Someone recognized Melissa Cooke at the movies the other day. Not an old college pal or someone she met at one of her exhibits. A total stranger who, even amongst the sea of seated faces and with only the ghostly glare of the big screen, spotted Melissa thanks to her apparently prominent nose. “He said he couldn’t see my face, but recognized the silhouette of my nose from my drawings,” she explains.
So naturally, I look at Melissa’s nose. Nothing out of the ordinary, really. Long and linear with a high bridge, and the slightest upturn at the end. Prominent, for sure, but nothing worth getting whiplash over. No. What makes Melissa’s nose particularly memorable—why I might even recognize her in a dark theater myself—is that she enjoys casting herself as the main subject in her work. Each 50×38” piece, the biggest paper size she could get her hands on at the local art store, showcases Melissa’s face, up close and personal, and in full character.
One depicts her wearing a plastic gorilla mask. Another has her immersed in a pool of Four Loko energy drink. A more recent series shows her head tightly wrapped in a clear plastic bag. “Creating my work is a very intimate and reflective time,” admits Melissa, who in fact turned to graphite out of frustration. “In January of 2008, I was at a point of my work where I was feeling stagnant and confined, making these tedious, time intensive, small pencil drawings. My solution was to visit an art store and leave with an armful of new supplies, including a can of powdered graphite.
I tried watercolor for about two days, and was miserable. So I got a can of powdered graphite and a huge sheet of paper. No one had ever shown me how to use the medium; I just grabbed the nearest brush and started feverishly dusting the graphite onto the paper. Within four hours, I had a new drawing and was immediately addicted.”
Art for Melissa has always been personal. A way to digest her frustrations and dig out inner emotions and frustrations. “According to my parents, the only way I could be tamed was by putting a pencil in my hand. Even as a child, I needed to reproduce the world on paper,” recalls Melissa, who hails from Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, a place she describes as “conventional and conservative, one of those Midwest towns whose biggest attraction is the local pub”.
“Needless to say, I had to stir up my own adventures. Most frequently, I was out making a spectacle, or alternatively, could be found eating Twinkies and drawing at my kitchen table. Drawing is, and always has been, an obsession of mine. I simply can’t stop,” she says. “During the drawing process, I am continually forced to confront the issue that inspired the piece. This very private experience is then released into the world, which lends to a sense of purging, a letting go. Many of my recent ecstatic and spiritual moments can be attributed to drawing. I have had full body rushes and overwhelming feelings of euphoria. I live for those moments.
With an almost compulsive need to constantly create, Melissa prefers having her hands busy with a few projects at a time, including one not-so-artistic endeavor: manning the front desk of the University of Wisconsin’s Art Department. And just to show that artists can be creative in any endeavor, Melissa was able to transform these 40 hours a week into a work of art.
“I did this project Dress Up Wednesdays, where I went to my office job dressed up as a different character every week,” says Melissa, who documented all her 24 costumes online at www.dressupwednesdays.com. “I questioned whether creativity must be separate from business. As an artist assimilated into the business world, I wanted to serve as a role model for art students and community members.”
See, for Melissa, art is not just a calling she answers whenever she feels like it, but the way of life she’s chosen to lead. Come hardships, she turns to art. When excited, she turns to art. And even when there’s just an extra few minutes in the day, Melissa turns to art. “I never do nothing. I think I’ve forgotten how,” she realizes. “I enjoy having many projects going on at once and keeping myself challenged, so I can see myself pursuing other realms of creativity in the near future—design, video, installation, and fashion.
WORDS BY KATRINA TAN.