Artists on Coping: Melanie Vote

During the Coronavirus pandemic, Art Spiel is reaching out to artists to learn how they are coping.

Melanie Vote, In Studio, photo credit: Jessica Glick

Though Melanie Vote has lived in NYC for over 20 years, she grew up on a functional farm in Iowa. Her work straddles these two worlds, investigating the complexities of the human-land relationship, the cyclical nature of all life, and the impossibility of permanence. In temperate months she works remotely, painting outside. She is a visual scavenger collecting passages, then returns to the studio to reconstruct layers of a place, weaving them together into open-ended narratives. Her most recent body of work, The Washhouse, Nothing Ever Happened Here, at Equity gallery is on view virtually, via Artsy.

AS: How are you coping?

MV: Quite well really. This is a challenging moment for everyone, and I feel grateful that I can sleep enough, eat healthy food and exercise. I’m also quite busy learning to teach online, getting the hang of it, though not yet perfect.

About one week before the Shelter-in-Place, my show at Equity Gallery called The Washhouse, Nothing Ever Happened Here, opened with a good turnout, then closed. It has over 20 new paintings, with an installation component, and was more than two years in the making. I won’t lie, it’s disappointing to have it on view, but not on view, and moments of self-pity creep in. I consider myself an introvert, but do everything in my power to spread the word for a solo show. An exhibition catalog is in the final stages, an interview with the gallery’s director has been released, and we’re preparing an online artist talk via Zoom. But in the midst of a global pandemic, the exhibition doesn’t seem that pressing, and I’ve been kind of on the down-low about it.

Gallery Installation view, The Washhouse

AS: Has your routine changed?

MV: Yes, I’m home, and only go out for exercise and groceries. Before, I’d been going to the studio early every day, teaching three nights a week, getting home by 11pm. But on March 20th, my studio building closed. Even before that, it was clear courses were going to migrate online, so I gathered up materials and moved home where I have a strong Internet connection and space to work on a few small paintings. I still wake up early with the impulse to go to the studio, stirred by thoughts of what I can do to help. There’s a desire to post something poignant or helpful on social media, and the real need to prepare for the classes. Creating video demonstrations has been challenging and in the end, pretty fun.

Stain Dress, 2020, 12” x16”, oil on wood

AS: Can you describe some of your feelings about all this?

MV: They run the gamut and are ever evolving. Disbelief, followed by frustration at life coming to a halt, feeling like a caged animal, then coming to terms with the necessity of it. There have also been moments of enjoyment and a slower pace. My husband, artist and home-chef, Julien Gardair, is also home, and we have lunch and dinner together and watch movies several nights a week. Catching up on hibernation, taking care of houseplants and eating amazing food has given rise to an overwhelming sense of gratitude. I’m fortunate to have all I need, because so many people have lost so much, including their lives.

Stain Overalls, 2020, 12” x16,” oil on wood

AS: What matters most right now?

MV: The health of our environment, the planet, and every living thing on it, because we are all interconnected. As my sister, a doctor of public health and my life long hero said, “if you don’t have your health, what do you have?” And it’s so true.

Real change must happen next or this will be the new normal. Maybe it already is. Governing bodies must address the root causes of pandemics such as deforestation that leads to the diaspora of animals who carry disease with them. Evidence of this prevails, but when will change come, and will it come soon enough?

We must move forward in our thinking, otherwise we won’t be having these conversations; people will just be swallowed up by all the turmoil we’ve created. Environmentally concerned voices like Bill McKibben and Alan Weisman agree nature will be okay–without us.

What can we do as artists? My work isn’t politically motivated, but this crisis is stirring something in all of us. One evening last week, I met on Zoom with a group of inspiring painter friends. The next morning I woke filled with urgency, moved by stories of artists offering their work to raise funds to help those in the medical field. That morning I went out for a jog in my favorite parks, all the while contemplating how trees are integral to the well being of the ecosystem. “Trees save lives, trees save lives,” kept echoing in my head, and I thought I would paint a new tree everyday and offer them on social media, with proceeds going to help healthcare workers! But I had a to do list, and set this notion aside. Then by noon, a fabulous colleague asked me to join her online exhibition highlighting trees, with all proceeds going toward PPE for medical workers. I breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe we can make a difference!

Evidence Jar, 2020, 12” x16”, oil on wood

AS: Any thoughts about the road ahead?

MV: The pandemic is a huge wake up call and warning that placing economic growth and wealth over health will not sustain us. To move forward, for real change to happen, it will take millions of hands to replace antiquated and unsustainable fuel-operated systems. Our earth, home to billions, is overburdened; we need to find ways of existing that do not deplete our natural resources. Robin Wall Kimmerer, writer, biologist, and member of the Potawatomi Nation, writes in her book Braiding Sweetgrass, The land knows you, even when you are lost.

I grew up in a rural area and when the days grow longer, I a feel pull to go outside to paint. Once there, l tap into the natural world and all thoughts pass away. I’m swept up in a state of flow, watching as if the landscape is painting itself. With most of humanity now living in urban areas, a percentage on the rise, I fear there is disconnect from the land. Through my work, I hope to share this connection to the land, inviting the audience in as a call to action, to remember their connection to the natural world and act in ways to protect it, before it is too late.

Evidence Tarot, 2020, 10” x 10″, oil on wood
Catherine Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer based in New York. She wrote the introductions to Meryl Meisler’s two books, and is currently working on an oral history about recent changes in photography.