HER*STORY: Melissa Dyanne
There is an ageism that women in the arts face that men don’t. Granted, no one ever sees my face in association with my work unless I want them too, but there is still the pressure to look young, think young, be fresh and hip with my ideas.
Melissa Dyanne / Visual Artist / Age 38 / West Hollywood, California
As is the case with so many artists, Melissa Dyanne first discovered her calling at a young age during some family turmoil–her parent’s divorce–that led to a certain displacement and shuttling back and forth between airports and apartments in Seattle and Spokane. She learned to sketch at age four from her dad’s renditions of Star Wars characters and escaped unwelcome situations with a sketch pad.
She was dating and I hated the current guy so I would hang out outside with my drawing pad. There was this older women who would come out and sweep the sidewalk all the time and she did it in this very mechanical, efficient manner, back and forth like some crazy sweeping robot.
I would try to capture her motion in my sketches. I think this was the beginning of the underlying theme in all of my work, time, movement, memory. I’m always mashing realism with abstraction, photo and film….and no matter what series I am working on, I always have this obsession with the idea of moving paintings. I am positive I started it then. Even though I am a painter professionally, I grew up wanting to be an animator. I’m sure that sweeping woman started the idea.
Although art can be a calling and an escape, the very conditions that create the artist also have the potential to destroy her–a real dilemma for most artists including myself.
… I had an extremely abusive childhood so the question was never really about growing up to be an artist, it was whether or not I would grow up at all. I suffered from severe depression, eating disorders and some drinking/drug use (all before the age of 18) so art was really an escape for me. I was talented, but honestly never cared. I’m still of the belief/thought that talent means nothing, it is work ethic and the ability to center yourself.
There are also positive and negative sides to using art as an escape. Positive side is that you always make art, you never need to seek motivation, negative side is that you cease to be objective and project oriented with your work. I think that has hurt me professionally in some ways; I’m pretty scattered with my studio practice. I work a ton, but really only like to work on what my emotions are attached to…focusing on a series or getting a body of work ready for a show is difficult for me.
Melissa received her BFA from the University of Washington, Seattle, WA and an MFA from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, PA. Some of the obstacles she’s encountered in the academic and professional world are financial, and some of them are related to her gender.
Money is always an issue as an artist, until you have enough money not to consider it an obstacle anymore. I grew up with limited financial resources, which restricted the amount of risks I was willing to take in my development/career. Great art really demands that the artist take risks and think outside of the box. I’m also the only person in my family that has pursued art as a career. It can be very difficult to have a family, that is supposed to be a support system, seem more like a judge, jury and executioner when it comes to your personal and professional decisions.
My undergraduate degree was from a state school, so there were other students in my position, which made for very little comparison of the haves and have nots and more comparison based on skill, work ethic and teacher approval. The graduate school I attended, however, was private, so there were more students there that came from wealthy families. While I was amassing great amounts of debt, my classmates were getting their tuition paid for, apartments and houses, etc. I felt a ton of stress just trying to scrape together enough money to buy groceries, pay rent, and so on…and it definitely affected my work those two years.
I also graduated in 2008, during the recession. So, again, when my wealthy classmates walked out with very little debt, able to decompress and “figure their lives out,” I had to immediately go and wait on tables full time since my student loans were kicking in. That was scary, depressing and utterly demoralizing.
One thing that I also learned both in undergrad and graduate school, was that if you were a young female artist of little means, talent, and good looks, there were many male professors that would offer you hope, in the form of praise and sometimes connections. This always came at a price though, you had to worship them as well. I bucked that system in grad school and definitely paid the price. I actually had one male critic/professor ask me if the “paint brush was too heavy since many of my strokes looked weak” on a large scale (8 x 10 foot) painting that I was working on. I still tell that “joke” when anyone mentions discrimination in art, and even though I just blew that comment off at the time, that type of sexism always lingers in your brain a bit.
When I moved to New York I experienced the sexism in the painting world full force. Male artists just naturally assumed you wanted to sleep with them, and they would garishly offer you the universe if you did (“I’ll make you a star!!”) Of course those things rarely happened (success via sleeping with someone slightly famous) and if it did, those relationships ended horrifically with things always falling in favor of the man offering you the moon. Bad part is that instead of the moon, you get your ideas and paintings ripped off plus the opportunity to accidentally meet their wife at an art opening. Being lured into these unfortunate relationships can definitely be considered set backs. I do know women in stable, double artist relationships, but they do still concede and/or prop up their male half’s career, even if they are the more successful artist.
Unfortunately, all these obstacles I mentioned never go away, but I believe you learn to navigate around them. Creating a good support system through personal relationships helps! I find as time goes on, I seek out friends in my industry less and less, and look for those who are inspirational and interesting, no matter what their profession is. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I seek genuine connections rather than ones that would potentially get me somewhere. Doing that tends to rule out all the BS by default. Setting realistic goals helps as well. I can only control what I do with my work, reaching out for opportunities etc…I can’t control how it will all be received. I continuously grow thicker and thicker skin so I don’t cower from rejection and become the worst kind of road block, which is a road block to yourself.
An artist Melissa greatly admires is David Hockney, for his joyful and independent spirit. I love hearing her talk about Hockney as he is one of my very favorites as well. His experiments with video collage, where he explored creating depth and dimension on film, was so exciting to me back in the days when I was directing.
When I am teaching, I always show my students a few of his interviews. I think he is the embodiment of a true artist. He lives life his own way, makes work his own way without any bitterness or competition. His approach is just sheer joy and the love of discovery. He has also shifted his work many times in the course of his career with no guilt or explanation, and ventures into areas that people raise their eyebrows at, but he makes it happen. He’s the only artist to date, that I know of, that has had a show of iPad paintings. No one liked it, but he made it work, and I personally think he is on to something. Hockney is definitely a hero of mine.
What is your definition of success?
That’s a tricky one. For me, it would be quitting my “day job” and painting full time. I’m guessing that requires me selling my work for a good amount of money which also requires my work being noticed by the general public and be shown in major galleries. I don’t consider many gallery artists very successful in their work, a ton of it is horrible, but many of them quit their “day jobs” so they clearly have something I want, and the public considers them successful. If there was another way to quit my day job and paint full time, I would do that.
What has changed and evolved is the attitude I have towards my quality of life while striving for success. A tiny studio apartment and the single life just don’t do it for me anymore. I do actually think about the bigger picture, which includes comfortable living space and a family of my own. That is one of the main reasons I moved to Los Angeles rather back to New York when I felt the pull of a larger art scene (Seattle is pretty small). I knew my living situation would be much better and my goals would be achieved in a more relaxing fashion.
I tend to look at past accomplishments as relative, (in the sense that I might of thought of it as great then, but am not so sure now) so I would say any accomplishment that I would be proud of is most likely recent, and small. I just learned how to use digital painting software and stop motion animated a painting for the first time. It was crude, but I was very excited that I made it happen. I also think it is an accomplishment to be a tactile artist for as long as I have been, but now be able to make whatever I want digitally…it feels liberating. An older painting of mine, one that I really liked, just sold at an auction so that gave me a bit of pride as well, and the verification that I am not commercially dead 🙂 I was also recently added to the Rembrandt’s Dog list, which is an internationally curated list of 1000 of the most influential painters working today. I was honored to be included.
What keeps you going day after day, particularly in times with no visible signs of progress or success?
Routine. I always have projects swimming around in my mind, so I set goals to finish them. That art making habit is already ingrained in me, so I get irritable and upset if I am not working on something. I do get frustrated when I have no shows lined up, it feels like I am painting into a void, but I try to remedy that by telling myself I will finish a new body of work and “get it out there”. That relieves the feeling of nothingness a bit.
How do you move past society’s limiting beliefs and lack of opportunities for women in the arts?
I said a lot about this in the question about setbacks/obstacles, because sexism in the arts has always been, and still is a serious issue. One thing I have avoided in my work is to make it overtly female as to garner attention. I had very explosive, gender specific work when I started out, which I don’t think was a problem per se, but can be when used as a crutch. I also feel like there is an ingrained acceptance for women who make feminine work (and in this I mean, nudity, sex, boobs, innocence, beauty, etc.) but when they step out into larger, less gender specific themes there is less acceptance. I have heard minority artists speak of this as well. If they aren’t talking about being Hispanic, African American, Asian, so on and so forth, then no one wants to see it. I don’t want to feed that machine.
What advice do you have to offer to other female artists?
Stay committed to your work and be good to your female peers! It’s difficult enough to navigate a male dominated profession, and when women don’t prop up other women, even worse. Realize that we are a still a minority in the field, but there is power in numbers.
Which actress would play you in the movie of your life?
Amy Adams! She’s lovely, and has studied playing a female painter since she was in Big Eyes 🙂
What are you working on right now and what vision do you have for what you’d like to create next in your work?
I’m illustrating a children’s book! For a friend. It is a project I put off forever so I’m happy it is “back on.” Two painting series are in the works as well, one focuses on a trip my boyfriend and I took to Ocean Shores, WA. and the other is a contemporary mash up of Rococo paintings.
I’ve started playing with the idea of putting everything through a digital filter. I make sketches, work them up in Corel Painter and Sketch up, then copy and re-paint on canvas or panel, retaining some of the computer generated look. This requires more spray paint than I normally use in my underpaintings and other technical adjustments, so I am still trying it out/working out the kinks. I’m also going to work to perfect my stop-motion animated paintings and diorama paintings (large scale backdrops with cut-outs I attach with Velcro).
To connect with Melissa and view more of her work, please click the following links (I especially love her vibrant Instagram account):