Beyond the Visible in Nature – An Interview with Melissa Fleming
by Robert A. Schaefer, Jr.
Published in Double Exposure, August 2008
Earlier in the year I wrote an article on Fotofest in which I interviewed three photographers who had attended the event. One of these artists was Melissa Fleming whose interest in the “transient and often unseen aspects of the natural world” fascinated me. Her images and objects use actual elements of the environment focusing on their beauty as well as their importance. Recently, I had the opportunity to learn more about Melissa’s direction in photography and other art forms.
Robert Schaefer: Where were you born and raised? Were you interested in art as a child? Were you involved with photography growing up?
Melissa Fleming: I was born and raised on Staten Island, New York, one of the outer boroughs of New York City. I did not have any formal training in the arts as a child, but I remember being especially aware of my spatial and visual surroundings at a very young age. My first real experience with photography did not come until I was a senior in college when I took a basic black and white darkroom course as an elective.
RS: Did you study photography formally? Where? Who are some of the teachers who have inspired you?
MF: I took a few workshops around New York and met a lot of people who really encouraged my artistic interests, but I consider my true formal art/photography education to be my graduate school experience in the Parsons MFA program. The professors I worked with there, including Simone Douglas, Jeff Weiss, and Anthony Aziz, truly opened my eyes and my mind to the possibilities of art. It was one of the best learning experiences of my life.
RS: Are there any photographers who have had an influence on your work? What about artists in other art medias?
MF: Yes, I am interested in and influenced by all mediums of art. A short list of the artists whose work I admire and have influenced me include, Adam Fuss, Andy Goldsworthy, Anish Kapoor, Olafur Eliasson, and JMW Turner.
RS: You were invited to participate in Photo España. Tell us all about that.
MF: Photo España is an annual month long International Festival of Photography that takes place in Madrid, Spain. It involves exhibitions as well as educational and professional programs. One aspect of the festival is called Descubrimientos (Discoveries). This is what I was involved in. Descubrimientos is a juried portfolio review where the participants not only meet reviewers, but also are part of a group exhibition that is up for the duration of the festival.
My overall experience in Spain was extremely positive. I met with curators, gallery directors, and festival organizers from all over Europe. They were each very insightful and we had good discussions about concepts in art and the history of experimentation within the medium of photography. Each of the reviewers I met with brought something unique and valuable to the conversation about my work, which I valued. Several of the reviewers mentioned some exciting possible opportunities for my work.
RS: What have been some of the highlights of your career so far?
MF: I would say that some of the highlights of my career so far include earning my MFA, being invited to exhibit my work across the U.S. and internationally (Argentina, Lithuania, and Spain), as well as placing my work in the collections of the University of Colorado at Boulder, the Museo de la Fotografía in Rafaela, Argentina and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Another highlight has been having the opportunity to meet and work with some wonderful people, including curators, gallery owners, collectors, and fellow artists.
RS: Your work is very much a product of nature. Were you always interested in that direction? How did you get involved with it?
MF: I have always been drawn to nature and enjoy the physicality of working outdoors and directly with the landscape. For me working with the natural world is energizing as it is in a constant state of flux, adding an element of serendipity to my work. Long intrigued by its processes, I have come to value that nature’s more subtle and interesting beauty is often beyond the visible. As such, most of my work is an investigation of the transient and often unseen aspects of the natural world. An interdisciplinary education, including science, history, and philosophy has influenced my way of seeing. It has taught me to look for interconnections between and across various fields of study. As a result, the influences on my work are diverse and incorporate the ideas of the Sublime, Abstraction, and Fractal theory.
In my various artist statements, I go into detail about how specific aspects of nature have influenced different bodies of work. I am, however, most captivated by water. This fascination can be seen in my projects, Sentient (night seascapes) and Sea Change (photograms of the movement of matter in ocean waves).
Through my practice of art, I am continually learning about the natural world. As my depth of knowledge increases, my approach to the subject changes artistically.
RS: It also uses printing processes from the 19th Century (palladium). How did you get involved with them? Do you see yourself continuing in this venue? Might you try some of the other processes? Which ones interest you?
MF: I enjoy the alchemy and the physicality of 19th century processes. I am also attracted to the fact that many of the older processes only work with UV light, bringing nature back into the production process. My decision to use palladium in the creation of the photograms of Sea Change enabled me to make images outdoors directly in the ocean with the sun, entwining the medium with the ocean. The palladium process was a vehicle for my project and not a subject in and of itself. I have also worked with cyanotype for my White Nights project. This is a mixed media piece with a photographic base. Here again, I mainly utilized the process for its UV sensitivity.
RS: Where do you see your work going in the future?
MF: The ideas that I have been working with in my photographic imagery have carried over to other mediums, including sculptural assemblage and small installations. I find the fluid interchange between art and science to be compelling. They are two separate fields of study, but both have the idea of intense seeing at their core. I locate my work at this nexus of exchange. I will always work with photography in some form, but regardless of the medium, I continue to be attracted to the idea of the unknown.