FEMINIZING COMMUNAL SPACES: SCULPTURAL WORK OF MELANIE NEWCOMBE
Melanie Newcombe is a sculptor and artist who exhibits in the city of Los Angeles. Her work commands space; larger than life sculptural pieces layered with metal, wire and wood. On her social media accounts she features pleasant and often penetrating views into the Los Angeles art scene. I’ve formatted this interview to get her thoughts on her art background, how her work dialogues with the environment, and whether her art pieces overall are commentary on feminizing communal spaces originally dominated by masculine energy.
Kofi Forson: I’ve been drawn to the world you possess; what I see off and on through your social media pics. Not sure if this world possesses you, thinking about it in terms of you being on the receiving end; first because you seem to have this love affair with Los Angeles, or if you are in total control of this world.
Is your pattern for living and making art, passive, aggressive or both?
Melanie Newcombe: Hi Kofi! Thank you for taking the time to notice my art. This is an interesting question and not one I’ve ever considered. My pattern for living and working in Los Angeles is intuitive. I am a doer. When I see an opportunity that feels right, I don’t hesitate to jump on it. When I see an artwork to create in my imagination, I create it. I suppose you could call that both:)
I do so love this city! The heartbeat of Los Angeles suits my personality and work ethic well. I always say that if you stay in this city you are a diamond, because it tumbles you around until you glimmer and shine, but the tumbling is intense and not for the faint of heart.
Forson: Were you born and raised, Los Angeles? Tell me about the physical world you come from. What were your first experiences with touch, sense and smell?
Newcombe: I was born and raised in Minnesota. I was raised by a single mom who was a ranch manager until I was five, so I began my first years with a plethora of land and forest as well as animals all around. With fresh air, bitter cold winters, and hot and steamy summers the landscape and seasons alone were drama-drama everywhere! In the summer months the ranch we lived on had rodeos with clowns and games and crowds of people. I’ll never forget the countless parades and horse escapades my mom and I participated in my early years.
After I was five we moved to Minneapolis, where I became a city person, which I still am – I just love the concrete jungle with its music, dancing and art.
I moved to California when I was 22 after I graduated from undergrad. I’ve lived in various cities in Southern California and have lived in Los Angeles for the past six years.
Forson: I imagine your childhood was adventurous, however playful; your first attempts at making a mark with crayon or chalk.
Were you always interested in form and figure? What influenced you early on, as far as, sound, text, the image?
Newcombe: I have been making art since I was three years old. My mom recorded me drawing with chalk on a chalkboard with my blonde, curled pigtails bouncing on a reel to reel film. I was determined to get each line straight and each circle perfectly round. I was a perfectionist from the beginning and was perpetually trying to imitate the world around me. I drew my dogs, my cats, my guinea pig, my living room couch, the food on my plate; I just created all the time and made little worlds with modeling clay. I also enjoyed drawing and painting portraits of people I loved, like my grandparents.
Forson: How did you form your opinion on art; interpretation, composition? Did it come through schooling? What is your educational background?
Newcombe: I was creating art incessantly all through my childhood and teenage years. I didn’t take art classes until my freshman year of college. My undergrad degree is a Bachelor of Science in Art Education with an emphasis in Sculpture. I’ve studied at Art Center College of Design and participated in various workshops with renowned artists. I’ve worked closely with sculpture mentors and have just always been immersed in art and art making. My opinion of art has always been just to do it. If you do it, you understand it and appreciate it.
Forson: What was the epiphany that led you to make sculptures?
Newcombe: I was 21 and new to an art program as a transfer student in St. Paul, Minnesota. I was enrolled in an advanced Sculpture class where the professor, Stewart Luckman, was a master professor. He knew how to pull the best out of students. He was also very hard on us – like tough love – but also akin to the real world.
As part of my senior seminar program all students (there were twelve of us) had to meet with him individually once per week for a critique session. I thought I was a painter and painted with oils. I brought in my paintings for his critique week after week, and with each week his words were pretty brutal. Somehow I just wasn’t getting it. So one particular individual critique session I, as usual, brought in some paintings, he sat in silence looking at them, breathed deep and then turned to me and said, “Melanie, if you could do anything what would you do?” and I instantly blurted out, “Create life size female figure sculptures!” and he said, “Good, then do that. See you next week.” and he got up and walked out, leaving me alone with my paintings. My heart was racing and I had no idea how I would do what was in my imagination. But I did. I ambitiously created towering female figure outdoor sculptures in different poses rising up from the ground all 8 and 9 feet in height. By the end of that school year, I had created 5 of them for my Senior Seminar Thesis Exhibition. Ever since, I’ve chosen sculpture.
Forson: Who in general inspires your work; other artists, sculptors, friends, lovers, family, Los Angeles?
Newcombe: My muse you say? Honestly? My own story is my biggest muse. Each sculpture, though created from a different model, is really a self-portrait in many ways.
My relationship with my mom and the nine women I grew up with in my family are very important in how I see the world and the ideas that come to me. I know and understand the feminine story really well. Strong women leaders like Alison Saar, Jenelle Monáe, Erykah Badu, Frida Khalo, Hindi Zahra and many others have influenced me through their images and creations. My models inspire me. Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad inspire me – the interactions between the gods, goddesses and humans. And most recently – women astronauts inspire me. My closest friends inspire me both men and women have huge voices into my work through our time together – whether it is dancing, or sharing in lengthy conversations. It is through our dialogue that some of my best ideas have emerged.
Forson: You work from the female figure.
Is this a dialogue on the subject of gender, femininity, and or the importance of feminizing official spaces in art which always catered to masculine energy?
Newcombe: hmmmm… I just make what I see in my imagination. I personally believe in fraternity, egalitarian relationships, and a balance between masculine/feminine. I think the female rising is to also uplift men. Yes, men have dominated the art world globally and still do, but that is changing and that change is not just good for women, but also for men and humanity as a whole. My work primarily, to me, is celebrating women – the goddess – the galaxies within us – the star scape above us as within us as we are all connected. To summarize, I just create what I see, and let the art speak.
Forson: What is the dialogue between your work and communal spaces? How does your work reflect on the environment and the spaces that hold your work?
Newcombe: Right now most of my work is in Ojai as part of a wider collection of art. In that space they are interacting with the landscape of desert and mountains. I dreamed of living near mountains as a child, and now my art is living in the mountains. Dreams do come true!
Forson: What is the process for making each sculpture, in terms of gathering materials, layering, considering size of each piece and particular pose?
Newcombe: I begin by seeing a concept in my head – or a pose and I do a quick gesture sketch of it. I then choose a song to go with the idea. I ask a model (usually someone I know and trust and often a dancer). We meet for a drawing session and choose the pose. I play the song, explain the concept and she moves and I draw and when we have the pose that I want for the sculpture, I tell her to freeze in that position. The following sessions we meet I sculpt a Marquette all from observation (looking directly at the live model) in oil based clay about 30” in height which can then be cast in bronze or steel. After this step, I no longer work with the model and create once again from observation the life size sculpture by referencing the Marquette. I begin with hardware cloth, then chicken wire, then aluminum window screen all sewn in a patchwork to create the life size and sometimes larger than life size figures. The thing I love about my art is that it is see through in certain light and solid in others. It is like water which is important to me because I grew up on lakes and rivers my whole life and now I live by the ocean.
Forson: How have you dealt with the gallery system? What are basic requirements for getting exhibited in galleries?
Newcombe: I show when a prominent gallery or curator invites me to exhibit and I see that my art will look exquisite in the space. I have not signed on to one gallery, so currently, I’m free to show where I want.
Forson: Is the L.A. scene complementary to what you do; based on public and gallery acceptance and reaction to the work?
Newcombe: Oh absolutely! I’ve found that my work both exhibits and sells consistently in Los Angeles.
Forson: Describe the L.A. art crawl.
Besides having to drive from gallery to gallery, is the mood typical of any night of a gallery opening?
Newcombe: My studio is in Inglewood at 1019 West Art Studios, so we have the Inglewood Open Studios Tour once a year in November. It is more of an educational experience for the public to see the process of how we work as artists in our own spaces. It is noon to 5 each day, which makes for a family oriented event.
Forson: What is the mood in your studio currently, as far as plans for new work, exhibiting locally or perhaps beyond Los Angeles?
Newcombe: My studio mood is peaceful and curious. It evokes the imagination as I have various projects going at once, as well as completed works of art. I am surrounded by nude goddess sculptures so it feels very much like a stage with performers to me, like I’m creating my own ballet.
I’m sitting in my studio right now and as I look around, I see all the unfinished work that needs completion, and then I have a few finished pieces. It is nice for me to see both the beginning stages of a sculpture to the end around me as I work. It fills me with gratitude for enjoying the whole process of art making. My plans for the future for my pieces are mostly private sales and commissions. I’ve also been working on a larger scale proposal, which I am keeping a mystery for the moment, so stay tuned…[Cover Photo credit: Henry Kitchen. Haven, aluminum window screen, steel wire, wood, paint, life size, 2013]