Virtual Realities of Common Ground: an Interview with Melissa Doherty

This summer I discovered the work of Melissa Doherty. Immediately taken with the quality and her approach to her work, I began a conversation with her that has spanned many months. Here is the conversation itself:

Installation View, Frill Series

GDT: Can you tell me a little about yourself? What was life like growing up? What are some of the memories and experiences that have stuck with you?

MD: I come from a working class family, Catholic, in a mid-sized city. I am the middle child between two brothers. We spent all our summers going on camping trips, fishing trips with picnics fit to be called feasts, we managed to use up many of the top coolers of the time, during that time, we received more guests at our picnics then at our home, this should give you an idea of how much time we spent out there. Back home, it was mostly me hanging around while my parents were working, left to our own devices. I think I spent a lot of time by myself making things and drawing. I was involved with sports a bit, but I did not go in so much. I did things on my own, or watched. I was an introvert.

What is your first memory of experiencing art? How did it all come about? Can you talk about life after this moment? Was it different? Was it the same?

I remember drawing a cartoon to enter into a contest I saw in the newspaper, when I was about 7. At that time, my parents bought me How to Draw Animals books, and I spent hours drawing. But in terms of art, I didn’t really get a grasp of how I could communicate with it until I finished university and painted on my own. When I realized that I was an introvert and didn’t have to feel shame about it, I moved on and flourished. I felt bad about wanting to be alone and not joining in with the other kids. I got flack for it. I thought there was something wrong with me. I realized that these very traits are what helped me to be who I am, to do what I do. I can spend hours every day alone, motivated on my own to make things that I find complete joy in or that seem to express something in me that needs to get out. I’m a horrible writer of cliches. I grapple with my Catholic upbringing and its contradictions and dark side, but I spent a lot of time in old churches and absorbed the rich artistic and cultural environment there.

How do you go about your work? Where do the ideas originate? What led you to the ideas? How do you achieve the photo realism of many of the pieces?

I was painting a lot of landscapes, woodlots, and forests. I think because they hold that mystery. One day a relative showed me an aerial view of her property, a house nestled into a woodlot. When I visited their home in the forest, it felt like an expanse of forest, like the ones from the storybooks. When I saw the aerial view, I could see that it ended, cropped into a square shape and was surrounded by empty corn fields. It seemed like a facade. You couldn’t get lost in that forest. That metaphor stuck with me.

I started painting landscape from an aerial view, showing how landscape is arranged and how that makes me feel, imagining it from both perspectives. I went up in hot air balloons and planes to get reference images, then someone introduced me to Google Earth and I had a new frontier. I love to scour Google Earth in search of landscapes. Some of the images on Google Earth don’t seem real. I find some little forest or woodlot and river and think, wow, that doesn’t seem real. It’s fairytale-ish. I try to imagine myself there.

I wanted to portray landscape from an aerial view because I thought if I could make them look toy-like, or like an architectural model, it would reflect how I felt about landscape: that in our contemporary world, it is vulnerable, manipulated and rearranged, or taken out. I like this quote by Slinkachu: “There’s something about the miniature that brings the nurturing aspect out in people.” That’s what I was thinking when I started working with aerial landscape. I was painting miniature landscapes, like still-lifes, on very small panels to show that landscape is no longer this vast panorama reaching skyward. It’s limited. With my work I wanted to show an intimate, introspective view of landscape, more feminine in contrast to the grand tradition of landscape – a more masculine sensibility – in which landscape was painted to symbolize national power. Wilderness was there to be tamed. We’ve gone beyond that now and need to nurture landscape back again.

“Every landscape is a state of mind.” I’m not sure who said that, but I believe this to be true. I think my work is about landscape, but it’s also about how I am feeling, thinking and sensing. Landscape is an alphabet and a language, to get something across. The more I paint, the more I realize what power there is in creating. It’s exciting. The photo realism is achieved with many layers of oil paint and glazing and with each layer, adding more detail, and a bigger range of values. It’s laborious. I try to imagine how the old masters painted.

Some of the images on Google Earth don’t seem real. I find some little forest or woodlot and river and think, wow, that doesn’t seem real. It’s fairytale-ish.

I get a sense that fairy tales and storybooks are important to you. Were they an important part of your childhood? How do you see them informing your life?

I think storybooks and fairy tales were an important part of my childhood – not because my parents read to me, but because I remember looking at the illustrations and imagining myself in the picture. That’s why I like miniatures, because I like to imagine myself looking down into a little world, or landscape, changing my perspective. There is nostalgia in miniatures. I remember loving the storybooks because they showed vignettes of strange places, and strange little people or fairies and insects, or the man in the moon. I remember Gulliver’s Travels and imagining myself alternatively as giant, and then as one of the little people.

I feel nostalgia for the kinds of thoughts I had as a child: more imaginative thoughts, or thoughts based on more sensory material, not knowledge. Kids are more sensitive. I think an obsession with detail and meaning comes from childhood. I think my life is informed by the idea that there is more to what is here, behind the curtain. Things are not as they seem. I like magic realism: “possible but not probable.” Sometimes it feels indulgent and sometimes it feels like a curse because I rarely feel content or secure except for those rare times I get that fleeting sense of knowing.

When you saw aerial views you said you realized, “You couldn’t get lost in that forest.” How important is the ability to be lost; to not be found by anyone? Do you see this as an important part of dreaming and exploring? Do you see it as something we embrace in childhood and then, for one reason or another, many dismiss with age and responsibility? If so, why do you think that happens?

I think the idea of invisibility relates to me growing up gay in a community that didn’t make room for that. I spent my youth trying to be invisible and really being invisible. I would have died if anyone had any idea that I was gay and so I went overboard with trying to appear straight. I wanted to be anonymous or overlooked. I was trying to hide that I was gay to the point of censoring what I said and did. I was dishonest, and I think this act of denying myself and being someone else carries through. It takes a long time to get back to acting honestly. I think I still am not comfortable with being visible, although I’m very open and comfortable with being gay now. I’m not comfortable with speaking up when I have something to say. I’m not comfortable or confident expressing myself, or asserting myself, other than in my work. I’m used to being lost. It feels like my permanent state.

In reference to your Slinkachu quote – “There’s something about the miniature that brings the nurturing aspect out in people” – why do you think that is? I am curious about your thoughts on it.

It’s about relative size. When something is much smaller than we are, there is no threat. We might feel that we are a threat, so we compensate by nurturing or protecting and making sure that we are not threatening. You can usually hold a miniature in your hands; they’re precious. The miniature reminds us of being small, a child playing with toys. A miniature transports us to that time, and we become more gentle or playful.

I often think about scale, and micro/macro, and miniatures, dioramas, models, and how my perspective changes. I’ve always been intrigued by virtual reality: a space that isn’t real but appears to be and is strange and unusual in a way that is unsettling and hard to understand. I’m interested in souvenirs, mementos, and vignettes because they all conjure up the idea of memory or dreams, a sense of the otherworldly.

Most of my work has been small paintings on board, deliberately labored over, to imbue them with a preciousness and jewel-like quality. This process was intended to convey the diminishing forest, or woodlot, and bring out that nurturing quality. I love looking at paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, Jan van Eyck, and Pieter Brueghel and have tried to paint like them with layers and layers of paint and glazing to build up a reality. I think of these artists as the first to create virtual reality: strange, otherworldly landscapes and people.

An interest in virtual reality is about realness, and the tangible, and what is real. I think that’s why I focus on texture and tactility to try to make a place convincing. Virtual reality is an illusion of the tangible. I want to sculpt my paintings, although not with actual texture but the illusion of texture.

The use of the aerial also helps to get across the notion of landscape possibly as a plaything, with the viewer being large and omnipotent.

Greenspace, oil on board, 25cm x 30cm, 2006

Greenspace, oil on board, 25cm x 30cm, 2006

Do you feel your work can help initiate conversations desperately needed about returning, as you say, to nurturing the landscape?

I paint with the hope that I can get across what I feel about something so that someone else might feel or grasp it, too. If something gives me that much joy or intense feelings, I want to share it. I hope my work can play a part in helping us return to nurturing the landscape, definitely. I sense a deep connection with landscape and have moments of awe when I see a certain light on the landscape or stare at something that draws me in. I feel a dialogue happening. That’s when I feel a sense of the sublime and I want to protect that.

You said, “When I realized that I was an introvert, and didn’t have to feel shame about it, I really moved on and flourished.” Can you expand on this? How did the realization happen and what allowed the shame to go away? What was some of the first work to come out of this time? Does that work hold a specific grip on you as birthed from these realizations?

In social situations I was always the quiet listener. I sometimes got flack for it. Friends always wondered if there was something wrong or asked why I wasn’t contributing. I was sensitive to their comments. The realization was a slow process: a mix of reflecting on how my actions were regarded by others with a slow understanding of how people are on a spectrum of extroversion and introversion. I read that introverts have qualities that are generally looked down upon by the majority – extroverts – like daydreaming and losing track of time. But these same qualities are what make introverts able to reflect, imagine, empathize, and create. I recognized myself in these books and had a new appreciation for myself. I wasn’t so hard on myself after that. I once thought that there was something wrong with me, wanting to be by myself, not wanting to get out there and join a team or group, but it turns out that that quality allows me to be able to spend most of my day by myself, focused on painting. I pursued art as a full-time endeavor. I felt that it was what I was meant to do, based on who I was and that it was valid as a career. I think pursuing the arts as a career was thought of as shirking responsibility, and not a productive way to spend time, or make money.

The aerial series titled Vignette and Viewfinder were a result of my thoughts on introversion and extroversion. I was obsessed with houses fitting into woodlots and lone drivers going through woodlots, and used titles like “Comfort Zone” and “Nestle.” In Vignette no. 14, I was interested in how we create views for ourselves, even if it’s a facade revealed from above. I mentioned the house in the woods, which from the air turned out to be a small cropped woodlot. Southern Ontario is a land of farms and woodlots, and I liked the idea of painting that from the aerial view. I was interested in the space between woodlots, and the view the car would have driving up to the presence of the woodlot.

Vignette no. 14, oil on canvas, 76cm x 76cm, 2007

Vignette no. 14, oil on canvas, 76cm x 76cm, 2007

You  said “I grapple with my Catholic upbringing…” Do you see this grappling take shape in your work? Do you feel that you have been able to explore the “contradictions and dark side” through expression?

My faith in the Catholic Church, and respect for other major religions, has been destroyed because of my experience as a gay person, and as a woman. The Catholic Church still refuses to allow women to lead and be priests. That’s fine, but I don’t agree with this exclusion. It’s political. It’s one-sided and unhealthy. And as a gay person, I grew up thinking I was a sick, repulsive person and hated and denied myself for a long time. This grappling takes shape in my work. Landscape painting can represent a beautiful or sublime “scene,” and can be a way to advocate environmentalism, but it’s also a language or vocabulary, to express ideas, experience and feeling. So in addition to believing in the spiritual facet of nature, looked down upon by some as pagan – I grew up thinking that was a bad word – I’ve felt a need to show landscape from a different perspective: one that is opposite to the rugged, wild panorama in the Grand Landscape tradition, the male painter tradition, to one that is more introspective, intimate and vulnerable. I wanted to express a contemporary view of landscape as manipulated, manicured, tamed and shrinking – again, introversion and extroversion are playing out.

Into the Woods no. 4, oil on board, 15cm x 30cm, 2008

Into the Woods no. 4, oil on board, 15cm x 30cm, 2008

I think the process of creating and painting is in itself a rebellion against the idea in religion that one cannot have their own ideas or create their own reality. They must believe in the church dogma and follow rules that might not be in their best interest. Religion relies on people following and believing. Art is liberating. I can create, think on my own, and express myself: the possibilities are exciting. Art is alchemy and transformation, so I think it’s natural that I am a painter based on my struggles with identity.

I realize how people are suppressed in their life by institutions and religions. Creativity and art are feared because of their inherent power. When you Google “Creativity and…,” the first two results are “Creativity and depression” and “Creativity and mental illness.” There seems to be a movement to equate the two. I think there is a fear of creativity because it is powerful and it can turn the world upside down. Those who want to keep the status quo and discourage change will equate creativity with madness in a derogatory sense. I like this quote by John Lennon: “Our society is run by insane people for insane objectives. I think we’re being run by maniacs for maniacal ends and I think I’m liable to be put away as insane for expressing that. That’s what’s insane about it.” But I do think that creativity can come out of depression or “madness” because I think there can only be great hope with great despair. Creativity is hope.

Do you remember deciding to be an artist or was it a natural development from your life experiences?

At first I focused on science in University in order to be practical and make money to support myself. After spending a year in Europe I switched into Fine Arts. I knew I wouldn’t excel in science. I didn’t want to work in a lab. I didn’t feel confident in that and it didn’t really interest me. I also just had the sense that I had to work by myself, without a boss. I knew I didn’t like rules and duties. I was interested in the sciences but I also had a spiritual yearning and interest in the mystical and otherworldly. There are so many unknowns and perspectives – which I realize is the base for science and its theories, too.

I got my Bachelor of Arts degree in Fine Arts and  went to Teacher’s College. I was a supply teacher for a few years and thought my teaching would support my painting, but I didn’t want to be there. When I had some success selling my work, I became a full-time artist. I couldn’t do both. Each would be half-hearted.

I’m used to being lost. It feels like my permanent state.

You said, “I also had a spiritual yearning and interest in the mystical and otherworldly.” How did this develop? Have you always had these interests? As with your complications surrounding Catholicism, do you see these interests penetrating your work? Are you exploring them through expression?

I’m not sure how this developed. There are times, not as many as I would like, when I have an overwhelming sense of insight or epiphany. A strange but familiar sense comes over me and I feel that the world has opened up and I have a sense of clarity. For a brief moment I have this sense of timelessness or a sense that all time is included in that one moment. Like a universal feeling, of everything in one moment. But they’re fleeting. I think many people have this experience from time to time. I’m always interested when I hear others talk about otherworldly things: people like Bjork, or a Canadian artist Christiane Pflug who said, “I would like to reach a certain clarity which does not exist in life. But nature is complicated and changes all the time. One can only reach a small segment, and it takes such a long time.” I think my work is all about trying to express my sense of things. I’m only interested in making something that gets me closer to understanding or seeing that timeless “place,” or getting that timeless feeling.

Do you see any scientific quality to your work? Do you apply any of the investigative qualities that led you to studying science in school to your work? Is the world just a great big lab?

Possibilities excite me, and I feel like I’m always searching and trying to understand. I feel torn a lot. I think I liked biology because it was visual.

Your work pays particular attention to texture and the layers of environment. Has this been a conscious decision or did it arise from the process of creation?

You are the first to comment on this. It’s always a certain texture or pattern that excites me or interests me. Color takes a back seat so that the texture will be prominent. I imagine cropped woodlots in the winter as furry, like an animal, like a head of hair or a rug. I like the material aspect of landscape and the contrast with the man-made. I like the sensual aspect of landscape and the rhythms.

Do you ever know why a certain texture or pattern grabs your attention? Do you see a pattern – no pun intended – in the ones that excite you?

There is a certain texture, pattern, and shape that I look for and like to paint, whether I’m painting a landscape or tree from the air or from a regular landscape perspective. I’m working on a large canvas of a cropped blue spruce tree, head on, and noticed again that the pattern in the bulbous, needle-y branches mimics the pattern in a tree that I’m working on from an aerial perspective. There are  similarities in the micro and the macro – I guess that is the idea of fractals.

There is also a certain cinematic quality to your pieces. A visual narrative is present throughout many of them. Do you find this to be true yourself? If so, do you have a specific narrative you try to present or does the narrative unfold from the process?

I’ve never thought about a cinematic quality, or a narrative, although when I think about the aerials, yes, sometimes. For example, the landscapes with a road cutting through a woodlot, and a car driving along – there is something there, where I am directing the viewer along. Overall, I imagine a more poetic sense.

Can you expand on that poetic sense a bit? A bit more specificity would be interesting and helpful as the poetic sense can take many shapes. Often it is brought up to reference a somewhat dreamlike quality. Do you see your work as such?

I think poetic because I hope the image will conjure up many thoughts at once, not a narrative: more of a dream-like experience you can take in. But maybe you can help me understand the many shapes poetry can take.

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