Talking with Evanston artist Melanie Deal

July 18, 2017

local art
“No Picnic” (paper collage)

Melanie Deal is an Evanston artist who is the latest to be featured in our ongoing exhibition series Local Art @ EPL. Inspired by her fascination with grids, tessellations, and repeated shapes, Deal’s striking paper collage and mixed media works “reflect both the humdrum and the humor of everyday living” and are “influenced by a lifelong love of comic books, paper dolls, gumball-machine trinkets, board games, television, literature, and music.” You can catch her exhibit Life on the Grid through the end of July on the 2nd floor of EPL’s Main Library, and you can also find more of Deal’s work by visiting her website. We recently spoke with her via email about her ingrained love of grids, the meaning of her art, and the burgeoning Evanston art scene.

Evanston Public Library: Can you tell us a little about your background as an artist? How did you get started in art? What are some of the comic books, board games, TV shows, and songs that most influenced you?

Melanie Deal: I was that child in the corner, always drawing. My mother carried blank sheets of paper in her purse so I could draw during church, for example. I made paper dolls, picture books, and comics. Because I loved to read comic books—from Little Lulu to Archie to Marvel Comics—I made my own comic books, with my own teen and superhero characters. As I got older, I made comic strips starring my friends and eventually moved into collage and mixed media.

EPL: Do you see your collage and mixed media works as fitting in with any particular artistic movements or styles? What is it about grids, tessellations, and repeated shapes that so intrigues you?

MD: I didn’t study art—I have degrees in English literature instead—so I’m not sure if my work fits into any particular style. Because I like to use repetition of images, some people have mentioned Andy Warhol as an influence. But really, I just do my own thing. Where did my attraction for grids come from? I grew up in Indiana, which was laid out in 6×6-mile townships in the late 1700s as part of the Northwest Ordinance. Everything is square and easy to navigate there, so maybe that’s ingrained in me. I like repetition because I find it funny—a mildly amusing image seems exponentially funnier and more absurd to me when multiplied.

local art
“Dusty” (mixed media)

EPL: Can you take us through your creative process for one of the collages you’re showing this month?

MD: “Creative process” sounds pretty lofty for what I do. I usually start with an idea, which may be as simple as a pattern or set of colors I’d like to work with. I plot it out on graph paper to figure out what size it will be. I gather my materials, such as paper, printouts, book pages, and cartoon word balloons. For “Dusty,” one of the artworks in my library show, I added doll-sized combs, brushes, mirrors, and hair rollers for fun. Sometimes I draw some of the paper pieces by hand. I cut out the pieces and glue them to gatorboard (like foam core, but sturdier), often in layers. It can be a painstakingly slow process, but I have no real reason to rush. And besides, I’m having fun!

EPL: What are your future goals and plans as an artist?

MD: I’m not sure that I have any specific goals as an artist, other than to keep working at it and showing my work when the opportunity presents itself. Although I’m not good at talking about my art, I do like hearing people’s thoughts as they view it. To me, an artwork “means” only what the viewer gets out of it—and each person brings his or her own experiences and perceptions to bear. Sometimes I’m surprised by what people find in my artworks—and that adds to the fun.

EPL: How do you find Evanston and the Chicagoland area as a place to work and exhibit as an artist? What inspires you as an artist about the community where you live?

MD: I used to feel I had to exhibit nationally to build up my resume, but my work is difficult to pack and ship—and that can be very expensive. So now I stick to the Chicagoland area. My favorite venue in Chicago is Woman Made Gallery, where I had my first solo show. Lately, Evanston has become a much richer source of venues than it was in the past, at least in my opinion. There used to be the Evanston Art Center and not much else. Now I always have work on display at Creative Coworking, which has been a real boon to local artists. The Evanston Made show at the EAC is a good opportunity. Besides the library, I’ve also shown work locally at Artruck, Gillock Gallery, As You Like It, Noyes Cultural Center, Gallery 4502, Blick, the Evanston Art Walk, Art Under Glass, and my workplace, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Interview by Russell J.

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