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:

http://blacklivesmatter.com/getinvolved/

http://www.mothersincharge.org/

Accepting Escape: An Interview with Anh Duc Nguyen

The cultural significance of hip hop is not bound to the streets of New York or Los Angeles.  It’s not bound to the output of MTV or New York’s Hot 97.  In fact it’s never been tethered to anything at all.  It seems to seek out those most willing to accept it, to embrace it, to make it something that is their own.  But it is not easily described and that’s what draws such special appreciation for it.  “It’s about doing something together and being creative”, says Hamburg, Germany based visual artist Anh Duc Nguyen of Hip Hop Culture.  “It’s a way of being together no matter where you are from and loving music and art among each other and expressing yourself.”  Duc speaks of inclusion, togetherness, and acceptance with great passion and careful grace.  He currently resides in Hamburg, Germany although his life was very close to be being much different.  “My parents fled the Vietnam War and settled in Bavaria.  I can speak with a Bavarian accent which I’m really proud of!”

Duc’s father was a soldier in the war and fled when things got unbearable.  His family was lucky and got picked up quickly on the sea.  Duc’s father still tells stories about the turmoil that brings tears to his eyes.  Duc grew up with no other Vietnamese children around him and his parents tried very hard to maintain their culture in a land that was not their own.  “Education was very important to them”, says Duc.  “They were strict at home.  Whenever they caught me drawing they would make me go do homework.”  Art beamed from him anyway.  He couldn’t stop even if he wanted to.  He grew up to love art and went on to study graphic design.  

Duc drew inspiration from meeting new people in a bigger city, with a more diverse crowd who carried different attitudes and embodied something bigger.  His humble beginnings in hip hop were not unlike most of ours, rap cassettes from somebody’s older brother. But it wasn’t until college that Duc really appreciated what the culture meant to him.  He gathered inspiration from the graffiti he saw near the train tunnels and buildings.  “It is such a visual part of CD covers and magazines.  I grew up in an area where you wouldn’t do things like that.  Friends of mine that have done graffiti in the past are much better artists now.  They have great understanding of form and composition.  I was so blown away by it.”  Duc still takes inspiration from graffiti artists today, although he himself has never done it.  He says of graffiti artists,“I have much respect for all the graffiti artist(s) who are going out at night and make great piece in such a short time and having the fear of getting caught.  It needs a lot of passion, willingness and crazyiness [sic] to do such things.  Sometimes I wished I would have done stuff like them when I was younger. Today I still look at graffiti as an inspiration.”

Duc’s art is a wonderful conglomeration of graffiti, pop culture, and music.  In short, his art could be best described as Hip Hop and it’s hard to look away.  He has managed to make intricate art look simple, with a clear message that differs by the individual, a brand of art that looks so much like Hip Hop, but looks so much like the intricate life that has been Duc’s.  He has sense of humor about it when asked about his Hamburger Head piece.  “I live in Hamburg and so many burger places opened up.  I turned a person into a burger head.”

hamburger head

Duc recently joined a contest where teams of 3 artists have 90 minutes to paint a plain white wall with nothing but black magic markers.  The teams are awarded points by judges, audience cheers, and the highest priced bid through an auction.  The money is then donated to Viva Con Agua, a company that is “committed to establishing access to clean drinking water and basic sanitation for all humans worldwide.”  Duc’s team won, a fact he’s humble about but equally as proud.

When asked why he is an artists he replied,  

Drawing and painting is a place for me to escape to my own world. In this world everything is allowed; making mistakes, exploration, being imperfect, playing like a kid.  To learn about what is really important to me and not what is said to be important by other people and put by them into my head.  It is like a therapy for me from the strict upbringing by my parents and society. It is a honest place.  Most Asian parents never tell you that they are proud or make compliments.  They always try to make you feel bad and keep you down. They are very scared that if they do you would not work hard enough.  They always compare you with other kids and always make them better than you. So in my head there was always a voice telling me that I wasn’t good enough.  My art is a place where I’m able to shut this voice down.

Duc’s parents may not have always been supportive of his choice to be an artist. But they are coming around to realize that it is not going away.  And that Duc is really good and gaining popularity.  His parents see his work and understand, maybe proudly gazing at their son as they try to comprehend what it is he is trying to accomplish.  “I think that the process of develop [sic] something out of nothing is my daily goal or the reason I’m doing it.  But I couldn’t stop doing art even if I couldn’t survive by it.”  

We are all certainly glad for that.  

 

Check out Duc’s work on Facebook and on Instagram.

Or go directly to Duc’s website: www.ismilealot.com

Or shop for some of his amazing work here: http://de.dawanda.com/shop/ismilealot

The photo for this article was taken by Phil Dy Na Mite.

 

Anthony N. White is a writer currently living in Rochester, NY.

He can be heckled on Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat @Ruthieshusband

Or on Facebook, of course.