Living and working in NYC but hailing from the Midwest, artist, curator and educator Melanie Vote mines a wide range of subject matter through her creative process. Her innovative approach to painting and sculpture denotes the space between universal and local, modern and ancient. We sat down with Vote to learn more about her practice and to gain insights into how her creative process has served her as a juror in our esteemed Art Elevated contest, held in partnership with Manhattan-based Garment District Alliance. The contest yielded nearly ninety winning artists, whose works are featured across Manhattan’s Garment District. These stunning artworks are featured on prominent banners hanging throughout this Midtown Manhattan neighborhood through October 31st.
Artrepreneur: Thanks again for speaking with us today, and for serving as a judge for Art Elevated!
Artrepreneur: How long have you taught there? And what subjects do you teach?
Vote: I’m a working artist who has also taught at the New York Academy of Art since 2015. I teach painting there, and my career in education has spanned teaching both undergraduate and graduate courses.
Artrepreneur: In your artistic career, do you work primarily as a painter?
Vote: Yes, my primary work is painting. I do not consider my self a sculptor, but someone who makes 3-D work that informs and that is in conversation with the paintings.
In the “Girls” series I focused solely on painting, but most all other bodies of work, including “Overgrowth” encompass both painting and sculpture or sculptural installation. Sometimes the 3-D part is not exhibited but a key part of the creative process.
OG: You live and work in New York now, how has your practice evolved since moving to the City from Iowa?
MV: I have spent most of my adult life in New York City and during that time my artistic practice has certainly evolved. I moved to here shortly after studying art at ISU in Iowa. I grew up on a functional farm. I spent over 18 years living in the same rural location and it is a big part of who I am and my work.
Being in New York City now, my artwork incorporates different considerations.
I spend most of my time living in the city and visit Iowa in the summer sometimes for a month at a time. I physically alternate between these two places, and my practice shifts based on my environment. After living in an urban setting for a long time, I have gained an appreciation for the landscape of my childhood and have traveled west to participate in art residencies, where I often find myself painting en plein air. For almost a decade I have had the good fortune of visiting a poet friend of mine where she lives now in Iowa’s Loess Hills. This is an area of rugged bluffs just about an hour and a half from where I grew up. Encountering this area of (and in some cases reclaimed) natural and hilly prairie has had a profound impact on me. I was raised just a few hours away but, experiencing the Loess Hills area actually has changed my perceptions of my home state.
While visiting Iowa I also spend time at my father’s farm, he is still working away at the ripe young age of 76. I find the juxtaposition of these two subtly different worlds fascinating: the one, a life of preservation while living in unity with the environment; and the other, relying on the earth for sustenance to be fascinating.
Artrepreneur: In terms of medium, how does craft fit into your artistic practice?
Vote: Some artists avoid the word “craft” – to me, craft isn’t a bad word. I think it can depend on where an artist is rooted. For example, in the Midwest craft and design are not taboo. In fact, in many ways, they are celebrated in this region. As an artist, words like “craft” and “design” in relation to my work are fine: in fact, I welcome them.
Conceptually how do you feel about aspects of “place-making” in your work?
As an artist I do not work in “place-making” per se, but rather in observing a place as a visual scavenger: both through the lens of a “native” in some cases and someone “from away” in others. I then weave it all together in the studio back in NY. Bringing awareness to the area might accidentally happen through making paintings, but honestly, I am interested in the idea of place as in how people feel a certain connection to a location and call that place home. I also ask: what place do people have in relation to the land?
I read this incredible book by (renowned art historian) Lucy Lippard, The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multi-Centered Society, which has deeply affected my practice. We live in an era where people move many times in one’s life, for work mainly and may not have the experience of really being from one particular place. In the book, Lippard, explores the term “multi-centered” society to explore this concept. I left home as a teen because I could not stay there and become what I wished to be but there is a large part of me that is still from there. I think a lot a people can relate to this feeling. My family has been willingly tethered there farming for generations, but this was not my calling. I still love it: I love the landscape, but maybe I would not even appreciate and want paint about it if I were living there.
In Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book, Braiding Sweetgrass, she states that “the land knows you, even when you are lost”. This is how I feel about the landscapes of my childhood. The idea of place, for me, starts with the landscape, but I do not consider myself a landscape painter, more a portrait painter that paints things or scenes/constructed narratives in the landscapes. A word I keep coming back to is evidence: evidence of time passing as recorded in objects. What will we leave behind as cultural artifacts and what will these tell about our culture? I see “place” through its cultural markers: buildings, historical ephemera, objects and visual culture as expressed by society. I am fascinated with artifacts from ancient indigenous cultures such as the Olmec peoples. From ancient indigenous cultures all the way to contemporary Pop culture, icons are crucial to society. Examples of this range from Precious Moments figurines to ancient Olmec figures. For me, these two different “icons” occupy a similar space culturally to their respective societies. I’m interested in the sense of permanence these markers can exude as relating to their respective societies: entire ancient kingdoms can be explored through these artifacts as time capsules.
Artrepreneur: Can you elaborate a bit on how different eras have an impact on your practice?
Vote: I contemplate the industrial versus the natural world, modern vs ancient. I feel in many ways my practice makes a parallel between our own culture and the rich artifacts of other cultures. Considering various objects/ artifacts and their respective cultural contexts, the historical impact that objects can play, these are important aspects of my work.
Artrepreneur: Can you tell us a bit about your recent and upcoming projects?
Vote: Sure! This fall I am teaching at several schools, including at the New York Academy of Art. Last summer, I co-curated an exhibition, “Natural Proclivities” at the Shirley Fiterman Art Center with Kim Power. But now I am focused in the studio developing a new body of work directly relating to my visits to Iowa. More specifically, I am painting selected segments of a “washhouse” that is over one hundred years old. I will return again this spring to continue research by attending a conference on the Loess Hills. While there, I will also be teaching a week-long painting workshop at Iowa State University.