Q&A Session with handmade paper/installation artist Melissa Jay Craig
By Shannon Gallagher
Melissa Jay Craig creates and exhibits her intricate fiber sculptures, handmade paper books, and impressive installation pieces at the international level, most notably in North and South America, Denmark, South Korea, Costa Rica, and Mexico. She has received recognition for her artistic achievements in the form of numerous grants and artist residencies. In addition to making art, Melissa Jay Craig is also a curator, writer, and award-winning professor who continues to travel the country giving lectures, workshops, and classes at schools and art centers. Of her work, she says,
“In my work, I imply narratives authored by our beleaguered planet, set forth in a language long overlooked by humanity’s intellectual arrogance. I perceive this as a language of dichotomy, of adaptation, of infinite cyclical renewal, of double-edged humor, of fierce, disturbing beauty and, always, of the ultimate triumph of time. When I was a child, the first time I had the intriguing feeling that the planet carried messages (for those who were curious enough to look), was when I came upon a group of the fungus Amanita Muscaria, huddled together in a dark, secret space under tall pines. Fungus is an agent of change. I’m fascinated with its myriad forms and colors, and I love to go in search of it. I can become more excited by discovering a beautiful fungal growth than by perusing artwork ‘discovered’ for us by curators in contemporary art museums.”
- You talk about your interest in fungi as an “agent of change,” how does the
work itself change/grow/evolve throughout the creation process? Do you find
that the process in which you create your work is as important as the end
The end result is always the focus but it does not exist without the
process; they’re inextricably linked. You could say that the end result is
the public part of the work and the process is the private part, except that
achieving the end results is also an ongoing, lifelong process. In terms
of the physical process of making the work, there is always a dialogue with
the materials, refinements to the ideas and unforeseen discoveries that are
part of the process and something that keeps working with paper fresh and
exciting to me. The process re-shapes the end result, and the goal of the
end result keeps me adapting, researching and attempting new processes.
- How has your career evolved with the advancement of the internet and
technology? Do you find that utilizing social media sites like Facebook is
I have received opportunities strictly through my web site ever since I
built the first one. I am nearly deaf, so the internet and technology are
essential communication tools for me; you can’t pick up a phone and contact
me unless you text (and it often surprises me how many people do not use
text). I’m not sure if it would be the same if I was a hearing person, but
there’s no way to find that out.
I like Facebook, but I’m not sure how much – or even if – it has added to my
career. So far, I have resisted Twitter…with two blogs, the web site, and
personal and public Facebook pages, I have enough difficulty coming up with
content at slower times, and then always have the paradox of having no time
to publish when life is interesting and busy.
- In your artist’s statement, you discuss unspoken nuances, subliminal
messages, body language, and heightened senses. Do you find yourself
incorporating hidden messages or subtle themes into your work?
Definitely, the work utilizes unconventional, nonverbal communication; it’s
about that, in large part. But, as a deafened person, I would argue that
these methods of communication are, in fact, not ‘hidden’ and definitely are
not always subtle either. It’s just that when you rely solely on spoken or
written language, they can escape your conscious notice; you’re responding
to them whether you realize it or not. We all do, constantly. That’s
something I want to point out with my work: that our communication methods
and our intelligences extend far beyond the accepted province of linear,
- You frequently teach workshops around the country. How does this
influence your work? Do you learn more about yourself as an artist as a
result of seeing how your knowledge and imagination inspire your students’
I learn more about myself as a person, and this person is an artist and
teacher. Traveling also lets me see how all the different studios and
communities work, try out all the different equipment used, benefit from the
results of different types of research, and all that definitely contributes
to my work. I am always learning, and teaching is an exchange that brings
everything full circle. Particularly because my studio practice is solitary
and because I am deafened, the intense exchange involved in teaching is an
important part of the whole.
- What do you find to be the most challenging and/or frustrating part of your
Getting the time to focus solely on the work. I’m always several ideas
ahead of what is being worked on! Though I work as much as possible in my
studios at home, it’s a much more difficult situation than when I am on a
residency; life intrudes constantly.
Also, trying to overcome public perceptions about paper; folks naturally
think of the paper they use every day: weak, fragile commercially produced
wood pulp sheets. When it’s made as many other artists and I make it, it’s
a sustainable, environmentally responsible medium that can be incredibly
strong and durable; only its appearance is delicate.
- What are you working on next?
Several things! The one that I’m most excited about (possibly because it is
the most difficult in terms of process and resolution) is a series of subtle
outdoor installations that has stemmed from the Listening series of works.
I’m also continuing that series, and working on a number of books or
- Do you have a particular fiber that you prefer to work with? If so, why?
I like experimenting with fibers, and I now harvest and process at least one
new fiber each year. But two favourites are abaca and kozo. Abaca because
of its toughness, high shrinkage and its translucency when it is overbeaten,
kozo for its utterly unique appearance (and also toughness). Kozo was the
fiber that turned me into a papermaker. Now I even have a kozo tree growing
in my tiny back yard, which was given to me by the lovely folks at the
Morgan Conservatory in Cleveland, Ohio, a couple of years ago. This fall
will I will take my first harvest from it, and make a special work with it;
I want that to become a yearly tradition.
- Do you do studies/sketches before you begin a piece, or is the process more
It depends on the piece or series. Some have a great many sketches and
studies and prior research, and others will generate drawings, tests and
internet searches and/ or trips to the local library during the process.
With others, it’s all instinctive, though that is somewhat rarer.
- How have your style or methods changed over the years?
I began as a painter, then did assemblages and outdoor murals and
installations, spent some time making prints, and then funneled all my
previous concerns into books. Then, papermaking came in and solidified
everything further, changed the books and the way I worked with them. The
one constant (besides my perpetual need to make visual work) that has
remained throughout is that eventually, almost everything becomes an
installation or part of an installation.
- When you begin an artist’s residency, do you have an idea of what you are
going to create, or do the location/facilities/people influence your work?
My favorite residencies are the ones that begin without an agenda, but
that’s not always the case. Especially in the last five years or so, I’ve
arrived with works already in mind that (in the way I think of it) are
demanding to be made. And some residencies are granted in response to a
specific proposal, as well. The surroundings and my colleagues-in-residence
always add something to the work, even when it is a previously planned
project: I usually seek rural residencies that have environments I respond
to, like Ragdale’s fifty acres of virgin prairie, and I highly value the
exchanges with people I’m in residence with as well, especially the insights
from artists in other disciplines, particularly poets, writers and
composers. It’s invaluable. And, inevitably, even if I am working on
something specific, new ideas occur: that is the beauty of time dedicated
solely to the work that residencies provide.
It seems that Melissa Jay Craig herself is an agent of change. Her work is influenced through her interactions with nature, collaborations with fellow artists, and the intellectual exchange between teacher and student. Her artistic endeavors will continue to transform over time as a result of these ongoing experiences, and we look forward to seeing whatever those changes may be. Melissa Jay Craig will be exhibiting new works with painter Jonathan Ricci in a two-person show opening at ZIA Gallery on December 1, 2012.