Featured Artist Interview : Melissa Joseph

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We are very excited to have felting artist Melissa Joseph as our third artist of the project. Through material exploration during her residency at the Textile Arts Center, she came across her newly chosen medium, felting. She considers her work to be in dialogue with painting and considered felting to be the most natural extension of that conversation.

Scroll down to read the interview, learn about her process and enjoy photos of Melissa’s studio.

What first drew you to the world of textiles? How and when did you first get involved in felting?

I’ve been making things with textiles since I was a little girl. My mom taught me to cross-stitch quite early and we did other fiber based art projects at home. Later on, I majored in textile surface design at FIT and that felt like coming home a bit. I knew a little bit about felt growing up, but I only started my deep dive into it relatively recently.

How did you go about learning to felt? What steps did you take to start working in this medium?

I feel so fortunate to be part of the Artist in Residence program at the Textile Arts Center. It was exactly what I had been looking for: somewhere with the knowledge and resources to support material exploration. I found felting there. I started by asking people at TAC for advice, and then I started watching tutorials online. After that, I just jumped in! I tried it and each time I learn more about the process.

“Dad Looking Ahead”

Why do you think you were drawn towards felting versus other mediums while at TAC?

I consider my work to be in dialogue with painting. Of all the media that I worked with, I feel like felting allowed me to continue that conversation. It’s painterly and tactile and it creates its own substrate all at the same time. I am happy to have found it. 

Tell us about your process, start to finish how you make your pieces.

My process is very intuitive. I usually start with an image from my archive and I select the parts of them that are non-negotiables. With the wet felt process, I lay out pieces of wool roving as a base and tweak colors on the top layers of the felt. The “puffy” version of the image gets covered in tulle or mesh, then warm soapy water is poured over it and it begins to be agitated. Initially I agitated all of them by hand, but now a fellow TAC AIR {Artist in Residence}, Rowan, taught me to use the felting machine which is my new best friend. It spins and puts pressure on the rolled felt and can create a fabric much faster than I could by hand. With small pieces it is ok by hand, but larger ones get complicated. I didn’t think I would like needle felting very much, but because of quarantine and the need to work at home where I can’t do wet felting, I decided to try it. Isa, one of the directors at TAC, made me a starter kit and I never stopped. I love it because it is like drawing, but with all the materials and texture I love so much. I put fabric (either silk or wet felted wool) over a foam block and then use felting needles to felt the wools into place. 

How do you think the work you are creating in quarantine will translate or transform your work afterwards?

I have been thinking a lot about this, but I am not sure. This time is providing space to explore ideas and materials, and many like myself choose to revisit the past since the future is so uncertain. There is a sense of being in a holding pattern. I am thinking about another project for later on when I have access to BRIC House again for sound recording and editing and keep getting stuck when I try to imagine making something for a future date. My hope is that these works will continue to develop and expand in directions that incorporate all the newness and unprecedented experiences that are to come. I hope to be able to reflect on this period from a distance as well. 

Tell us about the source material for your felted pieces. Are these created from photographs, memories, etc?

I’ve been working with images from my family archive for a long time. My father passed away 5 years ago and they provided a way to connect with him and my family in India, where he is from. Every time I make an image with him in it, it’s kind of like he’s here again for a moment. More recently I have been considering the importance of the role of Aunts. It is such an important, understated role. I have 11 of them and they are all very special bonds. I am using images from my mom’s side of the family as well (where 7 of the aunts are.)  The wet felting process distorts pieces significantly, which is akin to our relationship to memories. 

“Elizabeth Aunty”

Why is using Indian silk important to your work? What meaning do the materials have in your work? 

Well, I touched on it before when I mentioned remembering my dad, but this particular silk, the raw duppioni, is one of the strongest memories I have from visiting India. We would go a lot when I was younger, less when I got older. It’s been 8 years since I have been there now. I find comfort in certain cottons and silks from there that remind me of home and family. 

Where/what do you look to for inspiration? Has this changed over time or stayed constant?

This is a complex one. I think I am constantly influenced by what I see, hear, read, but the lens through which I view all things is targeting inequalities arising from race, gender, and other biases. 

Which artists or creatives do you look to for inspiration in textiles/felting?

Cyrilla Mozenter, Brigitta Varadi, Cloudy Jongstra, Micheala Younge, Diedrick Brackens (weaver), Ricki Dwyer, Marlon Wobst and Erin Riley. Eileen Fisher’s Waste No More Project is really inspiring to me. I would love to do a collaborative project there someday!

Do you have any upcoming shows or events you are excited about?

I hope I do! We never know these days what will or won’t happen, but thank you for asking. I have pieces in a few shows that have been postponed, but one piece is online at the Cambridge Art Association (http://www.cambridgeart.org/2020-national-prize-show/) curated by Sharon Butler. Another show should open in San Francisco with a few other artists at Southern Exposure curated by Kija Lucas, and I am part of a group exhibition at the UICA in Detroit that has been postponed as well. We hope to have our TAC AIR exhibition in September.  Additionally, I have been curating exhibitions recently and just put one up on my website. (www.melissajoseph.net/anothers-table)

Is there anything we haven’t covered that is important to you or about you that we should share?

No, I think you covered everything. Thank you for taking time to get to know a little more about me and my work! I am so excited to share my work at Heirloom.

Thanks for being part of our Heirloom community and tuning into our third edition of Contemporary @ Heirloom.

– Zach, Lynn, Nathalie & Sam

*Illustration by Lynn Hunter

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