Taking the First Step: A Profile of Artist Melissa Joseph

On April 12th of 2015, Melissa Joseph changed the course of her career. Even if she didn’t exactly know it yet.

She had tried to actively avoid violence most of her life, and growing up in the small town of St. Marys, Pennsylvania she, for the most part, was able to. But as she moved away, moved on, and came into her own, she realized that it was an irresponsible way to live.

April 12th 2015, when Freddie Gray died, the violence the world exuded became unavoidable for her. It was time for a change; time to face the rage that presented itself in the news, on street corners, and around the globe in almost every household.

 “I can’t do nothing anymore. I have to do something. And as an artist, this is what I have to give.”

After spending time as an art teacher in private and public schools in Washington D.C., Cincinnati, and Rome Italy, Melissa had thought she had found her life’s calling. She wanted to help people capture their inner self and work through their emotions with art, something she had been doing for years.

Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche and Ricky John Best. Hollywood Transit Center, Portland OR
Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche and Ricky John Best. Hollywood Transit Center, Portland OR

Then tragedy struck Melissa at home. Her father passed away suddenly. Her thoughts shifted, time seemed to stop while emotions swirled and started to change her mind on her life’s course again. Life is so ephemeral and it only gives you a fleeting chance to live the way you want. She needed to produce art, not just teach others how to do it.

Being a teacher is a lifestyle. It’s being there for the young adults and children you teach for ball games, recitals, concerts, and plays. It’s being there for all the school activities that are necessary for encouragement and proper development. She no longer thought that she could provide the right perspective for her own work while devoting so much of her time to the development of others.

Freddie Gray. Stop 2: N. Fremont Ave. & Mosher St, Baltimore
Freddie Gray. Stop 2: N. Fremont Ave. & Mosher St, Baltimore

 “I feel strongly that it’s even more than a lifestyle but its own vocation.  It’s a special calling, just like being an artist. I realized that I had something to say and I couldn’t give teaching what it deserved because I felt so strongly about getting my own work out.”

With her already embedded feelings of angst and despair coagulating, her father’s death provided the catalyst to finding her artistic voice. It had to be exercised and metered out in healthy doses upon the world, recycling the anger into something useful, something beautiful; something that could be better understood.

“This is what I have to do.”

Her first project was icons but she shifted rather quickly to working with cement and stone to represent the hard to handle subject matter. She felt as if she needed to physically work through the global stories of violence and rage with her own muscles, bones, and sweat. The heavy feeling of someone you know dying, transcribed into a physical specimen designed to evoke those same emotions.

Philando Castile. Larpenteur Ave, Falcon Heights MN
Philando Castile. Larpenteur Ave, Falcon Heights MN

She was finding that trying to use words about her emotions was too difficult. They would get in the way and clout her ability to reason and speak directly and clearly. The conversations would shut down and that was not helpful to Melissa or anyone.

“If you’re going to tackle something this heavy you have to be ready for the conversation.”

But for Melissa, it’s not about lecture it’s about connection.

“There’s no blame in it. It’s strictly anti-violence. Everyone is held accountable. It’s not just one thing, it’s everything.”

Her newest series takes a look at spots where people in America and around the world have died from needless violence. The images, ink with brushes on paper, are bare, stark, and have nothing living in them. Just the street corner and the buildings that surround. There’s no cars, birds, or bugs and certainly no humans. They are an attempt to remember the countless names that flash on the nightly news and in the papers daily. The new name just pushes the old name out, making it meaningless and totally forgettable.

“It represents the void left in people leaving and it helps to remember the ones who have died by the hands of violence in the world.”

The death of Freddie Gray triggered a need to react to the violence, but for Melissa, it’s not just about cops or youth, it’s about people, all people, and more specifically those needlessly dying by the hands of reactive violence.  No matter their profession, or race, or gender, or reason, the experience of having someone taken from you so suddenly is unnecessary.

Lylliana Mendoza & Aslemarie Torres. 3000 Block of Lawrence St. North Philly
Lylliana Mendoza & Aslemarie Torres. 3000 Block of Lawrence St. North Philly

Freddie Gray may have triggered the need for the discussion, but her father’s death triggered the need to start the discussion. The bravery needed to utter the first word, pick up a pen or a brush, or take that first step is inconceivable to most. Luckily for us, it wasn’t for Melissa Joseph.

You can currently view Melissa’s work at the Woodmere Museum with another being added in October. Updates will be on her website.

For more about Melissa Joseph, her mission and her work, please visit www.melissajoseph.net or @melissajoseph_art on Instagram.

To get involved please visit the following sites:



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