Melissa Shaak became an artist, in her words, by accident. Following two decades of work as a senior administrator at Babson College, a chance encounter with a friend inspired her to explore artmaking. In the years since, Shaak has developed her creative practice into a full-time career, finding representation as a core artist at Fountain Street Fine Arts and producing a bright and dynamic oeuvre that continues to evolve with new media and techniques.
Her collaboration with Jamaal Eversley and poet Mary Pinard titled Seer ::::: Pentaptych will be on display in Beacon Gallery’s R.E.A.L. F.R.I.E.N.D.S. exhibition running September 4th through November 1st. The exhibition features Eversley’s joint work with twelve friends and fellow artists and reinforces the belief that a successful collaborative process strengthens communal bonds and generates bold creativity. Shaak will give two live painting demonstrations over the course of the exhibition—stay tuned for details! Ahead of the show, we talked with Melissa Shaak about her creative process, artwork, and history with Eversley.
What was your path to becoming an artist? How did you develop your artistic style, and how has it evolved over time?
My artmaking journey began a little over 10 years ago, by accident, or seemingly by accident. I love to tell the story—I was having dinner with a friend who described using paint colors in her work with hospice patients. She would take paints, paper and a brush, and work with people one-on-one. She would start by asking, “What color wants to go first?” Then, “What color wants to go next?” “Do the colors want to touch, mix, or stay separate?” She found that, even in the very last days and weeks of life, people often had clear preferences for colors—they resonated with something deep, true and profound. After that dinner conversation I went home and felt a powerful longing, hoping against hope that someone, somehow, would know to do that for me when I was dying. Waking up the next morning, I realized, wow, maybe I didn’t have to wait until I was dying! I called my friend, we got together, and she started me on my painting journey. I will be forever grateful for that.
Since then, I have worked in acrylics, on paper, in an abstract, intuitive, trial-and-error process. I have taken numerous courses with Adria Arch, starting with making monotypes on a gel plate, a highly accessible and relatively speedy process which encourages endless experimentation and discovery. My next step was a course at Tufts SMFA with Robert Siegelman, which I then repeated a number of times. While classified as a drawing course, in Bob’s framework anything can count as drawing. He encouraged my inclinations to transform what had started as 2D pieces into 3D, and to add performative elements. I think of this as a process of the imagination seeking and finding form, a concept explored by poet Wallace Stevens.
What inspires your work, and how do you land on your subject matter? Do you have any particular routines to motivate your creativity?
I think for me the subject matter and creative inspirations arise when I’m in there, doing the work. I’m reminded of Corita Kent’s rule — “The only rule is work. If you work, it will lead to something.”
How did you first connect with Jamaal, and how have you collaborated since?
I got to know Jamaal when he was a student and I was an administrator at Babson College. At the time he was already involved with the arts – especially visual arts and theatre – but it was before I knew that I had any interest in artmaking. We reconnected a couple of years ago at the reception for his two-person art exhibition at the Hollister Gallery at Babson – and voilà – we started talking about art and have been talking about it ever since. Jamaal is a treasured friend—always interested, supportive and deeply thoughtful—and a collaborator par excellence. Our joint work “Seer ::::: Pentaptych” is actually a four-person collaborative creation. It involves painting, sculpture and poetry – fantastical elements all – but the mythical pink creature at the very heart of the piece is all Jamaal. It’s a great metaphor for how his boldness draws us, his circle of friends, into his large and hopeful vision.
What projects are you working on right now, and what would you like to accomplish in the near (or distant) future?
This year I started experimenting in video and stop motion animation. This surprising turn was inspired by my paintings of seven oddly archetypal figures, who “decided” they wanted to come off the wall. I worked with a signmaker to turn them into cutout figures, and then videoed them moving in time and space. Working in time-based media has opened up a whole new world, and I can’t wait to see where it goes!
Any art, book, movie, recipe, media, etc. recommendations, or just anything you’ve been particularly enjoying recently?
In contemplating your question, I can’t stop thinking about “Exquisite Corps” (Mitchell Rose, 2016), a video short that circulated widely on social media early in the pandemic. This inspiring piece involves forty-two choreographers, each of whom created and danced a short segment. The genius of it is in the transitions – each dancer starts in the position that the prior dancer ended with. The title is a play on “exquisite corpse,” a collective drawing or writing method. It reflects our deep desire to connect, to be part of something larger than ourselves. The beauty is in the join – where and how each artist hands off their creation to the next, trusting that it will be honored as a precious gift—very much like in Real F.R.I.E.N.D.S.
You can find Melissa Shaak’s work on Instagram @melissajshaak and her website, www.melissashaak.net/.