Melonie Steffes, 48, learned by doing. And by reading library books about practice and process. And by finding other makers to mentor her. Her paintings are filled with bears, insects, mushrooms, and other woodland influences that describe the world of the body and mind in which she lives. In both subject and presentation, Steffes’s paintings communicate an otherworldliness, a Magical Realism that charms. Like all enchanments, there’s a lot more pulsing around beneath the surface. Steffes lives in Thompsonville, Michigan. This interview took place in March 2022. It was conducted by Sarah Bearup-Neal, GAAC Gallery Manager, and edited for clarity.
Describe the medium in which you work.
I mostly work in oil on canvas. I do do other things — occasionally I do watercolors, I’ve been thinking about getting back into them. Also, I do some sculpture, which I’m going to return to this summer. It’s better to do it outside because I use a lot of rusty metal. In the summertime I move everything out to my porch. I’d rather be outside in the natural light, with the bugs.
What draws you to oil painting?
I like that it doesn’t dry quickly. I have time to move the paint around. I like the way the paint feels, that I can make it thick or thin.
Did you receive any formal training in visual art?
My first year-and-a-half in high school, I went to a special program — I was living down in Florida then. I had extra art classes. But that’s it. After that I moved up here, and it has been mentors, and library books, and practice.[NOTE: Melonie attended Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg, Florida, in the late 1980, and was enrolled in the school’s artistically talented program.]
How did your formal training affect your development as a creative practitioner? Do you consider the training you got in high school “formal?”
It was really only touching on the basics. I wasn’t there very long. I didn’t get to the classes about oil paint or watercolors. There was a lot of design, a lot of drawing and printmaking. I really feel I learned so much more after I was gone.
Talk about that.
When I was in school I was learning some rudimentary things, but I wasn’t learning a lot that I didn’t already know. After I left and I was off on my own, there were a few years when I wasn’t doing a whole lot of art; it was just wanting to. When I was able to come back to it, at first I was getting books out of the library — straightforward how-to books, and poring over technique. I still do this today. I love to look at peoples’ processes, start-to-finish. I find it super inspiring. So, today, I’ll still go get books, or now, you can look on the internet. I love that. And then, I met Dan Oberschulte. He’s the one who got me painting in oil. I wasn’t using oils. I was using acrylics, and watercolors. He kept saying,”Here, try these,” and he gave me some [paints] he wasn’t using. I loved it once I got going with it. And, observing him — we used to paint a lot together quite a bit. When I say “mentor,” I mean that kind of thing: Looking at what he looks at, [specifically] the Impressionists. I love the texture and the color — I don’t paint that way myself; but I do find them very inspiring. They say that the best way to learn a language is through immersion. It’s more like that.
Describe your studio/work space.
“Disaster zone.” I needed to have a room separate from the rest of the house so I could step out, and shut the door, and leave it as it is, and nobody else has to deal with it. It’s filled from floor-to-ceiling with all the different things I do: I also make clothes, I’ve got sculpture things, I’ve got painting things, I’ve got tons of books, and then I have a million knick knack and fetishes everywhere. I think it [measures] roughly 12 feet x 10 feet.
You called your studio a “disaster zone.” What’s the disaster?
The chaos of my brain. It’s a mess. It’s cluttered. There’s stuff going on every direction you look. I’ve been in peoples’ studios that are so nice and neat, and I think why can’t I be that way? I clean it up once a year, and it just blows up right behind me. I don’t have time to be cleaning. I make stuff. It’s a sacred disaster zone. It makes sense to me, but somebody else might be horrified, and wonder how I get anything done in there.
How does your studio space facilitate your work? Or, affect your work?
The messy studio that we’ve been talking about is the Winter studio. The head space is very different when I move out to the porch, and its open, and the breeze is blowing, and birds are flying around me, and the butterflies and wasps — it’s completely different. When I’m indoors and enclosed with artificial light, I’m deeper in my head, less connected to what’s around me — maybe that’s why I have so many fetishes around me, collected from summer.
The natural world is an intrinsic part of the story in your paintings. It would make sense that being outside you might feel more connected to your work.
For sure. The more that I’ve been painting outdoors, the more that [the natural world] seeps in. Indoors, its a different vibe. Right now I’m at the end of Winter, and I need some ideas for an upcoming show [at Higher Art Gallery July 6-August 6], and I’m having a really hard time. There’s not naturally coming in.
If being outside and having a direct connection to the natural world feeds your work, how do you override the fact being inside during the cold weather months cuts you off from that?
I cross county ski a lot. I still get outside, but most things are sleeping. I probably should be sleeping, too, but being human, I’m trying to work. I still try to be out there, at least for a little while. The first few paintings I’ve gotten done for this upcoming show were ideas I already had going into Winter, and I wrote things down. They were already there. I wasn’t drawing off now. I was drawing off things I had in my head. I listen to stories a lot in winter. That’s a helpful thing. I listen to them while I’m painting, and that gets my mind turning.
I always think of your paintings as full of greenery, and Spring, and light, and warmth. Your paintings don’t reflect the winter world. True?
I don’t do tons of them. I was just thinking that today I hadn’t painted any Winter scenes. At the end of Winter, I don’t know if I want to do more black and white. I want to do color. This is a good example of where my mind goes more in Winter. It’s a big painting of a woman holding open her chest, and all these frogs are pouring out. That’s definitely a Winter painting. The ones I come up with in the Winter are way more interior, like that.
Talk about all the elements of the natural world you bring into your paintings.[Depicting] the natural world isn’t all I do. Though these days, it’s definitely more and more, but I don’t like to get too boxed in. I like to paint what’s around me. For a lot of people that would be a landscape. The paintings are really autobiographical, but it comes out in these crazy ways. I spent my summer immersed in my yard, and my gardens. Every year more so in certain places I like to go to in the forest. I rarely design something ahead of time. I can tell you this really crazy story about one of my recent paintings, with this bear.
I have a place I like to go to in the Spring and Summer, in the middle of a creek. I call it my island because it’s literally in the middle of this creek, a mound and an old tree growing out of it. It’s also a place bears go. I’ve seen their track. I’ve never actually seen the bear. I like to go there, and take off my shoes, and I walk in the creek in the mud, and I’ve literally stood in the bear’s tracks in the mud. When I’m in a place like that, I’ll be sitting there, and see a vision in my head. When I see that, I’ll go home and sketch out what I saw in my mind. I’ll try to put reference materials to help me paint it. I have to look at things to make it look as real as I want it to look. A lot of my paintings come from being out there. There’s a certain meditative place when I’m relaxed, and I’m really present. I found this wasp’s nest out there one time, that a bear had taken down from a tree. You could see the claw marks on one side, and there was only half a nest. This is the weird story: If fit perfectly over my face, and there was one hole I could see through. I sat with it like that — I could still smell the bear — losing myself out there.
Magical Realism is the term that comes to mind when I look at your work.
Twenty years ago, a friend said, “What you do is Magical Realism.” I’d never heard the term. He said it was literary. Magical Realism, I think that sums it up. A long time ago, when I was 14, I went to a Renaissance festival, and there was a painter there. He did oil paintings of unicorns and stuff, but they were very realistic. He said something that always stuck in the back of my brain: If you want to do fantastical things, and grab people, do them in as realistic a way as you can. I think that really affected me. Even if I try to be looser, I end up being realistic with the whacky, fantastical world in my head.
Realism suggests to the viewer that what they’re seeing on the canvas actually is. So, you’re playing a trick with people.
Another person told me she thought my painting are very shamanic. Which I thought was interesting. Sometimes they feel like that to me. It feels like a journey. So when an artist creates something, especially something that’s realistic enough the viewer almost believes it, isn’t that magic? Bridging two worlds? It’s telling a good story. It may have never happened, but you draw the person in, and then they have feelings, and emotions, and, maybe, challenging thoughts. That’s a good thing artists do.
What prompts the beginning of a project or composition?
In the best way, in my favorite way, it’s that lighting bolt of vision in my head. And, words can do it. Sometimes I’ll hear a phrase incorrectly. If I’m listening to a story or someone is talking, I hear it incorrectly, but what I hear is more interesting, and I visualize it, [and think] that would be an amazing painting. A nugget. I’ll write them down. I have a million little pieces of scraps of paper, and napkins that have these inspiring phrases on them. I even have things written on the wall in my studio. If I hear or think of it, and I’m right there, I’ll grab the charcoal and I write it on the wall.
How much pre-planning do you do in advance of beginning a new project or composition?
There can be quite a lot of that. It depends on how complex the picture is that I want to do. For instance, I have one that’s almost complete right now. This painting has literally been in my mind for 10 years. For whatever reason — it’s too much work, or I’m not there yet — the painting stays in my mind. Well, I’ve done it now, and thank goodness. It fit this [Higher Art exhibition] I’m trying to paint for. There’s a lot of preparation. There are quite a few animals in it. There are bubbles, which I’ve never painted before. There are a lot of landscape background. To put all that together, to what’s in my head, first I sketch out the rough idea, and then I start grabbing [reference] photographs — it’s a Summer-Fall painting, and it’s not that now. In the Fall, I took a lot of pictures anticipating doing this painting. My camera is really important. And, I really hate to admit this, but [so, too, is] the internet. I have a love-hate relationship with tech. I‘ll gather all the visual reference together I need, and put it together into the composition I’ve sketched. I know people who can paint right out their head. I need to see the fur, and the whiskers, and the way the body twists. It feels like a little like cheating, but it works in the end.
How does it feel like cheating?
It doesn’t when they’re my photos, but when I’m using someone else’s photos … I’m not using their composition … I try to use my own photos as much as I can.
Do you work on more than one project at a time?
Yes. I will put things aside for a few days, sometimes longer, so I can’t see them, and I’ll be working on something else. I’ll go back and forth. Sometimes it helps me to take breaks, especially if I feel stuck, or I’m overworking, or some challenge in it that my mind isn’t working out, I’ll take a break and work on something else. There’s two paintings now that are in a state of almost-done, and I’ll come back to them. Sometimes I put things away for years. I just did this: I pulled one out that was done two years ago, and pulled it out to work on it some more.
Some of your paintings get put away to rest. Why?
Because I’m not ready to finish it yet. Not that I don’t want it to be finish. Maybe something I see, I’m not quite able to [translate it] to the canvas yet. Usually, that’s what it is. Or, sometimes, I’m inspired to do something else. I lose the energy and am not into [the painting] right now. And that painting may completely change later when I come back to it. When the energy changes.
Do you work in a series?
I didn’t think that I did. Well, I’ve come to realize, that in the past few years, the same characters are popping up through my work. When I put together everything I have now, I see themes. I see recurring characters and themes. I just didn’t do it intentionally. Some of these paintings have sold, and now I’m doing something that feels like it goes [with the sold work]. I feel weird about it. My bears, I’m holding onto now. I think there are more bear pictures coming. I don’t know what they are yet, but it makes me feel like I should cling to these, keep them, don’t put them out there.
What’s your favorite tool?
My camera is my most important tool. So many of the paintings are — this is the whacky part of my process; if I had neighbors who could see me, oh my gosh … I will set the camera up on a tripod in my yard, and set timer, and try to get into the positions I need. I end up taking a million pictures to get what I want. That’s how I do most things if the [recurring ] woman is in it. Do you know how hard it is to paint a hand nicely? I have to see it.
It sounds like your camera is a tool for gathering reference information — rather than something that creates a picture you reproduce as painting.
Yes. Mostly. I do take a lot of B-roll — pretty landscapes, interesting bushes I might use at some point. I have to say that 9 times out of 10, in my thousands of photos, I don’t have what I want. So, I have to go do it again. It’s reference. Occasionally I’ll paint something directly from a picture, but very rarely.
Do you use a sketchbook? Work journal? What tool do you use to make notes and record thoughts about your work?
Sketch books for sure. Piles of them. I sketch down an idea whether I’m going to do it or not. Sometimes I go back [into the sketchbook] and realize I’ve forgotten about a great idea. It’s there, the nugget of it is there. I sketch. I write. I write notes to myself. Sometimes I even record audio when I’m driving. [Recording on her phone] is much safer than trying to write them while you’re driving like I used to do. Inspiration comes, and you never know when, so you have to have tools around to record it.
How do you come up with a title?
That varies. Titles sometime are in my head simultaneously with the picture in my head. Or, they come as I’m doing it. Sometimes, they don’t come. It’s a struggle. Sometimes the title comes before the painting. It’s the words, it’s a phrase, and I think, “That’s beautiful,” and I see it, and the title is already there.
What’s the job of a title?
The title gives a person a reference point. I prefer that my titles be little vague. I don’t like them to explain too much. I want the person’s mind to take the story where it will. A good title leads a person a little bit in a direction, but not to much. I don’t like titles that completely explain everything. There should be mystery. I want the painting to evoke things in peoples’ mind.
When did you commit to working with serious intent?
That’s been a hard questions. I’ve always made art as long as I can remember. I was encouraged to, early on, because I showed a level of visual skill. I was drawing people with clothes when the other kids were drawing stick figures. So it was part of me, and it became also a way — when I was getting into my teens — to deal with things in my life, to get out difficult emotions, and deal with challenges. I had this wonderful tool of expression. And, I’m really thankful for that, to this day.
I was 20, traveling, so I wasn’t doing a lot of artwork, and I met with this friend I knew in high school. He’s a classically trained guitar player. He said to me that he’d met a blues [musician in Chicago]. He asked him how he got so good? And the guy said, “It’s what I do.” That stuck with me. I always thought of myself as an artist, but I started saying it to myself: It’s what I do. It’s real. I had to start thinking of it that way. So many people talk about having a hobby. I decided that I didn’t want to think of it as a hobby. It’s such a big part of me. Somewhere in my early 20s I started to say to people out loud that I am an artist. And, I do other things to support that. I’m a maker. I need to make things. I really started to hit it hard as practice when my son was born.
When my son [Seamus] was born, I was 24. I was able to stay home with him for quite a while. It became such a priority to me to do my art work. So, he would be in his baby bassinet on the table next to me, watching me paint. He seemed very content to watch. When he’d go down for a nap I’d unplug the phone, and lock the door — he’s napping and I’m painting. It became a huge priority — the time that I had to paint, to use it, every bit, for that. I also wanted him to learn that I’m mom, and I’m absolutely here, But I have my own identity. That was something I grew up hearing about [from her mother and grandmother], that they gave up all their dreams and identities to be moms. There was a little pressure there to not do that. My grandmother was an artist, and starting to work in the fashion world, gave it up all completely when she got married and started having kids.
What role does social media play in your practice?
Social media. It’s such a bad word to me. I have an Instagram page, but I’ve never put anything on it. I just don’t want to. I don’t think it would be helpful anymore. All these social media platforms are so crammed full of information, and you have those no attention space. It’s like: click click click. Everything’s so fast. You forget the last thing you looked at.
You said social media is a “bad word.” Tell me why.
I see whole lot wrong with it, a whole lot that’s going wrong with us as human beings because of it. There’s some cool stuff, and that what get us hooked. We feel like we’re part of something, and we feel more connected, and yet, we get together less, and not because of COVID. That was happening before COVID. When you read or post something on a social media site about yourself, that is the edited version of you. We can sit here and talk, and all of my foibles — I’m going to say dumb things, I’m going to look cross-eyed — it’s unedited. It’s me. But I can totally put out the honed version of myself on line, and it’s never fully real. The connection aren’t fully real. The way that it’s used to condition us, to train us to think in certain directions, to pit us against each other …
It sounds like you’re a direct-experience person.
Yes. I am. I do use Facebook. I wasn’t even going to get Facebook. I have this musical duo, and the several years back people were saying that the only way people will know when you’re playing is to get it on Facebook. I resisted for a while. And then you’re in. Now you’re looking at it, and it starts sucking you in. I hardly ever go there.
What do you think is the visual artist’s role in the world?
It’s different for everybody. There are plenty of people who make things, and never show their work to someone, or show it to very few people. What is their role? Do we ever know what our role is? On a quantum level, you never know what those waves are doing that you put out there. There’s also that role, in the social world, to make a statement, evoke change. Some people paint beautiful landscapes. Does that end war or cause social change? Maybe not, maybe it does, but it’s still totally valid. If you get too involved in what is the purpose of this, what is this going to do, I know I can paralyze myself [thinking too much about it]. I do like the idea of evoking some sort of shift in a person, in their consciousness. Or, changing their mood for the day. I hear this a lot: “I hadn’t thought of that like that before”; or, “That makes me think about that creature differently,” like the bears or the wasps [in her paintings]. I do like that.
What parts of the world find their way into your work?
Other living beings. Plants to bears to lots of mushrooms. People ask me all kinds of weird questions about that. And, no I’m not eating that.
What is it about mushrooms that make them recur in your paintings?First and foremost, they’re all around me. I see mushrooms all the time. They’re everywhere. Such a vastly important part of the ecosystem. The mushroom is only the fruiting body that we see. The mycelial web, the roots of the mushroom, are under our feet all the time. We’re always walking on mushrooms and fungi. They’re part of everything. I’m kind of obsessed with mushrooms, and I have been for such a long time. They’re part of my everyday mind. They come up all around my house, all kinds, and are part if everything.
How does living in Northern Michigan inform and influence your creative practice?
I am very grateful for the fact I live in the woods, and that there is so much forest in Northern Michigan, and water. I can be in the forest. I can be on the Big Lake. I’m a boat person, a sailor. I love the water. There are other places I’d like to live, and go to, but I was born here. The is my native land. You can see in the work that I do, most of the creatures you encounter are here. I don’t paint a lot of lions, tigers, and elephants.
Who has had the greatest and most lasting influence on your work and practice?
Dan Oberschulte. He put the oil paints in my hand. He also helped foster that seriousness we talked about. Seeing somebody who was that serious about [his painting practice] was helpful to me. That thought of art-as-life, and art life. I have two people I would call, and send picture of my art, and ask them, “What do you think?” I would bring paintings to him, and he shows me his, which we do to this day. That’s the trusted feedback, him and my son. My son has become that now.[The late] Steve Balance — I used to model for him. He became a mentor. He would give me feedback too. I do things similar that he did with his photographs. He sets scenes up. He wasn’t an on-they-fly, capturing a moment. He would have an idea in his head, and set it up. That’s what I do. I have the idea, and set up my references to make what I see in my head.
What is the role of the exhibition in your practice?
That is the part where I get to share that with the rest of the world, which I seem to need to do. There’s a lot that goes with it. I’m very introverted, and I do spend most of my time alone, with my partner, and I want that and need that. It’s the point at which I push myself out there [believing] this thing needs to be seen by other people. There’s the validation wrapped up in it. There’s the selling, making some sort of income. There’s wanting to tell the stories, or at least put the stories out there for other people minds to start to playing with it. That makes it bigger than me. There are things on my wall that I never put out. Some of it is that’s what artists do. But I have a lot of issues around that, too. Once you start [exhibiting] in galleries, and you start putting your work into the public eye, all the voices start coming into your head. She said this, and he said that, and the gallery said I should do this or shouldn’t do that. That can be a real problem. I used to struggle with it more than I do now.
Is it hard for you to detach yourself from peoples’ responses? Or, do you take it in?
I take it in, but I feel like I’ve gotten good at … I’ve got this punk rock bone my body that wants to give everyone the bird when they telling me all this stuff. I try not to censor myself because of those voices. What I try to do is not censor myself. Make the thing. Put it out there, and it’s going to have its own life after that.
How do you feed/fuel/nurture your creativity?
That is so much mostly about getting outside. It’s looking at art. I do have a Pinterest problem, I think. I can go on there for so long because it keeps spitting things out. It’s so inspiring sometimes. I see things I never would have thought of, wish I would have thought of. I love picture books. Music inspires me. I love to listen to stories. One of my bear paintings [came out of a] literal fever dream. I had this fever, and I was lying on the couch. And all I wanted was a big bear to come and read me a story. And so I grabbed my sketch book, and started drawing that. Later, when I was well again, it became this painting — that I really, really love — of this bear sitting in this big comfy armchair. The chair is outside with rose bushes behind him, and he’s got a big story book in his lap. The girl is lying on the ground, at his feet, in this white nightgown. And, then it gets a little dark, according to some people. If you keep looking behind the bear, there’s some bloody meat and bones. The woman is holding a bone. That is all very warm and fuzzy for me. The painting is called “The Nature of the Beast.”
What drives your impulse to make?
Processing. It’s all processing the world, my immediate environment, the bigger environment. I’m creating ways to deal with it, whether it’s good or bad, and that’s why I’ve been doing it since I was a little. It’s what mankind has always done: We’ve created stories to make sense of what’s going around us. I don’t need to understand everything, but I need to process it. I don’t think we have to understand everything to benefit from it. Allowing things to move through you, being present, and then allowing whatever is there to move through you, whether you understand it or not — I think that’s really important for being in this world. When I had COVID, literally laying there, I laid on this table so much letting go of my body and going into this meditative state. It was there I realized if you can let go and let things just be, there’s so much there. There’s imagery, and there’s nothing, and silence, and it’s so healing. When I’m making anything, I don’t know I’m hungry, I’m not aware of my body any more. The creative process, my whole life, has given me time to let go of that physical weight, and that allows other things to happen.
Read more about Melonie Steffes here.
Sarah Bearup-Neal develops and curates Glen Arbor Arts Center exhibitions. She maintains a studio practice focused on fiber and collage.