Artlines, November 1983
Melissa Zink: Transportation into Splendid Places
Melissa Zink lives with her husband, Nelson, a cat, and a couple of dogs in a clean but slightly cluttered adobe on the banks of the Rio Grande. The setting is idyllic with huge cottonwoods sheltering the house, pristine gardens, grass sloping down to a sandy beach at the river's edge, and, at the south end of the beach, a tall willow thicket. Follow a rude path into the thicket, and at the center is a hideaway, a clearing filled with the sound of the river.
Inside the house, long shelves are filled with books--history, mostly, and psychology, religion, and art. There are peyote fans and African figurines, an old clock, a lap-size electric piano, a few old prints and a microwave oven. In the back of the house is Melissa's studio, the place where she creates her stories in clay.
The artist's works are ceramic manifestations of her encyclopedic passions--archaeology, anthropology, art, religion, dreams, animals, plants, books. They are the products of her prodigious imagination at play, at times very serious play, the kind of play that offers the possibility of transcendence.
Zink's mind is populated with characters, and these characters and the relationships between them are the subject of her art. Some of the characters are historical; William Blake, Edith Sitwell and D. H. Lawrence have appeared in her work in the last few years. Before that most of the characters were `made up' (though no less `real' to her)--Water Dog, the Fox People, the Muffin Eaters, Hattie Maximillian and a host of others. Some characters are lifted directly from art masterpieces that she is particularly attached to--Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife, for example, are the subject of one of her recent works, The Arnolfinis at Home, based on Jan van Eyck's 1434 The Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini and Jeanne Cerami. "These people are part of my life," she said. "There's no time difference. They're part of my mind furniture."
How do they come to life? One recent addition to the cast, the Horse Princess, "started because of those superb Japanese drawings of horses," Zink said. "They always looked like wonderful women to me. Some things seem terribly correct, like dressing a horse in a kimono. It gives me satisfaction." In a more autobiographical mode, there's Edith Sitwell in Refurbishing the Sitwell Wing. "I first saw one of those Cecil Beaton photos of her when I was in high school," she remembered. "I always thought I was very ugly, and so was she, and she overcame. Yet the more you look at her, what a fascinating face and body, like a piece of sculpture. And she was a promoter of herself. She was a great person, not a great writer. Like Warhol, the person becomes the art." There is reverence and even love in the gentle, sensuous rendering of Sitwell. And hidden behind a small gold relief of her profile, is a quote from a Sitwell verse: "The past and present are one."
Zink's work has become increasingly open and bright. Her art from the late '70s and early '80s was contained, literally, by walls or in boxes. It was essentially monochromatic, and the scenes were set in places that felt old and faraway. Now the work is characterized by open space, and it's set in a time that seems closer to our own. The Zink signature, once small and hidden, is now prominent and bold. She is showing us more of her aesthetic arsenal, allowing the work to become increasingly beautiful and complicated. "Most surreal art is not beautiful," she said. "What I want to do is make beautiful magic. The magic, I think, has always been there, but I'm just beginning to make it beautiful."
One night we sat at her kitchen table and talked for hours. We began with the subject of money, and how art might be `tainted' by it.
MZ: The artist is somehow supposed to stand for something, because of our pure image of, I don't know, creativity, suffering, and all that nonsense. And that's why there's so much anger at selling out, or people being successful. People need some kind of image of purity, you know, and since we don't have religion any more, artists become convenient symbols. And it doesn't have anything to do with the art or the artist. It's a lack in other people's lives. But then when the artists succumb to the myth, thinking they're doing something holy, [laughter] I just want to punch them out! Where do they get off saying that a square of paper like this is holy!
AL: But it's a tough line, isn't it, between doing something because you love it or you have to express it, and doing it for money or because someone else wants you to?
MZ: I don't feel any pressure to make things other than what I want to make. I do sometimes feel some pressure to make more, to not get too involved in one thing. But that's the only tension. I really like selling things. It's wonderful. But I don't understand how it works. It's like riding on a bird in an air current. I don't understand it any more than the bird understands the air current.
AL: It seems that many people today are buying art as an investment, or they're buying the artist's name. Fame by association...
MZ: I don't think they're spending that much money for the thing. I think they're spending a lot of money for a lot of reasons--because they want to be identified as the kind of person who does that, because they want their friends to know they can do it, a lot of subliminal reasons.
AL: Things that have to do with possession...
MZ: That's one of the fascinating things about Francis Bacon, who I'm very fond of. I don't think we could live with a Bacon painting. It would tear you up so badly. Or else it just becomes a patch on he wall. Either way, you've lost.
AL: They belong in museums.
MZ: You go there and you get your Bacon hit and [laughter]...
MZ: Yeah. But for them to become a patch on the wall, that's terrible.
AL: What are people buying when they buy a Zink?
MZ: I don't know. I get more communication from women than men.... Some kind of "I know what you're talking about." I essentially think most art these days is boring, and you can level other criticisms at my work, but it's not boring.
AL: Did you ever make paintings that were boring? That you thought were boring? [Zink was a painter until turning to clay in the mid-'70s.]
MZ: Yeah. I thought for a long time that there were certain rules about paintings. And while I was doing them I was working very hard to make them important. When we moved from Arroyo Hondo [to Embudo, 25 miles south of Taos, in 1982] we took them all to the dump.
AL: When did you begin to think they were boring?
MZ: After I started making things that weren't boring. I really think that if what you've made is good, people will see it and they'll buy it. That's a very unfashionable way to think. There are a lot of people who are educated, interested in art, and they buy. And if you don't sell, I think you have to look at what you're doing and say, "ah huh." I look at people wanting to be pure, and I think that's a mistake, wanting to make these things only because it's their true nature, and to hell with whoever looks at it.
AL: To hell with whether it communicates or not.
MZ: Right. I guess I still feel if I have a show and nothing sells in it, it's my failure, it's not the people who came to see its failure. Of course, when things get more expensive, they get harder to sell.
AL: How much have your working methods changed over the past few years?
MZ: I stopped feeling I have to compete with craftspeople. At first I felt I didn't know anything about clay, and I did a lot of research. And all the color was fired color, which has severe limitations, limited palette. I've started painting things, and that is the major change. And I build more complex things.
AL: Has there been any change in the way the pieces are conceived?
MZ: Before, there were so many ideas, I did the pieces as quickly as possible. Now, I'm more interested in picking one thing and developing it, exploring all the parts of one scene.
AL: When we talked a few years ago, you said that the first thing that happened in the conception of a piece was you saw the whole scene, and then you got a title for the scene, which served as a reference...
MZ: Sometimes it works the other way, I have the title and then see the scene. Sometimes the title doesn't come until it's finished, but I have a kind of personalized title. When I was working on it, this big piece was the Mystic Garden. It was the language, what that meant. It ended up, Predictably, Water Dog Arrived Late For The Scribing Of The Mystic Garden. I'm making two clay books. I think what I really want to do is make books. [Laughter] Why I don't give up and just make books, I don't know.
AL: Why don't you?
MZ: I don't know. I think I get really scared because books are so weighted.
AL: Do you remember the first book you ever read?
MZ: Oh sure! [Laughter while she tries to remember what it was] It was about dogs dressed up in clothes. It had captions that told you about the dogs. I remember I knew some of the words, and I underlined them with a purple crayon. I came home from school one day, and I could read the whole book. I used to love those dogs. It's probably where Water Dog came from. I'm making a painting about that. There's a character clutching a banner, the new religion having one--I realized that's myself with a dog face, my favorite shirt, the thing around her head, this big dog nose. I finally said to Nelson, "My God, that's me." He said, "Yes," as if I were slow to catch on. Anyway, the book was pretty. The hats were pretty. It was an elegant, refined conception, French 18th century-looking. And I can't stand it when there's nothing that sort of jars you, just a little. So that's why there had to that funny looking...and that's probably how I feel about myself.
AL: You can't stand it when there's nothing that jars a little?
MZ: Right. Like a lizard, or darkness, or a strangeness, something unexplained.
AL: How did that piece evolve [Mystic Garden]? Was Water Dog an afterthought?
MZ: Yeah. I'd been wrestling with the idea of a mystic garden for ages. It's from my religious period [laughter] last winter, during which I thought I would turn into a mystic. And--poor Nelson--I got obsessed with words and repeats.... I got really frustrated, I didn't have any visions! A mystic has to have visions, and they have to be real! I mean it has to be the Lady of Guadalupe, sitting out there on the front lawn. For some reason I was absolutely convinced that you couldn't make that up. I could make up anything else I wanted to make up, but I couldn't make it up about religion. That had to be real. And boy has that been wonderful, realizing that's my territory as much as any other territory.
AL: Making up religion--a little of this, a little of that...
MZ: Right. One of my true frustrations has been that there's a lot of religious imagery that I truly love--
western Europe, Oriental, everything. It's one of my passions, but somehow I could only touch it very indirectly, hint at it as ritual. But to come right out, somehow, and make my own, I couldn't let myself do that. And now I'm having just a wonderful time.
AL: Thinking you had to have a full-blown vision before you could even begin must have been awful.
MZ: You can't lie to yourself, so if you haven't had one.... I'm thinking what I do have is the ability to pretend I have had one, which is more than what most people have. Why throw it out?
AL: Maybe your work serves as visions for other people.
MZ: Maybe. [Pause] Why doesn't anyone talk about anything aesthetic? That's when I begin to feel I don't make art at all, I make something else. There's never any discussion of color, arrangement...
AL: Yes, but so often writers get into those subjects when they don't have anything else to say.
MZ: That's why I think, in a way, it's easier for people to write about me because writers are good at describing. But I spend a lot of time getting surfaces that I think are just right, and then people think that they just grew there.
AL: When they look right, people don't notice them. What are some of the components of your religion?
MZ: I lie on the beach and try and structure it, and I realize it's an error to try and structure it. It has to do with...growth is enough, spiritual growth. I still seem to be stuck with that phrase. But also at the same time, with some kind of very firm feet on the ground. Belief systems that are not firmly rooted in reality are doomed to failure. I think a lot about all the pictures of Christ and how angry they make me. Why didn't we chose an image that was live? Why in God's name did we chose an image that was dead and suffering? So the idea of seeds gave me courage, the magic of seeds in themselves. And nobody can really understand the seed, the excitement of it. If I had to write it down as liturgy or something, it would be about joy, mystery. I've made a design for a banner--I mentioned it earlier--and the seeds on it are like eyes, and written around the border is "The Awakening of the 22 Original Seeds." Don't ask me what they were or why, it just happened. But it was something I really liked, and thinking about this person holding this tattered flag.... But we're not going to go to war with this thing, not going to defend it. In some sense, it just has to be right. It's so correct there's no arguing with it! [Laughter] How can anyone argue with growth?
AL: Were you into dolls as a girl, dressing them up, creating fantasy lives for them?
MZ: No, I didn't do that. The important thing for me was the making of the stuff. I used to make the rooms, and the furniture, and paper dolls or stick dolls, and the clothes for them. They never had names or stories in that sense. It's frustrating to try and explain... There are stories without words, and that doesn't sound like it's possible but it is. There are stories in images, and at some point you can make the leap and put them into words. But they don't develop as word stories. That's what makes writing so hard for me, because all this stuff exits on the non-verbal side. I just went through this whole thing with the Mystic Garden, and it got to the point where--I'd written stories about it, and it was getting more and more convoluted. Finally, Nelson said he thought it was becoming so introverted, so personal that I would have to write a very lengthy explanation and that would somehow destroy the magic. I would lie in bed and think about this, wonder what the logic was, and how do you superimpose something logical on something that essentially is illogical. It's like making something and then having to build a frame of reference for it, why does this thing exist? When you made it originally, you knew why it existed, but then having to explain it... I suddenly decided if you can't see it, it's not working. Essentially, I want to be a great thinker. [Laughter] Why can't I be happy just making stuff?!
AL: The dolls you made as a child, were there visual stories that went along with them?
AL: Do you remember them?
MZ: Yeah, only of course I can't tell them! [Laughter] The best I can do...I once made a sofa out of cardboard, and part of the reason I remember it is I lost it. I spent one whole day looking for that sofa. It was a time...[pause, low groan] that the existence of that sofa, looking at it made all the rest of the things that I couldn't make--the house, the people. Does that help any? That by making an object and looking at it, was like reading a sentence in a book. That's why I get frustrated, because I see all that and nobody else does. God, I've made this incredible thing, this sofa, and you see it, and it's only cardboard. But I don't have wonderful stories, strange Chinese princesses or something. I don't have anything like that.
AL: Did the doll's have personalities, particular presences?
MZ: I think I should be in hypnosis. I don't remember that. I remember being given a doll that was my mother's, named Daisy, and my mother had a whole story about who Daisy was, and I never felt it applied, I never felt about her the way I should, and it was like being told you should love somebody, and I didn't. The doll's persona wasn't very interesting to me. It has something to do with the physical reality of the thing.... I'm sorry. I think we ought to talk about something else.
AL: What was your house like as a girl? Your real house?
MZ: It was a conventional, middle class house, early American things. Everyone had a room with a door that shut. Incredibly private, no emotion, no anger, on the surface very clean, and I think a lot of tension underneath. Very reserved and proper. And then my mother got sick, and that made it different. I didn't play with any kids, didn't know any, until I went to kindergarten, and then I was terrified of kids. I still am. When I see a group of them, it's hard for me to keep from becoming five or six again. It was agony. The only good thing I remember about kindergarten was the paste. I loved to eat the paste.
AL: Did you take to reading quickly?
MZ: Oh yeah, but they had read to me always, before I could comprehend anything. The really nasty thing about it was we'd get a regular story when we were good, and we'd get a Bible story when we were bad.
AL: Straight out of the Bible?
MZ: No, those awful Egermeier stories. Those disgusting pictures! God, they were ugly. I think those pictures were called chromos, those awful blues, reds--Oh, we've touched a sore nerve! [Laughter] I think, Jesus, how incredibly stupid. If you want a kid to believe something, why don't you make it desirable? Instead of like oatmeal or something? I think people have never understood how to impregnate ideas into small minds. Somehow it became a rebellion. They couldn't make me go to Sunday school, so I had to stay in my room and learn Bible verses. And I would scream and cry, but after you've been in there two or three hours, what are you going to do but learn it. But I saw at the time that I would never never remember them. I made a vow. My mother said, "These will return to you in time of need." I said, "No they won't."
AL: How old were you then?
MZ: Nine or ten.
AL: An early rebellious streak?
MZ: Yeah. My dog died, and they told me it wouldn't go to heaven. What stupidity. What would it have cost them to tell me, "Of course your dog will go to heaven." But oh no, dog's don't have souls, and from that point on it was all down hill. I mean if my dog's not going, my God, neither am I. There's been bitterness, but it's a lot better now. I think bitter because it ruined for so long a whole area of feeling that you have to shut off because it's associated with all that garbage.
AL: Some years ago you talked about the people in your work, characters called the Muffins, as having pretty definite personalities, family histories...
MZ: I think that was misleading. [Pause] When you say Muffin, you can see an English landscape, you can see a building, you can walk into there, you can see them as they move around...
AL: You can smell the place.
MZ: Right. You know what kind of weather it is, all of that. In a sense, you can hear them, so that you know whether their conversations are cheerful or cranky, or something like that. But they exist in a microsecond, in that image. And if you continue to think about them, you'll get another image. You might see someone paring his fingernail, maybe, and there will be a feeling about that. But it's not like a personality. It's not like a story in that sense. It's like a magic lantern show.
AL: What's so significance about that microsecond?
MZ: Because it's there. You don't exist. You're transported, you have the opportunity to transcend, I guess, and instead of going off into the void, you go into some splendid place you've made up.
AL: Have you got a working definition of art?
MZ: No. [Pause] Well, currently, I think there are three kinds of art. There's wall art, which is concerned with surface impact, what you see. Maybe it's red marks. Then there's window art, like Impressionism--you're looking at something, but you're not in it. Finally there's door art. You're transported. You're in another place, and that's the most.... You're in the artist's world. When you to into Blake's world, it's different from any other world you can experience. Bosch is like that, Breughel, Goya, Max Ernst.... That's what I care about. That's the experience I want, the magic. That's what I want to make.