OtherPeoplePixels Interviews Melissa Wyman

Spring Play @ VIAF Performance Festival.
2009
Performance/ Installation

MELISSA WYMAN’s training in close contact martial arts informs her grappling performances and workshops, drawings of wrestling bodies and private Fight Therapy Sessions. Her interdisciplinary art practice involves teaching Brazilian jiu-jitsu as a method of exploring the psychological and physical relationships of the participants. Melissa received her MFA in Social Practice from the California College of the Arts in San Francisco (2008), where she was a recipient of the Barclay Simpson Award. She has created and presented work in the United States, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and Chile, and her book, Fight Therapy: A Discussion about Agency, Art and the Reverse Triangle Choke, was published in 2010. Melissa lives in Stanford, California.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Can you give us a brief history of your background in martial arts? When did you start training? What style?

Melissa Wyman: My love of movement and awkwardness in dance class lead me to martial arts. I started with aikido in 1995 and trained for about four years, and then I trained in Japanese jiu-jitsu and tai chi for a couple of years. When I moved to Japan in 1999, I was introduced to Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) and was immediately hooked. BJJ is specifically designed for smaller and weaker people to be able to deal with larger opponents. In turn, larger people learn how to grapple with smaller opponents and have the opportunity to focus on their technique rather than strength. For the last twelve years, I have been training mainly in BJJ, complimented by a little kickboxing and mixed martial arts (MMA). I’ve trained in Japan, New Zealand, San Francisco and South Korea. I took a brief break when I got pregnant, but I’ll enter competitions again when my daughter will let me train more than three days a week, maybe when she is old enough to train with me. 

Now I am back in the United States. I help instruct the Stanford Grappling Club. I also attend Women’s Open Mat organized by Shawn Tamaribuchi and Lana Stefanac in the Bay Area, which is when an awesome group of women from different clubs all over the area get together to spar. I actively competed in BJJ from 2002 to 2007 in Japan, New Zealand and the United States.
2008
Video
3min and 20sec

OPP: Since 2006, your project Fight Therapy has included performances, installations, workshops and drawings that all make use of or reference various forms of organized sparring. What was the impetus for Fight Therapy?

MW: Many forms of physical activity are therapeutic, especially sports that provide a healthy release of built up tension and give you an adrenaline boost to work with. When I train regularly, I feel more productive, more ready to participate in the world. Whether it’s boxing, kickboxing, MMA or wrestling, there is a deep camaraderie and empathy that takes place between people who ritualistically grapple, punch or kick each other by mutual agreement in a safe environment. I want my training partners to come back and train with me the next day, so we can also take care of each other. The project began when I decided to take grappling out of the gym and put it  into an art context.

OPP: Can you talk about the tension between aggression and collaboration in your work?

MW: I am very interested in the tension between aggression and collaboration and the difference between aggression and violence. I come from hippie roots with a strong belief in empathy and non-violence. I would define a violent act as one in which an organism—plant, animal, human, organization, corporation or government—acts in a way that isn’t mutually understood or wanted by its counterpart(s). Aggression, on the other hand, is energy that can be channeled, matched and worked with in various productive ways.  Most of my work is based around interpersonal relationships and communication. As someone who has been in a relationship for thirteen years and has lived in various countries during this time, I’ve learned that miscommunications and disagreements are a natural part of the human experience. But if you statically butt heads with someone, no one goes anywhere. If you can move, turn, roll and transition from one position to another, it gets interesting. Relationship building depends on the flow of both verbal and non-verbal communication between “grappling partners.” Awkward moments and transitions offer opportunities for growth.
Art vs Craft
2008
Collaborative project with artist Andrew Tosiello (Art) and action weaver Travis Meinolf (Craft), who trained with me for an intense two months before having an unchoreographed match at California College of the Arts in San Francisco.

OPP: You've conducted over 100 Fight Therapy Sessions between 2006 and 2011. How are those different from the interactive performances Costume Fight Therapy and Spring Play (both 2009)?

MW: The different aspects of the project fall under the same conceptual framework, but in practice, the Fight Therapy Sessions do something that the performance can’t and vice versa.

The private Fight Therapy Sessions take place in peoples' homes; they are always between two people and without an audience. As the fight therapist, I act as a coach. This creates a personal experience for the participants to work it out on the mat. Anyone can invite someone to do a Fight Therapy Session for any reason. I’ve had friends, lovers, ex-lovers, family members, teachers and students, and even diplomats from different countries work with one another. I provide the mats, teach grappling techniques, offer guidance and create a safe context in which people can grapple with one another. I make it possible for the smaller or physically weaker person of the pair to keep the grappling conversation going. The private Fight Therapy Sessions remain an undocumented experience and live on in conversation, thus giving depth to the project as a whole. The interactive performances are more of a spectacle with multiple participants and an audience. They are run similarly to the private sessions: I do a warm-up, teach some techniques, and then facilitate grappling between people. The grappling itself, like in the private sessions, is not choreographed. Some performances have a theme. In Costume Fight Therapy, participants dressed up in costumes that represented identities they were grappling with. This provided a group experience to “discuss”—through the physical grappling—shared issues. In Spring Play I fought my husband, Dion, in front of a huge audience in South Korea. This performance was loosely choreographed because we were telling the story of our relationship through our fighting. We actually met through Japanese jiu-jitsu in California when Dion came to visit and trained at the same place I was training. He was a New Zealander living in Japan where he was also training in BJJ. I moved to Japan and began to train at the same club. We were both teaching English at the time. After moving countries several times together, we found ourselves living in South Korea where he was working as a New Zealand diplomat. I was working on being a diplomat’s wife and an artist with odd jobs. For this performance, I wore a dress and Dion wore a suit. Feedback from the audience made me realize that the performance was also about grappling with societal expectations about gender roles.
I See 3 Asses
2012
Mixed media on paper
A collaboration with the Chicago art going public who were invited to draw on, write on, and deface my paintings.
2 X 3 feet

OPP: Collaborative Combative (2012) was part of an exhibition at Error Plain 206 in Chicago. You invited the gallery going public to collaborate with you by defacing the previously completed Fight Therapy paintings and drawings. Was this sanctioned defacement of your drawings and paintings always part of the plan? Was it difficult to watch as the collaboration/defacement began?

MW: That show was initially going to be a Fight Therapy event. Before the show, the gallery owner was advised that inviting the public to participate in a fight-related event in his space could have some legal implications. So the curator, Sarah Nelson, and I discussed other options. I decided to bring a selection of drawings and paintings and invite another kind of aggressive participation. I felt that my drawings were missing the energy that existed in the participatory work. One of the aspects of that work that I enjoy is that I create a context for things to happen. I don’t have total control over the outcome. I wanted to do this with my drawings. I was curious to see to what extent the drawings would actually be defaced. Oddly enough, it was satisfying and surprisingly rewarding to see people draw and write on the drawings. I was happy that the audience engaged with them even when what was written and drawn wasn’t complimentary. Each piece is now it’s own conversation, and I think they are all more interesting and energetic works. After agreeing that participants could sign a waiver and that I would be very clear with people that I was not a licensed therapist, I also facilitated a few Fight Therapy Sessions in the space.

2012
Participatory Combat Drawing: documentation

OPP: Animal: Collaborative Combative Drawing at Southern Exposure in San Francisco (2012) combines the participatory events with drawing in a completely new way? Can you describe what happened?

MW: This event was both a workshop and a performance. I invited a handful of Bay Area artists. Some brought their own partners. Others allowed me to pair them up. Fourteen artists were asked to come prepared with an animal that they wanted to draw; this could be a power animal or a creature with which they identified. We started the evening with a physical warm up. I taught self-defense and movement techniques relevant to the activity that they would be doing. I gave each pair a 5 x 8 feet piece of paper. The public was invited to participate with smaller paper or watch. Each piece of paper was marked lightly down the middle. The artists had 45 minutes to draw the body of the animal on their side of the paper starting at the ass (or tail) and working towards the middle of the paper. They would meet in the middle at the shoulders of the animal and stop. When the whistle blew—marking the end of the 45 minutes—the objective was for each artist to draw the head of his or her animal on the partner’s side of the paper without letting the partner do the same. So it was a visual, physical and metaphorical clashing of heads. They had three minutes to push, pull and fight with each other to get their marks down on the paper. It turned into a very high energy evening with lots of movement and some maniacal laughter. The works created stayed up for the weekend and may still be shown at a future date.

OPP: Are there any new developments in your practice? Any upcoming public events?

MW: I have a few more Collaborative Combative Drawing events coming up in August 2013. First, on August 2nd at the Steynberg Gallery in San Luis Obispo, I will have a Collaborative Combative Drawing event with local artists that will be open to the public to witness. The works will remain up for the month at the gallery. Then, on August 10th, I will do a separate workshop at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art for people who where interested in trying Collaborative Combative Drawing. Anyone can sign up. The workshop will be from 1 to 3 pm. The work will remain on display for the rest of the month. Then in the summer of 2014, my work will be in Soft Muscle, curated by Adrienne Heloise, at Root Division in San Francisco.

Currently, I'm working on ways to push and explore the Collaborative Combative concept. I've been inviting Bay Area artists to do one-on-one Collaborative Combative Coffee (and drawing) Sessions with me. These sessions are similar to the other Collaborative Combative Drawing sessions, but each one is a more personal experience between me and another artist. We discuss our work and the challenges we face in our practices, ranging from time, space, material or financial limitations to mental blocks in our creative processes. We each come up with a visual representation for one of our artistic blocks and combat draw with each other.

I've also been presenting my work at various colleges and workshopping both Fight Therapy and Collaborative Combative Drawing with the students. This model is simultaneously a cross-disciplinary ice-breaker, a physical warm up and an intervention into everyday problem-solving in personal, professional and academic settings. I plan to find more and interesting contexts to explore this platform as an art practice. Stay tuned!

To see more of Melissa's work, please visit melissawyman.info.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and existential significance of participating in mediated culture in her embroidery, video, sculpture and collage works. She received her MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2006), where she will begin teaching in Spring 2013, and is currently a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT Residency in Chicago. Notable exhibitions include Losing Yourself in the 21st Century (Maryland Art Place, Baltimore), MP3 (The Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago), Please Stand By: Stacia Yeapanis + Readymade (Baang & Burne Contemporary, New York), Over and Over Again (BOLT Project Space, Chicago).


OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Emily Barletta

Untitled 40 (detail)
2013
Thread and paper
12.25 x 13.75 inches

EMILY BARLETTA’s accumulations of embroidery and crochet stitches mark the passage of time. Her recent embroideries on paper are formal abstractions that reveal a connection between organic growth and human mark-making, inviting the viewer to contemplate the relationship of the individual parts to the whole. Emily received her BFA from The Maryland Institute College of Art (2003). She is a Pollack-Krasner Foundation Grant recipient (2011) and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow in Crafts (2009). Recent exhibitions include Art/Sewn at the Ashville Art Museum and The Sum of the Parts at Maryland Art Place. Emily’s work is currently on view in Repetition & Ritual: New Sculpture in Fiber until May 25, 2013 at The Hudgens Center for the Arts (Deluth, Georgia). Emily lives in Brooklyn, New York.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Your recent embroideries on paper are compositionally simple and conceptually complex. They are formal abstractions made from one or two repeated gestures, but the accumulation of the stitched marks doesn’t only use repetition as a compositional element. It provides an opportunity to contemplate the nature of repetition. What does repetition mean to you?

Emily Barletta: In the recent works on paper, I have been thinking about building walls, piles and mountains. The repetitious stitch is a way for me to fill up a surface and create these imaginary structures, much in the same way they would be built in real space, by adding piece to piece. A stitch, whether it is embroidered or crocheted, equals a mark. If I accumulate enough marks of any kind I can grow a structure or build a pile. It takes time to physically pull a thread through paper or to do a crochet stitch, so this mark becomes the record of the space in time when this action occurred. With my early crochet work, the same piece by piece accumulation referenced cellular structures, molds and plants growing.

Untitled 31
2012
Thread and paper
18 x 24 inches

OPP: Why do you choose to embroider on paper instead of fabric?

EB: Over the last 10 years I’ve tried embroidering many times on fabric only to be frustrated with the result. I always wanted the fabric to be more solid and less flimsy. It was really difficult to have a thread tension I was happy with.

Sewing on paper changes the art from being an object to being a drawing or a painting. I went through a change in my thinking where I became concerned with how people display art in their homes. I looked at the art I own and display at home and thought about the sculptural and crocheted art I was making at the time. I had a hard time imagining it in someone’s home. I was also frustrated with how every single crocheted wall piece I made created it’s own dilemma of how to hang it. I wanted my work to be simpler and possibly more accessible. I wanted to be able to visualize my art on someone’s wall, but I also wanted to create something that a person would want to live with.

OPP: How does sewing on paper change the process? Is the composition preplanned or determined intuitively as you go?

EB:  I usually have a specific vision in mind when I start. Sometimes I lay a drawing on tracing paper over the real paper and poke holes through it, but the tracing paper is more of a guide than something I follow exactly. If there isn’t a drawing, then I usually fill out the paper with a base color as a guide and I pick out the colors before I start. I poke the holes as I go. I look and see where I want the stitch to be or the next several stitches and I poke the holes, sew through them and then repeat. When you sew on fabric you can just put the needle through, but if I did this with paper it would crinkle or bend, and the holes might tear. I have a strong need to keep the paper as pristine as possible.

Spill
2006
Crocheted yarn
33 x 50 x 2 inches

OPP: You mentioned your early crochet work, which is more sculptural and draws connections between our bodies and the environment. Pieces like Untitled (goiter) (2008) and Untitled (spleen) (2008) and Scabs (2008) reference the body, while other pieces reference organic forms like water, barnacles and moss. Why is crochet particularly suited to exploring organic forms? Any plans to go back to it?

EB: The form of crochet stitches is organic in nature. It makes soft curves and not hard lines. Again I had a problem with the softness of the material. Also, I was frustrated with the great amount of time it took to complete a crocheted work. For me, each piece of art leads to the next, but when I spent too much time on one, I would often lose the next idea before I would get to it. So there was a lack of flow and connectedness between my thinking and my studio practice. I have some ideas for large site-specific crocheted work I would like to make some day. If the opportunity presents itself, I may go back to it, but for now I am very satisfied with the speed and possibilities of sewing on paper.

OPP: How often is making your work grueling or monotonous? How often is it a delight?

EB: If the work feels grueling or monotonous, I give up and try something else. I am a firm believer that the act of making is supposed to be enjoyable. I think it is almost always a delight or, at the very least, relaxing.

OPP: I’ve heard a lot of viewers respond to embroidery work by commenting on the patience of the artist. Viewers who’ve never used these techniques can’t comprehend what the experience is like; they say they could never have done it. Do viewers comment on your patience? If so, is it a distraction from the content of your work or does it add to the content?

EB: I definitely get those comments about patience. I also get questions about how long it takes to make something. It can be distracting, but I think of the drawings as recordings of the passage of time, so it makes sense that other people would identify with that aspect of the work. However, the work doesn’t require patience because I love doing it.

Untitled 6
2011
Thread and paper
18 x 24 inches

OPP: There is an unfortunate but enduring cultural assumption that embroidery is women's work. This idea dates back to the Victorian era when a woman's value as a wife was symbolized by her embroidery skills, despite the fact that men and women actually embroidered alongside one another in guilds in earlier eras. Embroidery is increasingly more accepted as a significant form of art, but these gendered assumptions about materials and techniques still persist. I'm curious about your personal experience. Have you ever experienced this dismissive attitude about your chosen medium? Is it changing?

EB: The fact that I sew doesn’t come from any social, political or feminist agenda. It’s just what I enjoy doing. I have experienced this dismissive attitude. Usually it is not from inside the art world but rather from people who might not understand the art world. They relate what I’m doing to something they’ve seen in a craft context or they want to try to replicate my work as a craft project. I don’t know if there has been a shift, but I do hope to see more exhibits that hang paintings next to drawings next to something sewn. I already see that happening with several contemporary artists—Louise Bourgeois, Orly Genger, Ghada Amir, Ernesto Neto, and Sheila Hicks, to name a few—who have paved the way in the contemporary art world for fiber to be seen as an acceptable medium.

OPP: Last fall, you quit your day job to make art full-time, something most of us artists fantasize about. Congratulations! What’s hard about it that you didn’t expect? What's amazing about it? Any advice for artists who want to move in that direction?

EB: When I quit I knew it wasn’t going to be forever. I’m currently in the process of trying to find a job again. But it’s been the most positive art-making experience of my life. There honestly hasn’t been anything hard about it for me. I think it’s possible that some people could have trouble with the isolation of being alone all the time, but I really like being alone. It’s great to be able to finish work more quickly and really be present in the making process from one day to the next. My general advice is to be nice and take time to personally respond to any inquiry you get about your artwork. Networking, even if over the Internet, is really important. Also, apply for grants and shows. Do the research. You should spend as much time on the business end of running your studio as you do making art. 

To see more of Emily's work, please visit emilybarletta.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and existential significance of participating in mediated culture in her embroidery, video, sculpture and collage works. She received her MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2006), where she will begin teaching in Spring 2013, and is currently a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT Residency in Chicago. Notable exhibitions include Losing Yourself in the 21st Century (Maryland Art Place, Baltimore), MP3 (The Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago), Please Stand By: Stacia Yeapanis + Readymade (Baang & Burne Contemporary, New York), Over and Over Again (BOLT Project Space, Chicago).