other people see, that you don’t see. And what you think is the ‘success’ based on a technique or a colour you’ve used may not be the thing everybody else sees in the artwork.
K: Well that leaves one question remaining: do you have any new projects in the making?
M: Yes, I have actually. I’m going to start playing with resin and combining ink and resin together.
K: What kind of effect would that give?
M: Well there’s a few different ways of doing it. One is to colour the resin with the ink and it depends on how much you mix them, for example you may get a kind of swirl pattern in the resin. It’s a means of working on a three-dimensional type process as well which I really enjoy. You’re not just dealing with a flat plain, but with how the ink moves in a volume as well. I’ve seen someone online who makes pendants with clear resin, she drops the ink into the resin and as it cures it creates these little sort of ink trees in the resin. I’ve had a bit of a play with jewellery – pendants, rings, bracelets and things – so I’m quite keen on making that sort of stuff. I’ll play around and see how I go. I’m always interested in new materials.
Melissa Fleming Art website
Metroworks Architects website