Saturday, August 23, 2008

Interview with Melissa (Studio Virgo)

I have a friend who is moving cross-country to become part of an artist community. It was, at least initially, a pipe dream. It is now becoming real as she sells off her stuff this weekend and gets ready to leave. By next Sunday, she will be on her way to parts, largely, unknown.

I sit here writing this excited for her and mildly jealous of her resolve to make something happen with her art. At the very least this change--and the process of making a fairly significant decision--has rekindled her artistic fervor. She knows there will be challenges and is going anyway. This move, for her, is a mixture of adventure, destiny and necessity: something she needs and wants to do. I see it as courageous.

I have often thought how slow we are, as humans, to change--even if the change we need has the potential of making us stronger or safer or healthier or more authentically us. Personally, I go kicking and screaming through change. I am grateful for lessons learned after a period of transition, but I go kicking and screaming nonetheless.

Sometimes, like in my friend's case, we can take an active part in bringing about change. Sometimes, life takes over, "helps" us out...knocks us for a loop...shakes us up in unexpected ways...throws us in the mirky, squishy, messy realm of the dark unknown. Here, we have a divine opportunity, should we choose to take it, to learn about ourselves, the human condition and redefine how we move through the world. Making that choice to move forward even when we can barely see the next step, even when we have lost our sense of self or direction, takes its own kind of courage.

I had the great fortune, recently, to meet Melissa, an artist on Etsy, and interview her for this project. Hers is a story both moving and difficult to tell. It is one of losing and then redefining creative energy. It is one of courage and hope. "It is something," Melissa tells me, "that I think is really important to share with other creative moms since so many women go through it." I agree.

I am honored to bring you this interview with Melissa of Studio Virgo.

"My artwork," says Melissa, "has always been something that I look at on two levels. First, the purely formal, which is about the object or image I am trying to capture. Second, the personal aspect; the things that compel me to a particular image in the first place, and whatever personal allegory or iconography the work has for me at the time. My hope is that by filtering real things through my expressive lens, some element of that meaning and emotion I was processing as I made the work comes through to the viewer."

"I was trained," Melissa continues, "as a painter (oils) and printmaker (primarily etching), but currently work in acrylic, gouache, and mixed media. I stopped making art altogether when I started graduate school for Arts Administration." She took up art again shortly before becoming pregnant with her daughter in 2004. "I found that small paper collages were a great way to "play" -- creating images and reacquainting myself with color and composition without putting pressure on myself to make work I considered "good enough." Paper collage was also the perfect medium for working with limited space and time. The joy of mixed media has stayed with me as I have become more serious about my work again, and introduced bright colors and a lot more light into my work."

I have always found artwork to be a way to process and understand my own inner life," Melissa continues. "It is very much a process of making meaning. Creating an image can be both active and cathartic, and meditative. But the need for me to create has come into play in my life in the last few years in a way I never imagined. After the birth of my daughter in 2005, I began to suffer from postpartum depression. As a person who has always excelled at everything I have taken on, I was bewildered, confused, and ashamed by the complete devastation of my very self in the wake of both bringing my wonderful daughter into the world and the geographic relocation our family underwent shortly thereafter."

"I think it's really hard," Melissa continues, "to convey true Depression to someone who has never experienced it. I, myself, used to really pooh-pooh it. I guess I struggle with how to explain the fact that "big-D" Depression and Postpartum depression are not just feeling blue, a little sad, but feeling completely hopeless, not wanting to exist. Postpartum depression is a medical condition, but it doesn't get treated because it feels like a personal failing."

"I did everything I was supposed to do. I ate right, exercised. I got out for walks, joined groups, met people, socialized. But it didn't stop the walls from closing in on me; the ache of missing friends and family, the irrational anger and frustration, the bouts of crying, the feeling of being trapped, of being not me, of being a terrible mother. It's so hard to admit, when you have this beautiful baby and everyone is smiling at her, that things are not OK, that you can't get over it on your own."

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website, Women's Health, perinatal depression is "one of the most common complications during and after pregnancy." It is not clear how many women are affected by perinatal and postpartum depression. Researchers believe rapid hormonal changes occurring in a woman's body during and after child birth may trigger symptoms of depression. Sometimes, it is difficult, at first, to distinguish between normal, transitional feelings that develop as a result of being pregnant and then having the baby (such profound physical, psychological and emotional changes), and a deeper, longer lasting depression that occurs when these feelings do not subside over time.

For Melissa, the depression happened gradually, rather than all at once. "It was like I went for a walk in the snow and it got deeper and deeper until I was hip-deep in drifts, struggling to move. This isn't 'Gee, I'm a little grumpy about work.' This is the physical feeling of not being able to move or summon the energy to do every day tasks. The inability to focus thoughts, see past tomorrow, or find any hopeful thought in your life. The color drains out of everything, obsessive thoughts take over, and numbness sets in. You just don't want to BE."

Other factors that may contribute to postpartum depression include feeling tired, overwhelmed, stressed by changes in work and home routines, loss of identity and loss of free time. Postpartum depression brings to those who suffer from it a profound sense of loneliness. Many women also experience panic attacks, anxiety and obsessive thoughts about something bad happening to the baby. "A lot of us who have been through it," Melissa confides, "still struggle with the guilt ridden idea that it seems such a self-centered type of problem when so many other people on this planet are coping with such terrible circumstances on a day-to-day basis."

These societal pressures and feelings of embarrassment, guilt or shame sometimes prevent women from admitting they are feeling depressed at a time they are "supposed" to be feeling happy. "I still find myself trying to grasp why, and having a hard time accepting that there isn't necessarily any answer to that and, once again, that it isn't some mark of failure on my part."

It is important to repeat, here, that perinatal and postpartum depression "can happen to any woman and does not make the person a "bad" or "not together" mom." (Women's Health) Postpartum depression is a real and treatable occurrence that affects a woman's ability to feel connected to herself and her baby. Reaching out to family members and friends, and seeking help through doctors, counselors, and/or other support groups can help a woman with perinatal/postpartum depression learn ways to understand and cope with its often debilitating effects.

For Melissa, complete recovery has been a long process. "It has only been in the last year that I have realized what an important role my art-making has in my life. As I get to know myself as a mother and try to find a new path, regaining competence as an artist and having a creative outlet has given me back a sense of purpose, of individual identity, and re-sparked my interest in a creative career." Melissa has yet to decide whether she will focus totally on being an artist or pursue a career in arts administration. "This process has also given me endless inspiration in creating: with my current work exploring my constantly shifting relationship with my child, the new social networks that have formed around motherhood, as well as my conflicting feelings about gender, domesticity, and what really brings me joy and centering in life."

"I think what I read or listen to tends to fuel what is already inside of me; helps me make intellectual connections among disparate things. My taste in movies, music, and literature tend to be very eclectic. Depending on my mood I might listen to anything from Yo Yo Ma to the Ramones. I just love the process of discovery where one idea leads you to another and it all comes full circle, if that makes any sense. I am also such a visual person that really just looking at things, taking it all in, really excites me. Everything from the patterns on fabric in new clothing at the store, to art magazines, to great web design, to the negative space between a building and a tree. I just love looking. I have spent some time learning about and working in graphic design, and I would say that that has been a huge influence on how I approach the formal aspects of my work now."

As to what shoes Melissa wears? "Here again my tastes can be so eclectic as to almost be bipolar...on the one hand, being on the short side I really enjoy a sexy pair of heels to make me feel good. On the other hand, a pair of Doc Martens makes me feel powerful in a more physical way: just sturdy, no-nonsense, and solid."

You may find out more about Melissa's life and works at her website, shop and personal blog.

Melissa is a member of the following groups:

Visual Artists Street Team
The InCrowd: Indiana's Etsy Street Team


Mystic Silks said...

WOW! Wonderful sharing! Powerful!
Back in the 1960's, you just coped with this sort of depression: I had 4 babies , so I know what you are speaking of.
So glad you are feeling more of life's energy--God Bless,
Mystic Silks

Jean Levert Hood said...

This left me so moved. What a wonderful interview, Janyce. Melissa is an inspiring person.

Marionette said...

Wonderful article by Janyce!
Your story will definitely help others! Let your art heal you! Your work is beautiful! God Bless You for sharing this with us!

P.S. Love the shoes pic!