Have you ever met someone your own age, and thought: that’s who want to be when I grow up. That is my experience of Melissa Messer. Mel grew up in Texas and, after being awarded a debate scholarship to Western Kentucky University, she joined the champion team and immersed herself fully. Four years later, degree in hand, Mel moved to Japan to teach English and, having finely tuned her skills of articulation, she returned to Texas and became a copywriter at an ad agency in Austin. But Mel was always pulled towards things visual, and after working fulltime at the agency and balancing a heavy course load at University of Texas, she received her Master’s in Art Direction.
Mel was nine.
Ok, Mel wasn’t nine. But sometimes it feels like she must have been, because she has managed, time and again, to build an auspicious career, redirect, build another successful endeavor, and pivot again. But that’s inherently Mel: defiantly committed, Mel is driven by her own internal voice. With an unparalleled sense of self, she is able to own her uncertainty and make changes others might avoid out of fear. But Mel charges headfirst, honoring the inner monologue that urges her to keep searching. Personally, I would have heard that little fucker's peep and attempted to beat it senseless and sequester it somewhere dark and bottomless.
Before her thirtieth birthday, Mel took perhaps her largest professional risk to date. She left behind her lucrative ad gig for a highly competitive position at Seattle’s Gage Academy of Art atelier program under master teacher Juliette Aristides. I can’t quite explain how difficult it is to be accepted in to this program, let alone complete it, let alone complete it with numerous awards and accolades, but Mel did. And perhaps the most stunning thing about this journey was not her growth into an exceptionally gifted artist (though it is stunning, and she really is exceptional), but rather, the doubt that Mel displayed proudly on her sleeve throughout.
She traversed this often awkward, uncomfortable, gut-wrenching journey stripped completely to the bone, and did so openly. It was as if stood nervous, shaking, and butt naked on a stage in front of thousands of people, and instead of curling into a ball to hide, she waved her hands above her head and screamed: “Hey everybody! I’m naked up here and it’s super fucking scary!! Look! Holy shit. Never thought I’d do this. Wanna talk about how scary this is?!” Mel is not about to pretend she is infallible; instead, she owns her fear. She honors it.
After four grueling, rewarding, exhaustingly fabulous years, Mel has graduated her atelier program, preparing to head into her next journey. And no matter where she ends up, she will celebrate each moment of vulnerability like it’s her greatest fucking achievement. Because it is.
You’re in your fourth year in the classical drawing and painting atelier under Juliette Aristides at Gage Academy. Tell me about the program.
The classical atelier movement is really special. It’s taken hold in Europe and the United States in the last two decades but it’s exploded just in the last few years. Frustratingly, most art schools don’t teach classical or foundational skills so these ateliers—studios run by master teaching artists—are responsible for keeping this knowledge alive. Art training has a long history of this method. The greats (Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Velasquez, even Picasso. Most anyone you’d name. No, not Van Gogh.) spent 10 years studying in the studio of a master painter. Today we attempt to get that same foundational learning, which took these incredibly gifted artists ten years, done in four years. Nobody really starts at age 12 anymore so we have to consciously dedicate ourselves to learning as a lifelong pursuit. It’ll be 20 years before I feel my feet are beneath me.
Juliette’s atelier is a beautiful thing. The first year is only drawing, the second year is greyscale painting, then in the third year we study color. In fourth year we’re meant to make a body of work. I’ve been focusing on portraits and naturalism in my 4thyear. Our atelier is set up as a full-time working studio with Juliette and assistant teachers coming in on different days to critique. There are about 18 total students right now. My time here has flown by. It’s overwhelming to be on the other side of an experience that somehow always seemed out of reach. Being an obsessive art student is a great privilege. And it’ll all be over in a few short weeks.
What led to enroll?
I’m the type who really loves to work and that can be dangerous. That work has to be part of me and come from me, because I’ll fill my life with it. Professionally I had always been hedging toward creative work with writing and art direction. Early trips to New York and Italy had shown that painting and sculpture were ancient magic but to the casual observer there were no more wizards in the world. In my last semester in grad school I took a figure painting class with Karen Maness who told me about an atelier in Florence. In this memory I am the blind man in Amélie struck by light when she describes the world to him. My jaw was on the floor. I was graduating school. I had a mortgage and a career. Karen said, “You should go to Florence Academy!” She said there were also ateliers in New York and Seattle. “Wouldn’t THAT be nice,” a laugh. A pipe dream. But one I kept particularly close. We ended up following jobs to Seattle a few months later and now my pipe dream was at arm’s reach. When I looked up Juliette’s atelier and saw the beautiful books she had written on painting and drawing I could not believe where my luck had led me. All there was to do was apply and hope I got in.
What’s your life’s greatest achievement so far?
Nothing really stands out. Everything has felt like a ton of hard work with an occasional nod. This might be why I’m an artist. I think the painting that wins the award is the accomplishment, not the award. So from that view, all the work links together. All my accomplishments feel small compared to what I hope to achieve. Which is true greatness as an artist. But that goal is so far in the distance, the tiniest shimmer from the greatest lighthouse a lifetime away.
However if I may, the time I felt greatest for an achievement was when I was a junior in high school and gave the performance that won the Texas State Championship for Original Oratory. I did it again the next year and received even “greater” awards later in college. But the feeling of the performance, a moment lost to oblivion, a ten minute speech, during which for the first time in my life I knew I was working at my utmost capacity, fully dedicated to my passion and I was so young. Everything was going right. I had worked hard, I had eschewed some youthful joys such as a social life and in that moment it was all worth it.
This is not my greatest achievement but it is the moment I first discovered the power of my determination. It was an unlocked capacity, something I had done with full intention. I thought, what if I could do this again with something else? It’s a knowledge I return to even now. It’s something I know about myself.
Describe a time that made you feel more vulnerable than you’ve ever felt.
Art making is geared for vulnerability. It’s awful! It’s awesome. There’s a quote about artists receiving the world as a “sensitive plate” – a photographic plate.
Our job is to be so sensitive that we capture ephemera -- light wrapping along objects -- and analyze color, composition, and meaning along the way. This demands heightened sensitivity, not emotional volatility, but actually the opposite – steady, focused, receptivity, like telescopes that see particles. Allowing yourself to become this sensitive is incredibly vulnerable, your soft underbelly is all the way outside of your shell. After 8 or 10 hours in the studio you step into the world and you have vertigo of the senses, you’re easily overwhelmed by the world. Lights are brighter, sounds louder. It might take a half hour or several to reorient, use language fluently, come down from the ceiling. It comes with the territory as does showing your work and inviting criticism and reaction.
When I started the atelier, I was so terrible at drawing from a live model I thought I might lose my molars to the stress of it. The first year is all drawing and we spent three hours every morning with a model. Every time we took a break I would have chills of relief to stop doing the thing I was horrible at but also panic that others would walk the room and see how bad my drawing was. My dentist told me to stop clenching my jaw at school. But she couldn’t tell me to stop sweating through my shirts, which is exactly what I did by the end of every model session. So you learn to bring in a shirt change, invest in a mouth guard and life goes on. You get better at drawing. One day a classmate, an enviably skilled draftsman, says at lunch, “It’s brave how you struggle through everything. You’re so open about what you need to learn that you learn really quickly.” Three things immediately come to mind. One, I did not realize I was openly struggling. I thought the quietness of my struggles came out in perspiration and jaw pain. And two, I waslearning quickly, wasn’t I? Three, is it embarrassing that a classmate had made this assessment? How many people had walked past me and thought she’s very sweaty and her drawings are bad, this is not the path for her? Later that year my teacher said, “you really had to earn everything this year, none of the lessons came easily to you, but they came.”
How about a time that you felt incompetent?
Vulnerability and incompetence are two sides of the same coin for me because I so deeply identify as a generally competent person. The first year of the atelier I felt totally disoriented. I didn’t know how to identify as that person who failed constantly. The very first thing I had to learn was to stay vulnerable and slowly learn to live there. I made myself come in open every day on a mission to receive as much information as possible and make big earnest attempts in my work. And all of those attempts were very public, uncomfortable failures.
How do you navigate those experiences of insecurity?
When Joanna Newsom released her second album, I think it was the New York Times that published an interview with her that named my secret. She called it the thrasher method. She developed it when as a child she used to attend mostly adult music residencies. Everyone around was a better musician. They all played together at night and she was very intimidated. During the day she would isolate herself and breakdown new techniques or pieces section by section and “thrash” them for hours. Play them over and over, perfecting them measure by measure. And then put them back together. That’s how I deal with the discomfort of insecurity. I link it directly to some practical inability and then work late nights in isolation. A lot of my failure never sees the light of day.
What make you most proud?
Looking back and seeing real progress. I’m proud when I pull something off. When I know what I’m doing and I proceed through the process deftly. Mostly I’m proud that four years ago I could not draw a human figure from life and now I really really can. I’m proud when I take risks confidently and learn from failure immediately.
How do women enforce elements of misogyny?
In terms of internalized sexism, I second guess myself. Especially if a man is correcting me or telling me how the world is, part of me will reflexively think “he probably knows something I don’t.” Some kind of knee-jerk reverence for the male opinion that is a mainstay of society. I must have learned this from movies because I grew up around men who were good listeners and women who were strong-minded. I have to really push through some mental blockage to be like wait a minute! No, I’m the right one. You’re the wrong one, even though you’re taller and louder and your voice is deeper.
As for internalized misogyny, that’s a more painful one. Because that’s got the duality of both an oppressive society and personal self-loathing doesn’t it? We internalize and begin to believe some of our culture’s more harmful ideas about women. And worse, we naturalize it. We teach it to each other.
What do you do to combat it?
I believe racism and sexism are our worst social maldevelopments. I don’t have an answer to them. I do know that we have to own up to them. We fail when we fear being called a racist or sexist because that is very beside the point. We are products of a racist sexist society. Denying that is to proliferate that.
Who is your girl crush?
I have so many. Colleen Barry for art. She’s a phenomenal painter. Also a great human, a new mom and one of the people really pushing the envelope in realism today. She’s so good she makes everyone around her better. In our era’s inundation of media and culture we can barely tell who the greats are, but let me tell you: we are living in the age of Colleen.
In life, my heart’s true crush would say the term “girl” crush is diminutive — just to give you a taste of who we’re working with here. She would say she is awoman. We’ll call her B—-. She doesn’t have a social media presence because she doesn’t want to be part of that scam. She’s a professor of performance studies, a mother, and three years older than me. I met her at age 16 and we became friends in college.
B— is the smartest person I know, it was true then and it still is. Book-wise yes, but more interestingly, in an intuitive and human way. B— is open to people in a way that can be deeply humbling to witness. She’s also supremely funny. She has the charisma of a cult leader but the benevolence not to be one. She was a huge influence the way those friends in your formative years can be, but she stands way out to me because I still feel her strength and...fire-bloodedness? It has sustained me for a decade or more.
We weren’t always at ease with each other. I wanted but also rejected a big sister figure, which is probably accurate to actual sisterhood. We grew and changed so much in our time of closest proximity, as roommates, expecting the other to be steadfast while we tried on different friends and futures.
We gently stopped talking when I graduated and left town. Maybe we needed a couple of months to reset but we took a year. I missed her terribly. It’s so disappointing to be cordial to some one you love but I couldn’t throw my vulnerability into the icy water between us. When I moved to Japan we suddenly exchanged a few long emails of regret. Mostly for time wasted. We began again. That was 9 years ago.
Last April I visited B— down south and I met her two-year-old daughter for the first time. I watched her daughter walk around, so curious and so physically strong. I burst into tears — maybe a quick sob — I don’t know where it escaped from. Yes we’d been friends again but we hadn’t been able to reprise intimacy, especially as calcifying adults living thousands of miles apart. Then B— started crying. She said “I get it. I’m seeing her through your eyes.”
What do you love about the relationships between women?
I can’t name what that is in female friendships. So I had to show it through B---. How women’s lives are parallel but not symmetric. Our mutual empathy is assumed. We see each other so closely it feels dangerous. We run on the same timelines of beauty and fertility. We mirror and mimic the best and worst in each other. The older I get, the more important and singular these relationships become. And the more context and meaning they give my life.