Melanie Norris: Discovering Beauty

In collaboration with Jesse Brass, Making Art (video)

Melanie Norris is a Johnson City native who now lives and works in Asheville, North Carolina. She studied at East Tennessee State University, graduating in 2011. She currently has a studio in whiteSPACE gallery of the Wedge Studios in the River Arts District of Asheville


What sets mankind apart is the broad range of emotions that flesh out their personality; the things that can neither be seen nor described, only felt. In my paintings, I do not strive for a likeness in a technical portrait sense. I try to lay hold of their inner being, the soul that exists within the flesh. I seek to show how a body isn’t existence, but simply a vessel. Physical looks and material things are superfluous signifiers of our life. They are easy to understand and define, therefore the materials often replace the true person. I pare down environment and objects from my compositions, leaving a bare being. I use watercolor at times because it naturally reflects the understated transience of our bodies. By nature, it is fragile and easily lost. With that, however, comes great freedom. Pigment can be fed water and with little guidance makes its own path. In contrast, a great boldness comes from the confident strokes of oil paint, building into a viscerality that sends the subject into the room with the viewer. Layers of this create a unique language for every painting.

In my portraits, I want to go deeper, search out the soul by sitting and having a conversation with my subjects, taking photographs and soaking in their presence. I then paint from the photographs, focusing on their skin and expression, editing out clothes, backgrounds, objects that tether the subject to their material environment. I try to find a series of paintings that are evocative of the tone of our conversation. Irish painter Cian McLoughlin takes a similar approach to his portraits. His Camden Town Aisling Project, a series of portraits of homeless men with whom he had established relationships, has influenced my familiar and psychological approach to painting. Similarly, Lucien Freud and Jenny Saville’s boldly physical and non-idealized treatment of their subjects is reflected in my work as well. In this way, my cruelty fuels my art. The people I’m most drawn to paint are the ones most uncomfortable in front of a gaze or a camera. A very raw honesty comes from their discomfort. I crave that in every painting. Their faces, their hands reflect the unease in my unmasking of them. The face they use for the world disintegrates after a few minutes, fading into their natural and slight anxiety. And therein lies the portrait. The true beauty of humans lies in their bared vulnerability and characteristic flaws.


Who are the figures in your paintings? Do you paint from references or memory? Tell us about the inspiration behind your work. 

Currently, the figures in my paintings are vehicles for my emotions or concepts I think are interesting and want to explore abstractly. The face/figure provides a fascinating structure through which I can study ideas. The eyes, nose, lips, etc are a recognizable structure and a way to organize the plane. For example, if I paint face, shoulders – I can continue the thought with abstract marks, but it will still resemble something. I’m not comfortable with pure abstraction, so the faces are a really interesting basis. I start every painting with a face and then see how far I can throw it before I have to reel it back in, artistically speaking.

I do work from photographs, typically of family or acquaintances or myself. 

“My current style uses one person to capture one aspect of what many, many people are feeling. I want people to personally relate to the work, have a visceral response, not just an abstract appreciation.”
— Melanie Norris
Hila, Orange Hair_edited-1.jpg

What feelings or emotion do you hope the viewer experiences when looking at your work? 

Here’s the perfect set-up: people would first view my paintings from a distance, like from across a room, and would feel compelled to look closer. I want them to think, “Oh this is a style I haven’t seen before.” And they’re drawn in. As they walk toward the painting and come to a stop in front of it, there’s the mid-range: they can take in all of the materials, the marks, the figure that is composed of hundreds of transparent watercolor layers and then marked up, made fleshy with the oil bar. This is the stage where I want them to feel the process, the meditation of the watercolor and the fervor of the oil bar and the mania of the Sketch Marks (title idea?). 

The third and most intimate level is when they peer in, nose inches away from the canvas, consciously pinning hands down at their sides so they don’t touch it. They try to read the notes I scribbled when I first started drawing, months ago. They see the hardened sludge of what was a really juicy oil bar with the wrapper still attached that is just stuck into the painted beard of the painted man.

I want a person to feel my studio when they look at a painting. To feel it flat on the floor with me walking in circles around, armed with a bucket of gesso, trying to reconcile how I’m feeling with what I’m looking at.


What kind of things do you think about when making your paintings?

On a meaningful day, I think about current events. On a selfish day, I think about whatever pissed me off that week. Insecure day, I think about how many people will think this painting is cool. On a sunny day, I think about all the good things. If it's an angry day, I think about destroying everything in the studio with a big purple oil bar (these are good days to harness and channel). Sketching day, I think about each line. On a radio day, I think about the radio.

What inspired your current style. Do you feel your work has evolved over the past few years? If so, how?

Yes! Hallelujah my work has evolved plenty over the years. The style in the Making Art film is still pretty much the basis for what I’m doing now. At that time, I was establishing my own way of painting faces in watercolor. I was very empathetic at the time, really studying the subject, trying to capture their soul in my paintings. There remains an element of that in my current work, but I wanted to push it further, not just focus on one person, but on people. How it feels to be living here and now. I think this is very important, especially now.

My current style uses one person to capture one aspect of what many, many people are feeling. I want people to personally relate to the work, have a visceral response, not just an abstract appreciation.


Tell us what’s happening in your studio right now. 

I’m trying to figure out how to best insulate it! I just built a studio on my property in rural North Carolina, and winter’s coming. I’m also working on some commissions and prepping for Brooklyn in November where I’ll show some work at The Other Art Fair. Trying to figure the best way to package and waterproof a 6-foot painting to strap on top of my car to drive to Brooklyn. I heartily wish that were a joke.

If you could make anything regardless of resources or logistics, what would it be? 

A project I’ve had stewing for about 2 years with a working title “Both Flesh and Not” after the David Foster Wallace essay. Where I build (with the help of my dad) a mechanical arm that somehow attaches to my arm and mimics the movement of my hand so that as I’m painting a portrait, it is next to me making the “same” marks as interpreted by the mechanics, painting its own portrait. I’m very curious to see what this would look like. 

And then the step further would be an apparatus that would hold me suspended over my paintings that are lying flat on the floor. So I would be parallel over the canvas, able to maneuver myself to whichever quadrant by means of some hulking pulley system. Ideally all of this would be non-prohibitively bulky. I want to feel it there, working, hear the sounds of it moving or squeaking. I don’t like how streamlined everything has to be now. I want to feel it.

So, any inventors out there??

Tell us about your favorite ways to unwind and get inspired. 

Music, big time. Bike rides are great to get out ants in pants. 

What is the best advice you have ever received?

My favorite painter from when I was in college, Cian McLoughlin, actually responded to my whiny undergrad email that bemoaned how I was ever going to “Make It” in the “Art World” and did he please have any advice? With the simple logic that he said had been passed onto him:  If you’re meant to be an artist, you will be.

I still tell myself that probably every week.