Melissa Fleming - Artist Exploring the Natural World

Straight Talk: An Interview with Melissa Fleming

by: Danielle McCloskey

Published in SciArt in America, December 2014

Danielle McCloskey: You generally use nature as a form of media in your bodies of work. Could you explain how you came to that and your philosophy behind it?

Melissa Fleming: The natural world has always played a big part in my work.  Starting off as simply subject matter, I eventually began incorporating natural materials directly into my art, beginning with my ocean projects. I had been photographing the ocean at night for my series Sentient and began to think of the white crash of the waves as the mark by which we can know the ocean in the darkness.  This idea of a mark resonated with me and I soon began making photograms, the photographic process that literally records the mark of its subject.  These became Sea Change, my series of palladium-based photograms of ocean waves.  Since palladium is sensitive to UV light, I was able to entwine the ocean and the sun with the photographic process.  From that point on, I started to see and use nature in new ways. My two series, Under Glass and Flow, for example, contain natural objects.

I cannot say that I have a precise philosophy about using natural objects in my art.  For me, it just seemed logical to utilize the materials that I had long been photographing as I moved from two-dimensional to three-dimensional art.

DM: You’ve stated that you are captivated most by water and it is a reoccurring element in your work. Can you explain your fascination and what you feel it brings out in your art?

MF: Water is a very familiar substance, yet it has many unusual characteristics. I am fascinated by both its physical and ephemeral qualities.  Scientifically, its molecular structure, its high specific heat capacity, and its moderating influence on temperature all interest me.  Artistically, I am attracted to how it moves, how light moves through it, and how we move differently when we are submerged in it.  Water is also constantly moving and changing.  It never appears the exact same way twice.  I like that it brings an element of chance or serendipity to some of my work. 

DM: Could you talk a little bit about the conception of your series Under Glass?

MF: It is a series of small sculptural assemblages.  They are all composed of natural objects that I collected and then placed under glass domes.  Each dome is engraved with a label that describes the object underneath in a way that seeks to challenge our perceptions and highlight the duality of the solid and intangible in nature.  For example, the dome that reads “Atlantic Ocean: 10 Gallons” contains a small pile of sea salt that I evaporated from ocean water.  “Memory: 41 Years”, describes the cross-section of a tree and how its rings are the memory of the environment in which it grew.  Inspired by the idea of 19th-century citizen science, the project developed as I learned how seemingly simple aspects of nature are actually very complex and intricately interconnected with the larger environment. 

DM: You often speak about exploring duality or interconnections in nature your work. What is something that has really stuck with you that you have explored? How did it impact your work?

MF: The duality of the seen and unseen in nature is a big theme in my work.  Exploring the idea of infinite complexity in the natural world helped me to understand that art and science are both disciplines of intense seeing and the interplay between the two has really stuck with me.  Every art project I work on teaches me something new and increases my desire for a deeper understanding of nature. As my depth of knowledge increases, my artistic approach to the subject continues to evolve.

DM: Tell us a little bit about your blog The Weather Gamut. Does your work from your blog ever correspond with your artwork?

MF: The Weather Gamut is my blog about weather and climate change.  While I have had a life-long interest in weather, it is fair to say that art helped lead me to this science-based blog.  Going back to my ocean work, I was curious to learn more about the subject and signed up for an oceanography class. It taught me a great deal, but what really caught my interest was how interactions between the ocean and the atmosphere impact weather and climate.  From there, I was inspired to learn as much as possible about the topic.  I was simply hooked on it.

The blog and my art are not directly linked. That said, they do inform each other.  In fact, I am currently working on a series of photographs about the sky.  Also, I have an “arts” section on my blog that highlights various creative endeavors related to weather and climate change.

DM: You are giving a lecture in New Orleans called "The Art and Science of Climate Change" in March. What will you be addressing there? Will you be bringing any of your own artwork to present?

MF: I will be giving a presentation entitled, “The Art and Science of Climate Change” at the 52nd National SPE Conference. It will introduce the basic science of climate change and explore how artists are reacting to its impacts and possible solutions around the globe. The talk, overall, will be a survey of climate change art.  I may include a slide or two of my own work, but in general, it is not about me.


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. Through my practice of art, I am continually learning about the natural world and am more and more intrigued. 

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. I have also worked with the cyanotype process.   

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 sculpture and 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.