An artist and teacher who's traveled both through history and around the physical world, Melissa Furness channels the great painters of past centuries in contemporary work — executed with a bit of humor. Sometimes her skillful canvases fit together in sculptural stacks and installations, sometimes they mesh in collaborations with other artists, suggesting a desire to continue learning beyond the classical constraints of the rectangular picture on a wall.
Furness puts together the pieces of her artistic modus operandi as she answers the Colorado Creatives questionnaire.
Westword: What (or who) is your creative muse?
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Melissa Furness: My creative muse is most definitely travel — the sense of making myself feel like a foreigner, more specifically. Most of the time I already feel a bit like a stranger within myself. It’s not always the most pleasant feeling, and so I take this sense of feeling odd and push it a bit further with my work in seeking out opportunities to live in a place where I clearly don’t belong and see what comes of that.
Which three people, dead or alive, would you like to invite to your next party, and why?
Frida Kahlo, for one. I am interested in her narrative of success and struggle, how she truly took life’s tragedies and allowed them to fuel her and her passions. Artimesia Gentileschi would be another. Of course, she is an amazing painter, also with great passion. I would love to hear her voice and observe her process. Yasmina Reza is one of my favorite playwrights.
What made you pick up a paintbrush in the first place?
I’ve always been making things, ever since I can remember. I had an especially difficult time during my pre-teens/early teen years, and so I used art to get me through. This also links to my interest in the Caravaggisti, as Medusa was quite a popular narrative of the time, and this was my given nickname by the bullies at school. So now I find myself using her and the idea of stones as something expressive in my work.
What’s the best thing about the local creative community in your field — and the worst?
The best thing about working as an artist here in Denver is that there is most definitely a thriving and supportive arts community that works at multiple, interconnected levels through which one can find lasting relationships. I see this through my own experiences, but also through those of my students emerging from the University of Colorado Denver. And outside of that, it is clear that if an artist makes good work, something can come of it no matter whether the person has formal art training or not.
The more difficult thing is perhaps the gentrification and commercialization that I see occurring in recent years, which has forced artists to change location. This also creates a barrier for those who wish to settle here with proper stability in housing and studio spaces — myself included. One income just doesn’t cut it, and it’s a bit sad.
How about globally?
The art world has transformed in a major way since I was working through my education. I remember all this talk in grad school about how we had to go to New York City to make it happen. That is clearly no longer the case. We are able to know and grow from experiences with an international art community in ways that just weren’t possible in the past. Certainly, this is all due to the Internet, more widespread communication, and the ability to get one’s work out there.
The difficult aspect is the growing government control over these global interactions online and with certain travel restrictions, as well as immigration issues. I have been keenly aware of the way that a government wishes to present itself to the outside world through its major cultural sites and collections, versus how it treats its local people with poor social services and restrictions on their behavior, work patterns and living. It is something that I study quite closely when I travel, and inspired a series of works I made involving trash.
Denver (or Colorado), love it or leave it? What keeps you here — or makes you want to leave?
I come from small-town Iowa, so Denver is pretty great for me. It’s a large city that also has something of a small-town feel. There are many things that keep me here: my daughter and her happiness with a good group of friends; enjoying my job at CU Denver and what I do in helping the careers of other emerging artists; working with K Contemporary Art, a gallery that is excited about and supportive of the work that I produce; and being involved in artist communities that work to make a difference — including Pink Progression, which was begun by Anna Kaye, and the Artnauts Collective, headed up by George Rivera. Oh, and there are those mountains — I was born in the flatlands.
What’s your dream project?
I’ve been pretty fortunate to participate in some fantastic projects already, so I’ll try not to push my luck! The opportunity to reside in Mexico City for ten weeks for the 2015 Biennial of the Americas was one, and the opportunity to participate in the Kochi Muziris Biennial in 2016, just following that. I would love to do something abroad again, as I find that rewarding projects for me are those that are discovered through turning myself into a “fish out of water.” I find that there is great discovery in what makes one uncomfortable in certain ways. I also encourage this in my students — push them to creative discovery by taking them in situations that push them out of their comfort zones.
Who is your favorite Colorado Creative?
There are so many artists working in Colorado that I know and are absolutely amazing! Perhaps I would say Margaret Neumann. I respect her history here and the visceral work that she produces, as well as her ability to tell it like it is. She is also fascinating to talk to and not afraid to say what she means.
What's on your agenda in the coming year?
I am currently working on a new collaborative piece with artist Rian Kerrane, which I am excited about and which will be shown at the Arvada Center this summer through Pink Progression. In the next year, I will also be showing a piece at the CVA with Artnauts, and at the same time will produce another experimental collaborative work with artist Susanne Mitchell across the street. It’s looking like a year of collaboration and experimentation for me, sure to guide me into some exciting new directions. I am additionally curating and coordinating a collaborative immersive work at Next Stage Gallery with my students. All of this will be mixed in with my most recent travels to Florence, which has inspired some new ideas. We’ll see what happens!
Who do you think will (or should) get noticed in the local arts community in the coming year?
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The nice thing is that lots of people will get noticed — another one of the good things about Denver. I’d say that I will leave the naming of names to someone other than myself. My goal is always to lift up the artists that I work to train, as well as those that I garner friendships with, so that a confidence and creative power grows within them. The result is something that inevitably gets noticed.
See work by Melissa Furness and other members of the UC Denver art faculty in I Cannot Heave My Heart Into My Mouth, through Wednesday, February 19, at the Emmanuel Gallery, 1205 Tenth Street Plaza on the Auraria campus.
A collaborative work between Furness and sculptor Rian Kerrane will be included in the exhibition Pink Progression: Collaborations, opening on Thursday, June 4, and running through August 23 at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard in Arvada. Learn more online at pinkprogression.wordpress.com.