Ohio Funghi, installed at the Morgan Conservatory, 2013

Melissa Jay Craig

is a Chicago artist who uses papermaking to create sculpture and installations. When she began using handmade paper over a decade ago, Craig's work changed dramatically. She says her work had already begun to change after she found out she was becoming deaf. She began to think about different ways our senses combine to communicate. Her work has become more expressive, and “read” more directly through her use of materials, scale and color.


 The following interview took place by email in March, 2012.

1. In your lecture, you spoke about a dialog with the materials. Would you talk about that in terms of (S)Edition? It seems you were thinking about mushrooms and you had made several book-like pieces. How did the dialog evolve? 

The genesis of (S)Edition is well covered in my own words in Deb Kogan’s article for Ampersand (Bookish Investigations), which is the one I recommended on my bibliography page, so I’m going to ask you to read that and will just elaborate a little here.  As I say in the article, (S)Edition had a long, long conceptual stage before I started actually working.  The initial impulse was a response to some of the ongoing (still current) discourse surrounding what an artist’s book ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ be: I wanted to find a way to challenge some notions by making a work rather than writing an article or presenting a paper, because that action would, to me, embody the turbulence of a field that defies definition. But that alone wasn’t reason enough on its own for me; the discourse simply isn’t all that personally important (and can also be rather tiresome).  When larger implications began to come into focus, then I got truly invested in this work. The inevitable dialogue with the materials followed, while learning how to make the work tangible.

Mostly, the dialogue with the material is often not that sharply delineated.  There are times when I will go to the studio with a partially-formed idea, either conceptually based or simply a vision of a form, and, while experimenting with fibers or armatures or dye, the piece takes a shape or is refined by what the materials want to do, or conversely, as the forms appear or change, the concept (and/ or my own motivation behind the concept) become clarified. I’ll often run from the studio to the computer or library to do further research based on what the materials have revealed to me. It’s quite difficult to describe but it’s a mixture of concept and process adapting to and modifying each other that I’ve come to trust implicitly. 

2. You showed us three mushroom pieces that served as prototypes for (S)Edition. What made you decide to take these couple of pieces into a large sweeping installation? How did the process of making the edition go?

I must not have been clear during the second talk: the three prototype books were developed after I had decided to make the edition that would also be an installation. I knew a great deal about what I wanted before they were made. They were the culmination of several weeks devoted solely to experimentation, and essentially they were the pieces that proved to me that I would indeed be able to make the 99 copies I envisioned.

The three prototypes did not become part of the final edition / installation because I was not satisfied with the color, and I also needed to come up with a better method for rinsing the covers after dyeing; there was salt bloom on these after they dried that was not apparent when they were wet. Those were small further refinements compared to the whole, though. What the prototypes did show me was that the methods I’d developed for forming the covers and text sheets, for casting the stems, mounting stem and book together, mounting the whole to the wall, and the odd formula for the fungus’ characteristic white raised spots were all viable and repeatable: I could, in fact, make this edition.

So, I corrected the two problems, built some more equipment and armatures, and made more. Then more, then more and more and more!

(S)Edition, installation view, 2007 - 2009, abaca, cotton rag, Individual copies: 16” - 19” x 15” x 16” 18”

3. I was really moved by the scale of your work. It's human size is very effective. Would you talk about the scale and how you decide on it for individual works.

Determining scale is a part of my process that is unapologetically intuitive. What no one sees (except during some lectures) is that there are always drawings, models and prototypes preceding a final work, and by the time I'm ready to begin a piece, it's been investigated thoroughly; I know what it's about. Because I am working to engage our sensory intelligences, our ubiquitous alternative methods of communication, of reading, I'm seeking toprovoke an initial visceral response, and I am the first person who must be affected, who must feel that response. The sketches and models tell me what the scale needs to be for that to happen. I can't describe exactly how they do that, just that it's something else I trust, another leap of faith in my process.

4. Your work changed dramatically when you moved from manipulating books to using the handmade paper to create your work. Why do you think this happened? 

I can tell you how it happened: first, my work was already changing before its medium changed, moving away from overt social or political themes and pointed commentary. It was becoming quieter, more contemplative, and I was beginning to compare and contrast human conditions with seasonal cycles in nature. (Why that happened, I’m not completely sure.  Perhaps it was maturity or simply an urge to go deeper).

With that change already beginning, I became interested in working with paper at just about the same time I learned that I would eventually become deaf.  Kozo, the fiber I experimented with first, was simply so eloquent on its own that adding words seemed to cheapen it, to detract from it and lessen its impact.  As I began to work with other fibers and to discover the unique properties in each, I made a conscious decision to stay away from conventional language: if I was going to be deaf, and not have access to spoken words, I wasn’t going to use conventional language in my work, either; I wanted my work to reflect my experience.

Usually when I say that, someone will respond: “But…you could still read, couldn’t you?”  Yes, but that’s not the point; non-conventional communication is.  At the same time I learned I was becoming deaf, I also learned that my body or brain had taught me to expertly read lips, without any conscious knowledge on my part. I had believed for years that I was hearing. When the audiologist told me I had been reading lips for years, I still didn’t quite believe her. How could I be doing that without being aware of it?  Then she held a card in front of her face and spoke...and I couldn’t understand a single thing she said. The phenomenon, this completely pivotal, enormous but unconscious adjustment, just astounded me.  Then, not too long afterward, I won the all-college Excellence in Teaching award for full-time faculty where I taught, and was invited to a two-year fellowship on the scholarship of teaching and learning under the Carnegie Institute.  During the fellowship sessions, I was introduced to Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, which thoroughly echoed my own experiences in the classroom, and solidified my desire to make work that focused on and utilized our sensory intelligences; i.e., the alternative ways we ‘read’.

So, while the appearance and materiality of the work changed, and the utilization of conventional language changed, I am still ultimately investigating (and toying with) the act of reading.

5. I love the "book covers" of works like Passage and That's Life. I see they are made from cast kozo. Would you talk about your process in making them? What do you love about kozo in particular?

That's Life, 2005, kozo, abaca, flax, oak inserts, poplar, 30" x 35" x 12"

It’s a kind of controlled amate or tapa process, pounding the fibers together in a pattern, building them up where I need strength in the piece, letting the fiber warp and do what it wants to do at key places and controlling it in others.  

Oh...what’s not to love about kozo?  It’s pliable, adaptable, separates into such tiny, beautiful, eloquent strands.  It’s an utterly sustainable, versatilesource material.  It can be simple and direct yet is infinitely complex…I could seriously go on for pages about kozo. But: look at the work! Hopefully, what I love about it shows there, and I’m always dicovering more.

I began working with it in the type of book cover form you are talking about first, and that carried me into making sheets of paper with it, and then on to other fibers, but I’ve never stopped working with kozo – it’s limitless. I now have a kozo tree growing in my tiny Chicago back yardand recently, I’ve been making kozo drawings.

6. Listen and Intrinsic moved away from using an identifiable book form as motif, do you think you will continue to move away from that structure or do you see it as something you will always use?

I think I will probably always periodically return to the book, but I also enjoy not being ‘bound’ to it, so I am equally certain I will probably continue to work outside the format as well.  The final form is dictated by the work itself, what the piece needs to communicate.

7. You mention people sometimes find your work "cute." Are you're pulling them in with cute to get them to stay and see beyond this?

Mostly, the ‘cute’ response comes from (S)Edition, and that interpretation is the result of a deliberate risk I took by selecting amanita muscaria as a model. 

But occasionally, because the medium is handmade paper, it has been dismissed as ‘craft’, even before it is seen.  That is much more serious to me, and most unfortunate. Luckily, most curators and critics are more responsible than that.

I am trying less to initially pull people in with ‘cute’ than I am with ‘beautiful’...and it took me a long, long time to come to terms with ‘beautiful’.

8. Who is your ideal audience?

I know I answered that question definitively way back in graduate school, but the only thing I can remember now from my written answer is the phrase, “no stink of the museum”, which has already been proved wrong, since I’ve showed in some.  Whatever ideal audience I expected then has been exceeded, and that’s just...grand.  So, I’ll say: anyone and everyone who is intrigued by the work, who responds to it, for whom it sparks some sort of internal dialogue or emotional stirring.

For a long time, I was called “an artists’ artist” by critics and that was satisfying, but now the audience is much broader than I ever imagined it would be.

9. You have a large presence on the web. Do you feel this is an important way for artists to "keep up" in the art world today? How is it important to you?

(Is it large?  I’ve never quite thought of it in that way).

My web presence is most vital to me as a deafened person.  I have enormous difficulty with most of the conventional ways that artists present themselves and network: I simply can’t hear enough in noise to do a great deal of effective schmoozing at openings or conferences. In fact, I shun most conferences because they rarely provide accommodations (such as CART captioning). They are essentially speech-based, and definitely exclusive to hearing people. I don’t use a voice phone; you can only text or e-mail me.  So the e-mail contact link on my site is essential. I use cyberspace to basically level the playing field and to stay in contact. I maintain a web site, a (currently rather dull, calendar-like) blog, and a public Facebook page.  The one thing I’ve been unable to embrace is Twitter…it’s a bit too immediate for my preferences, but it might happen someday.

I’m not sure every artist needs it; I don’t believe in one-size-fits all solutions. My work is fairly well represented in photographs, so the medium is appropriate. I admit that when I am a curator, I appreciate the convenience of being able to see images and read descriptions, and in turn, I also appreciate when curators or gallerists approach me with a prior knowledge of my work. 

Listen (reconfigurable), 2009, abaca, luan, 12' x 14' x2"

However it’s done, it is important for artists to be easily contacted, but if your work isn’t represented well online, I’m not sure that my type of presence would be useful. 

(After all that is said, one of the most common things I’m told at exhibitions is what an enormous difference experiencing the work in person makes, and I agree.)

10. How is teaching significant to you and does it feed your work? 

That’s a rather difficult question at this point in my life, because the nature of the teaching I do has changed significantly in the past three years. It’s gone from 15 years of close, intense mentorship work with a small group of highly focused graduate students each year to quick workshops with a wildly varied population. (In that mix was a completely stellar experience of eight weeks teaching at Penland during the 2011 Spring Concentration session that also has me re-thinking things). So, it’s all in flux, and currently my relationship to teaching seems to be re-defined with each encounter.

11. Do you find Universities are good places to show your work? If so, why? Where else do you show your work? 

I love to show at universities because of the concentration of disciplines in one place.  The results can be exciting, provocative.  At St. Ambrose (which was an exemplary university experience), for instance, I had conversations with English, Chemistry, Biology and Ecology professors who were bringing their students to view the show for vastly different reasons. That is absolutely ideal for me, the fact that the work can be a catalyst for so many points of discussion.  

I’ve shown at not-for-profits quite a bit, at art schools and arts centers, at themed shows or venues (book arts/ papermaking) and, less often, here and there at commercial galleries. Though it’s something I’ve never pursued, I am now represented by two commercial galleries, and one of them attends (and takes my work to) some of the huge fairs like Art Miami / Basel.  And there have been a few smaller museums.

I also rather love to exhibit in unusual venues when I can: I’ve shown in a number of working libraries, at a nature preserve, a junkyard, recently did a site-specific installation in a historic house, and will do another in a storefront ‘window gallery’ this fall. I’m currently working towards doing some outdoor installations as well.

12. Do you find that the medium of handmade paper has an influence on the people or places who want to show the work?  What kinds of obstacles do you face in order show your work? 

Sometimes.  I will often be asked to show in paper-specific shows and / or in papermaking venues, for instance.

I’m not sure what you mean by obstacles, but shipping can be odd for large 3D paper works. There is also the occasional instance of that misguided perception that all handmade paper work must merely be ‘craft’. As always, too, deafness plays a part: you’ve got to be willing to communicate with me by e-mail or text.

I think the obstacles pertain to sales more significantly than showing: collectors can be quite afraid of paper, as it’s perceived to be fragile, though anyone who works with it knows how tough it can actually be. 

Pod I, 2011, abaca