Melanie Norris is a prolific emerging artist in the River Arts District of Asheville, North Carolina. “There’s a beauty in not saying everything, not putting everything out there,” Norris muses about her watercolor paintings. With that in mind, she employs a restraint in her watercolor portraits, painting just enough of a physical representation to glimpse the underlying character of her subject. She has been a feature in the prestigious Brass Brothers Films (see below) a TEDX speaker, and front-and-centre in numerous print publications. We are happy to feature Melanie as a Wall Hop artist & to bring you an inside look into her incredible watercolors!
Tell us a little bit about yourself
I just turned 26, I’ve been married for almost a year to a slide guitar player I met here in Asheville, the monstrously-talented Jackson Dulaney. I’m from Tennessee, but have lived in Asheville for almost 4 years and have been painting out of a studio here for nearly as long. Painting is my hobby as well as my job, I would say. I also read a lot and stay active. Biking and hiking and swimming when I can.
How would you describe your artwork?
This is the hardest part of my work. The simple and obvious way: I would describe it as abstracted portraits. However, by the time I’m done with a painting, especially with this new series, it doesn’t feel like a portrait any longer. To me it’s a very abstract and emotionally and aesthetically driven painting, yet it still reads very much as a portrait to the viewer. People come in the studio and (frustratingly) say, “So you like faces, huh?” I usually just don’t answer, I turn back to my work because I don’t know what to do with that. They are faces, but they’re also very much not faces. There’s a gap that’s tough to describe. And I don’t like rhetorical questions.
Can you explain the themes your artwork explores?
My ideas usually come from books I’ve been reading. Sometimes the concepts, but sometimes just the style of writing. I did a series last year based off of “Tinkers” by Paul Harding. He used this sketchy way of describing characters and scenes that allowed for a lot of space and breath and light. So my responsive paintings had this raw, searching quality that allowed the character to emerge and inhabit a blank space that was so activated by the paint that wasn’t there. So I took the idea of wasn’t and have been pushing that further with my Hallucinations. The faces fade into sketch lines, but feel more real than a portrait that has been carefully and masterfully executed. I lean into my mistakes more and make them part of the composition.
How do you go about capturing the essence of a person through your paintings?
Lately, I don’t try to capture anything too personal about the person in my paintings. I use them as vehicles for these larger ideas I’m thinking about: death, pain, raw emotion, disorders of the mind, God, transcendence, etc. The final product is a combination of my ideas and mood while I’m painting with what I’m picking up from the model. I think I’m pretty empathic and can feel what other people do as I’m working on their painting – I hesitate to call it a portrait – to the point where I find myself making the faces they make and hear their voices and laughter in my ears when I’m in a good flow with the painting. So yes, there’s certainly this element of their spirit, but it has to reach higher and beyond for me to consider it a successful painting. It has to reach a level where their identity is insignificant and the painting becomes a portrait of whoever is looking at it. It reflects universal emotion.
What does your artwork say about you?
I think, at this stage, it says I have a lot of ideas that I’m sorting out. I had a professor in college once say that he sincerely thought I had 3 very different artistic personalities living inside of me; so I guess I’m trying to please them all. I want to find a way to be Andrew Wyeth and Helen Frankenthaler at the same time. To me they’re so similar; it’s all about the feeling and process. The way the painting ends up looking is almost irrelevant. Again, this is with my newer work.
Have you ever done a self-portrait?
I’ve done several self portraits lately because I can’t observe myself the way I observe others, so it affords me the opportunity to separate self from body more easily. I paint what I’m thinking and the way I feel – and the way I look only acts as a signifier.
From concept to canvas – can you walk me through that process for you?
The concept usually comes from books I’ve been reading; I’ll think of a way to visually respond and start gathering models – they’re typically family members. I photograph them, make them a little uncomfortable by being in front of the camera – this is good because it adds to the raw quality I want in the completed painting. I then use the photo as a starting point, but typically stray from it as the painting advances. Sometimes I will sketch, but sometimes I just start painting and let the watercolor layer and layer and layer. Through the process the faces emerge and have a quiet soulful depth I’ve never been able to achieve with any other medium.
I often think I have the same personality as watercolor; it’s subdued yet willful. You can’t micromanage the painting or it will fight you the whole way. You must act as the guide and step back to allow its natural course. Painting with watercolor has actually given me many life lessons. It teaches me life is tenuous, how to deal with loss, how to accept mistakes, to appreciate subtle beauty, and to stop before I ruin everything!
When do you know that a piece is complete?
When I can look at it straight-on and don’t have a nagging feeling in my stomach.
How do you choose your subjects?
Many of my subjects are the people I love: my family, my husband. There is this subconscious connection that can just flow through my paintings without my having to think about them. Also, though, there are people I come across who intrigue me by the way they carry themselves or talk and so I pursue them as well. Those are the tough ones; I get anxious trying to ask them to pose for me. There have been times I don’t ask them in time and they disappear and their image haunts me. Always in the back of my mind I think of them as people who got away. It’s like a lost love, and I feel it deeply even though I never knew them.
There was this woman who lived on my street a couple of years ago. I walked by her on my way to the studio every morning. She had long white hair, would be sitting in her garden, but her eyes seemed miles and years away. She always wore the color purple. Always. Her features were so strong yet gentle, I thought everyday “This is my muse,” but couldn’t get the nerve to ask if I could paint her; it’s an intensely personal question in my mind. I could only wave. So I put it off, and one day she was gone. I never saw her again, and I felt so desperate realizing I’d missed my chance. So lesson learned. I try to find her in many of my other subjects, but they’re just reflections of the real thing. It’s a shame.
What/Who have been some of your biggest influences?
People and literature are my biggest influences; the intense feelings that emanate from them without them realizing.
As mentioned above, Andrew Wyeth, Helen Frankenthaler, also Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. The writing of Milan Kundera. The medical anecdotes of Oliver Sacks. All of these help me to understand and cope with the “human condition,” for lack of a better all-enveloping term.
What would your ideal project be (size, money, time, materials are not a factor)
To be a part of a project trying to further the understanding and acceptance of certain mental differences like schizophrenia, manic-depression, autism, etc. In our culture, these things are medicated and treated as diseases, and I think it’s fascinating that in other cultures at different times, these same people were revered as having a direct line to God. They were the healers and shamans. Why is it so different now? I’ve been doing research – I obviously don’t know enough to have an informed strong opinion, and each individual case is unique, but I would love to do a series that opened up a dialogue about that.
I’m interested in studying people who perceive and respond to the world differently and in arguably a more authentic way. People who don’t or can’t mold themselves to learned social habits, who rage against a typical world.
What has been the most challenging and rewarding part about being an artist?
Rewarding is seeing all the reactions to my work; good or bad, I like that it can make people react. Challenging is keeping momentum when I falter. I have times where I feel like I’m just playing at something no one will care about, I’m irrelevant, dark mood days. That’s when I have to lean on work ethic and just show up everyday and paint and let something come from that. My more ambitious paintings typically come from that place, like I’m furiously trying to shake off insecurities and I have nothing to lose, so I get bolder.
What can we expect to see from you next?
More abstraction, more leaps – I’m trying for quiet chaos.
Any parting words?
If you asked me all these questions again tomorrow, the answers would be completely different.
See more of Melanie’s work and purchase it on her Artist Profile Page
Interviewer: Rob Green