As a practicing artist for over 50 years, Melanie Walker’s work focuses on alternative photographic processes, digital and mixed media as well as large scale photographic installations. Featured in our Home Views show, her exhibition Wanderlust is rooted in memory and dreams as her works are drawn from images that she has taken over the years during her wanderings. With her series exploring the fragile nature of time, place, and memory, we were fascinated to hear more from Melanie and her art-making.
Tell us how you first connected to the Griffin Museum.
I have known about the Griffin for so many years, it’s difficult to recall when I first heard about it. It might have been through Mary Virginia Swanson but I am not sure. It was always a place where I wanted to exhibit my work and through becoming a member, that finally occurred. There have been a few opportunities since, including a single person show last year during shut down.
How do you involve photography in your everyday life? Can you tell us about any images or artists that have caught your attention recently?
I have been connected to photography since birth as my father was a photographer and I
learned early on the power of images and their ability to convey stories. I teach photography at the University of Colorado at Boulder and am constantly researching everything photography from new artists, old favorites, new ways of working, historical processes and more. I am as involved in photography and image making as I am in breathing. The medium is my best friend.
In terms of artists and images that I have been thinking about recently, I would say that Alanna Airitam is someone whose work I so admire. She has such an extraordinary sense of light and the images she makes are so critical to the troubled times we are living in. Her Golden Age project tells a more inclusive history of humanity that is so important, especially now. I am glad that she has been receiving so much attention for her beautiful work recently.
Another artist is one of our former graduate students who I worked with closely over the last couple of years. Roman Anaya was going to be a star I believe. He was the first in his family to receive an MFA and his grandfather migrated from Mexico in the 1950’s as a part of the bracero program. Roman had health issues and we lost him last spring. He was making incredible work incorporating his photographic portraits with papier mache and his mother’s crochet work in their collaboration. I wish there was a way to share his work with the world. I think about him nearly every day…
Please tell us a little about your series, Wanderlust and how it was conceived.
The work on display at the Griffin is part of an ongoing long term project that keeps circling around and evolving addressing notions surrounding the idea of home. It began with a dream many years ago after I had spent time with a Hopi family on the reservation. In the dream there was a person who watched over me who had a house for a head.
The pieces that are part of Wanderlust are the houses and the puppets. These works have been made over the last two or three years and are very raw in response to my anxieties over the reckoning and the divisions I see going on in this country. The puppets are the sleepwalkers and the houses began with the scrap wood I acquired from a neighbor’s remodel of their house. I have long been concerned with environmental issues and using things that would be sent to landfill is a part of my practice. The puppet heads are made with junk mail. All of the works incorporate encaustic wax.
I’ve often though about photography as being the great equalizer in that when photographed, the monumental can take on the same scale as the miniature. With some of the wooden houses I have photographed them and printed them very large scale on silk fabric to create immersive installations. In some cases where I have had the opportunity I have exhibited both the miniature encaustic wood houses along with the large scale fabric pieces.
In terms of the puppets, I have long been enamored with the political history associated with puppetry. Puppets have been a part of my practice for many years, long before the word started being tossed around during the last several years. Generally I have included the use of toys in a lot of my work. I think it’s all valid in terms of encouraging people to engage with ideas in a multisensory manner.
Has there been a Griffin Museum exhibition that has particularly engaged or moved you?
This is such a difficult question to answer since there has been stellar programming over the years and I have never had the opportunity to visit the Griffin in person. So many important exhibitions with great programming to accompany each show. I found the recent Spirit exhibition that gave voice to many indigenous artists. I really appreciate that the programming at the Griffin has been so diverse giving opportunities to a range of approaches to photography.
What is your favorite place to escape to?
I love being at places with edges. The edge of the plains where they intersect with the mountains, on a coast where water and land meet but mostly I love just looking at the sky. I make kites and it’s really just an excuse to spend time looking at the sky…it’s such a place of wonder and awe.
What is a book, song or visual obsession you have at the moment?
I have to admit that my recent obsession of late has been trying to spare the life of someone on death row in Oklahoma. Julius Jones is scheduled to be executed later in November and there is so much new evidence that he never received a fair trial and the jury was biased. Another person has bragged about committing the murder that Julius may pay for with his life and it was only this week that he was given the opportunity to speak on his behalf. He has been on death row for more than half his life.
In terms of books, I think that The Life a Plants: A Metaphysics of Mixture by Emanuele Coccia has been inspiring to me of late. Plants created the atmosphere that has sustained us for millenia. It has been instrumental in the thoughts behind some of my recent installations thinking about the air that we all share, especially through the pandemic. Are we breathing the same air that the ancestors once inhaled? It’s just such a thoughtful book. So inspiring…
I have also been fairly obsessed with the series on Netflix called High on the Hog that was put together by food writer Stephen Satterfield and traces so much of American cuisine back to slavery and Africa. It’s a fascinating history. I think that if I hadn’t pursued a career in art I probably would have been a food anthropologist. It’s a mind altering series and will soon begin a new season that I am looking forward to.
If you could be in a room with anyone to have a conversation, who would it be and what would you talk about?
So many possibilities but I suppose that the person I would probably choose would be my father, Todd Walker who was my mentor, role model and best friend. We lost him in 1998 and I miss him daily. He set an example for me and worked daily even though he never really received the attention I think he deserved being such a pioneer on so many levels. I don’t know what we would talk about but I imagine I would just want to be in the moment without an agenda and would treasure every word exchanged.