With Fiberart International 2022 coming up we wanted to check on artists who participated in previous exhibitions, see what they are up to now and how participating in the exhibition impacted them.
Written by Katie Bulova
Melissa Campbell is a fiber artist residing in North East Ohio. Her woven creations use a double-warp painting technique to embed portraits into undulating woven patterns. Melissa was a Fiberart International 2016 participant. She has recently transitioned to working in the studio full-time, following her role as faculty in the School of Fashion at Kent State University.
Melissa originally discovered Fiberart International as a grad student through a field trip with her Master of Fine Arts group from Kent State. The experience in Pittsburgh, the art venues, and the fiber arts community made her feel as though she was on the right path. The acceptance into the 2016 exhibition was an exciting validation of that connection.
Melissa came to love fiber arts as a child. She was first influenced by her mother, who also studied weaving at University of Hawaii. Melissa has found baby pictures of herself raptly watching her mother working on a loom. As a child her family traveled and moved extensively, exploring a wide range of religious and cultural initiatives, including “The Farm,” a hippie commune in rural Tennessee, living in the Netherlands and traveling across Europe while living in a bus. This range of cultural exposure and fluidity strongly influences her practice. Her interest in construction and textiles followed her on these adventures. She talks of, when she was a young child, approaching an older woman on the street and touching her sweater; the woman was taken aback but then charmed when Melissa asked her to explain how she had made the sweater.
After a career in textile and fashion design, Melissa became an assistant professor at Kent State University. Her teaching repertoire included visual design and analysis in fashion as well as apparel patternmaking and construction. She loved teaching and connecting with a like-minded creative community.
In March 2020, Melissa found an unexpected surge of artistic intent. Perhaps this reflects the pull of the busy nuances of a modern lifestyle, but removing her commute and working from home, which added new free time in her day, allowed her to quickly create two of her double-woven warp-painted portraits. Her family, including her two children, were safely at home with her and her practice became more focused on finding the balance between nurturing her two children, who were transitioning through and into college life, and helping them to leverage their own future paths in the context of the pandemic.
Renewed by the focused home-time, she began teaching her classes at Kent State for the Fall 2020 semester with optimism. The reality of effectively teaching studio-based college courses during the pandemic then emerged. Distancing students across three classrooms to allow for in-person instruction, plus teaching other courses online simultaneously took a toll on her energy and studio practice. Melissa loves teaching and loves the camaraderie that art practice instruction can foster, but the pandemic created too many barriers to what she loved; after an academic year of teaching in this manner, Melissa left teaching for full-time studio work.
Through these transitions, Melissa has found her practice to be more focused and directed. A type of clarity emerged that found more solid rooting in the combination of portraiture and warp-painted weaving. She can solve issues more quickly. Through 2020 and 2021, she has produced a series of woven portraits that gently articulate the spirit of each of her muses.
The subject of these pieces is what Melissa loves best: friends, family, colleagues. She started with a self-portrait, practicing her portrait making technique on images of herself “in case her process might result in a portrait that was “too grotesque and distressing for the subject.” In one work, she lovingly creates a tribute in color and line to a friend’s struggles; what emerges is the true self, the self that is not often seen in a mirror but found in respect of a friend who knows what was overcame: a woman who is capable and resilient. The next woven portrait she created captured her first child at critical moment in the transition of their gender identity, gently showing the joy and empowerment of “Willow” becoming their true self. In another portrait, she bids goodbye to childhood as she captures her youngest child readying himself to leave for college.
These portraits follow a specific protocol: first, Melissa uses a photo session to capture images; next, she defines a particular mood to host her subject; and then, she sculpts a telltale movement of her model. Her technique is to capture the essence of each sitter; a pose, a posture, a gesture that embody the spirit of them in a moment of transition, and it is what gives heart to each image.
She then separates the tonal values of the portraits into colored elements, plans the color iterations between the interlacing of the double-woven layers and then paints the portraits twice, once on each layer of warp yarns, in colors to build and reinforce the woven structure. Melissa incorporates a dynamic ‘op-art’ woven pattern at varying scales into the interlacing to merge the relationship between the portraits and the woven structure.
The end result is a body of work that translates a soul into woven yarn.