Oregon College of Art and Craft graduate Melina Bishop is a mixed-media sculptor and installation artist based in Portland, OR. She recently returned from a residency at the Icelandic Textile Center and is a participating artist with Neighbors at the Yale Union. This interview is the second in a series conducted by OCAC thesis student Lindsay Costello.
Duplex: Tell me a little bit about your childhood. Were you always a maker?
Melina Bishop: I was born at home, in a brick house in Indianapolis, Indiana but was raised in my mother’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. My childhood was a glorious mix of creative expression and time spent in nature. I grew up attending a Waldorf school, meaning I learned how to knit before I learned how to read, and all subjects, be it math or science or ancient mythology, were taught to me through a beautiful kind of integrated storytelling. All throughout early childhood I had an insatiable appetite for what was called “handwork” and used to knit, crochet and sew in all unassigned moments of the day.
Duplex: How has your work developed and changed since graduating from OCAC?
Melina Bishop: When I graduated from OCAC with my BFA I had, quite contentedly, been a student since I was five years old. I have a deep love of academic institutions and the structure, community and sense of distinct purpose they provide. I knew leaving that context, a comfort-zone or even womb for me, would be a challenge but a necessary one. The first body I completed post-graduation was called Resurface and it conceptually contained the themes of that transitory and emotionally trying period of my life: themes of exposure, insecurity, loss of intimacy and yet determined optimism. Formally my work has become more about singular moments or statements, rather than entire narratives. I think in school I felt pressure to make my work say everything at once, now I feel able let each piece speak in more concise language.
Duplex: Describe your studio space. What is your preferred method of working while there? Do you have a favorite outfit, playlist, time of day that you’re most productive?
Melina Bishop: My studio space is my sanctuary and an honest reflection of myself, therefore it is in a constant state of flux (I was once warned not to spend all my work time simply rearranging and organizing my studio space, which was good advice for me to take to heart.) I share a beautiful space on the first floor of the Yale Union building in SE Portland with photographer and fellow OCAC alumna Brittany Walston. I usually come dressed in some comfy combination of black shirt and black pants but I also have a dirty old white apron I put on if I’m doing something messy. I work best in the morning, when the studio’s big window is letting in plenty of nice natural light and my mind feels newborn.
Duplex: How does the Portland art scene influence your work? Are there any specific local galleries or artists you look to for inspiration or guidance? Alternatively, have you ever considered relocating?
Melina Bishop: Being a relatively recent grad I still feel very new to the Portland art scene. I am lucky enough to be just downstairs from the Yale Union gallery so I can easily pop but there to get inspired by their shows and performances. I will forever be inspired by and grateful for the influence of my previous professors, especially Emily Nachison and Michelle Ross, as well as the sculptor Marie Sivak who I studio assist for part-time. Portland has proven to be a supportive environment for me to begin the process of “emerging” in. That being said, I have considered relocating. I often say that I will leave Portland when some opportunity draws me elsewhere, be that a job or graduate school or an extended residency.
Duplex: Your work emphasizes the poetic and philosophical role that commonplace objects have the potential to play in our lives. What utilitarian objects are most important in your own life? What tools couldn’t you live without?
Melina Bishop: Oh, that is such a hard question, only because I have so many answers. The first answer that came to my mind was my hairbrush. I have a wooden paddle-style hairbrush that I got in high school. Its not a fancy design object, in fact it came from a beauty store in a mall in Louisville, but it brushes my hair extremely effectively and that brings me such comfort. I am the type of person who brushes my hair religiously, meaning as a ritualistic part of a self-care spiritual practice. I also have a small brass pencil sharpener (I write almost exclusively in pencil), a hand-carved butter knife and a pair of embroidery scissors, all of whom would be offended if they didn’t get a mention.
Duplex: What role does writing play in your work?
Melina Bishop: I’ve been writing since before I knew how to write. My mother has always been an avid journal keeper, and I grew up imitating her gesture in journals of my own. I would fill them up with nonsense scribbles that looked a lot like my mother’s cursive handwriting. Since becoming literate, I’ve consistently kept a journal since I was 10 years old. From a very young age adults told me I was going to be a writer and English was always my strongest school subject. In high school I majored in Communications and Media Arts and was planning on pursuing journalism. To outside eyes it seemed like an off-hand decision to abandon these aspirations for a fine art degree but writing is still very much a part of me and my practice. Whether or not it is presented to the audience in the end (and it often is) the written word is present in every step of my process. Also, I like to think of all my work as stories, poems or statements, just written in a tactile, dimensional language. Text and textile are, indisputably, interwoven (pun intended.)
Duplex: What role does the color white play in your work?
Melina Bishop: White has been an important part of my visual vocabulary since early in my education. I remember having a deep visceral connection to the first monochromatic white piece I made, it was one of the first pieces that I felt like I could authentically identify with as my own. I’ve spent much time since then analyzing and examining the reasons for this, one of which is that I identify white as a color of honesty, transparency and optimism. I am not very interested in “purity” or “perfection,” which white is often associated with, but I am interested in hope and the concept of the “light.” I also want to draw attention to the nuanced variations that falls under the umbrella term “white.” That being said, I consider gray and black equally important parts of my palette.
Duplex: Recently you’ve been working at Yale Union. Can you describe that project? What type of feedback has been most valuable to you while there?
Melina Bishop: What I am involved with at the YU is a sort of studio-collective project called Neighbors. It is a group of emerging artists, predominately relatively recent graduates, who are working in a small pod of studios on the first floor of the building. We have studio visits with one another and with members of Portland’s art community as well as occasional open studios where the public is welcomed into our spaces. I am now in my second year as a participant and the opportunity has been integral to the ways I have progressed since graduating. I’ve gotten two gems of advice from two separate studio visits with curators: 1. go deeper 2. get fucking weird.
Duplex: You also just completed a residency at the Icelandic Textile Center. Can you tell us the story of your time there? What were your highest and lowest points? What were your goals?
Melina Bishop: Iceland itself is a beautiful, lonely, otherworldly place. A fellow resident explained it as what she imagined it would be like if we terraformed Mars. Being there for that long was both isolating and rejuvenating. My highest point was probably when I snuck off to a nearby beach by myself and submerged my body in the Arctic Ocean. Or when I rode a horse across the Icelandic countryside, beside a glacial river. My lowest point was maybe a night when I was eating pasta with butter and frozen peas for what felt like the millionth time because it was by far the cheapest meal I could come up with and everything in Iceland is expensive, especially things I take advantage of here, like produce. My body was probably also aching at the time from spending a solid 12 hours on the loom. My main goal for the residency was to weave as much cloth as possible for both functional and conceptual works that I would bring to a point of completion after returning to my Portland studio.
Duplex: Drawing from your experiences at Yale Union and the Icelandic Textile Center, what advice would you give to emerging artists about the residency process?
Melina Bishop: The opportunity to be involved with Neighbors really just fell into my lap because of a lasting connection I made with one of my professors while in school. Never underestimate the good things that can come from applying yourself in your classes and cultivating relationships with those who teach them. More can come of that than just good grades. As for more traditional residencies I would recommend artists research carefully to find the places with the resources that will be most relevant to them and their practice. Residencies come in all shapes and sizes so it’s best to know what you’re really looking to get out of the experience.
Duplex: Other than visual art, what mediums typically inspire new bodies of work? Have any specific books, films, etc. motivated you to create lately?
Melina Bishop: Reading is often a catalyst for new work. Fiber theory essays like Folds, Fragments, Surfaces: Towards a Poetics of Cloth by Pennina Barnett I can visit again and again for inspiration and insight. Also books like Seeing through Clothes by Anne Hollander and The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard are go-to sources. I just read The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit and now I am reading a collection of essays by Marilynne Robinson called The Givenness of Things. I can see connections between those readings and what I’m making in the studio right now.
Duplex: If you had to start working in a brand new medium, what would you choose and why?
Melina Bishop: My ultimate goal is to be proficient in the basic techniques of as many mediums as possible. As much as I have chosen to dedicate myself most fully to textile-based work, I’ve always been a bit of a Jill-of-all-trades-master-of-none, which I have come to fully embrace about myself. If I were to try something brand new right now I think it would be wood turning, because that kind of immediate and subtractive process feels so unlike the processes I have been involved with lately.
Duplex: What’s next for you?
Melina Bishop: That’s a question I am actively working on a comprehensive answer to. I chose to quit my full-time job and go to Iceland, in part, to uproot my life. It successfully did that and I am now in the process of putting the pieces back together and grounding myself. First of all I am trying to spend as much time as possible in my studio but I am of course struggling with the ever-present question for young artists of “how-can-I-pay-all-the-bills-and-still-dedicate-myself-to-my-practice?”, a question to which there are many imperfect answers. What I do know is that I’ll be showing in February in Seattle through a curatorial project called Vignettes and that this time next year I plan on applying to graduate schools.
All photos courtesy of the artist.