Melinda Rosenberg’s wooden sculptures often include an organic piece, like a branch, that cuts against a more rigid form constructed from boards. No source of wood is off limit. Skeletal Christmas tree trunks, weathered barn wood, and traditional lumber are all stowed away in her studio space. Pristine or weathered, she highlights the inherent nature of the wood – often with layers of stain and careful sanding. She has amassed a workshop full of tools and is constantly learning new methods to create her forms. Although Melinda works predominantly in wood, her influences are far-reaching.
A large selection of Melinda’s “boat” forms will be on display for Remnants at the Urban Arts Space. She is also represented by the Sherrie Gallerie locally, as well as the CIRCA Gallery in Minneapolis, Minnesota and the Haen Gallery in Asheville, North Carolina. I met up with Melinda at her studio. Tagging along was her furry sidekick, Maggie who really sunk her teeth into the material – or at least the scraps on the floor.
You started working with wood whole-heartedly while getting your MFA at Ohio State. What was the pivotal project or moment that sparked your interest?
It was the first thing I did there. I was really excited by the artist Ree Morton. I had just come back from New York City and she had an exhibition at the New Museum. She brought play and humor [to her work.] In one piece (image here), she had made a tabletop with just a piece of plywood and some sticks. It looked very handmade. Then she had little sections of tree and put a rock on it at different heights. Then on the wall, she had diagrams that were very carefully drawn of each little vignette. I was excited because it was a bridge between the 2D and the 3D, but it was also her pleasure. She was showing you how carefully she had observed this thing. That is what we do on the beach, we collect rocks. It took something very ordinary and it made me feel like I was going to the beach with her. It was a fun, intimate thing.
I was all inspired by her, so I just started right away doing things in wood that I would then paint or draw. I would find a log and make it into a ballerina by putting a lot of tutu stuff on it. I painted the wood grain to make it more evident – with neon and bright colors. I then banded it off, sort of like it was an altar. I was inspired by [Ree Mortin]’s idea, but I had gone crazy with it.
You combine formalist elements like shape with organic wood pieces. Does a series start with the organic pieces or a more geometric framework?
It starts with the framework. I will set something up. With the X’s it was an exploration of more painterly issues, but also optical and material issues. I was trying to directly solve what can happen as a painter dealing with wood in all of its multi-faceted aspects. With the boat forms, I was more inspired by the desire to reintroduce something more organic into the geometric and really make a deal of it, like the Cha-shitsu Architecture [of Japanese tea houses]. When I write about it, I talk about how the organic can be a metaphor for the more natural side of human life and the geometric the more rational side. I think about that dichotomy and I want to try to bring things into balance that may not be so in harmony in my life – your desires against what you know you should do.
Is there a reason these boat forms have a negative space framing the organic item running through the center?
I was thinking about many things at the same time. I was thinking about male, female – the stick is phallic and the opening is vaginal. The stick is natural and the surrounding form is man made. I wanted to give space so that the natural object has room to be observed and appreciated. So there is definitely a reason why there is space. I was really playing around with how thin to get the sticks on the sides. When you go really thin, what will that do to it? Playing around with all that stuff kind of formally, but also seeing how it made it feel when it’s done.
I know you plan to hang your boat series in a configuration for Remnants. Do you have the arrangement in mind from the outset, or is it more a response to the space when you install?
That part definitely comes to play in it, but it’s not pre-planned. In the beginning, it is enough to wrap my head around what I am going to do with a stick and a piece of wood. Every time that I put on a show, I spend a lot of time doing thinking about how is it going to be arranged, how it is going to fit in the space and what the relationship between objects are going to be, both in size and style. By working in a series, I want to point out differences and subtleties in the material.
Wood isn’t like other materials. It has a growth history. Can you speak to that?
It is one of the reasons I love wood. The growth history seen in the wood grain and how wood decays is very important. When my daughter was three, it was fall and in our backyard there are tons of trees and there were leaves everywhere. She ran out to this pile of leaves and picked up a leaf and screamed, “Mommy, I found a leaf.” She was pure joy that she had found this leaf. I think that’s it. She had her finger on the pulse of life to appreciate something like that so much. With wood, it is my way to get at the pulse of life. I want to be able to put my finger on something that is alive. It is metaphorically, for me, the whole great life thing that we’re a part of.
Your influences range from such disparate examples as minimalist painting to Japanese architecture to conceptual photography. How do these synthesize in your work?
When digesting influences, I think it’s really important to both be respectful of the source and its original intent and context, but it’s also important to let go of that. Maybe I am too accommodating as a person, but I feel like if we are going to progress as a culture we have to be able to communicate visually. I’m not Japanese, but I’m really excited about Cha-shitsu Architecture, which I have been for years. I could tell you stories about this architecture. It’s grand. They do optical stuff that is designed to bring you into the present moment. I am inspired by the intent and the effect of those moves. I think we should use them intelligently to move forward. We should learn from them.
I take what I get excited about and find it in my work. It’s not what it looks like, it’s what it does to me. When I’m going through the museum I’m not seeing 99% of it. The things that I see are the things that I need to see. That’s how we work. You learn what your antennas are up for. I think the information comes in because we’re ready for it to come in.
In showing me a new system to cradle your works-in-progress you mentioned working with Cliff. Who is Cliff?
I got a professional development grant from the Greater Columbus Arts Council to work with Cliff Lewis, a woodworker, to help me problem solve throughout this past year. It has been transformative. I encourage all you guys to apply for a professional development grant. He has provided a plethora of ideas that have enabled me to do more things.
Do you have any words of encouragement for other artists?
I have been on an amazing roll for the last five years or so. But I want to recognize for all those artists that aren’t on an amazing roll, that I have gone through terrible dry spells where it has been drudgery – making bad art, after bad art, after bad art. So just hang in there. Have faith.
What broke you free from the drudgery? Time?
I started working on this series before I retired, so it’s not only time. It was also finding something that was really exciting. Every day is a pleasure. I feel so blessed to have the time and the space and the ideas. It’s really been amazing. I wake up all excited to work.
Visit melindarosenberg.com to view more of Melinda’s portfolio.