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Conversations with Melissa Wang

Today we’d like to introduce you to Melissa Wang.

Melissa, we appreciate you taking the time to share your story with us today. Where does your story begin?
Growing up in LA, I experienced a rich cultural ecosystem. Through free civic arts programs, I learned how to sketch and paint (foundational art skills I still use today, had supportive teachers, and even won city-wide awards. Unfortunately, I graduated during a recession, so I felt pressured to professionalize my creativity. When I started working for Facebook in 2017, my family and friends thought I had made it. Do I keep climbing the corporate ladder or pursue my childhood dream? In 2019, my uncle, who was an artistic soul, passed away from cancer. So, I quit because I didn’t want to have any regrets.

If you had told me three years ago that I would have shown in museums, curated a show, and won a grant from the California Arts Council, I would be so surprised. But more importantly, my eight-year-old self would be so pleased to hear that being an artist has been my most fulfilling career.

We all face challenges, but looking back, would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
In early 2022, I was diagnosed with Berger’s – a rare chronic kidney disorder. I have a 50/50 chance of losing my kidneys by my early sixties. It illuminated what I wanted to prioritize – my painting practice – and what I wanted to shed – accumulating accolades, networking, and pretenses of productivity that are symptomatic of Western capitalism. Some of these were hard to give up because I had idealized a successful art career. For example, I had a goal of applying for solos in 2022. Then I discovered that Sophia Taueber-Arp, a founding member of Dadaism, never had one. My desires are now focused on longevity. Every month I check in: “Is my work serving my body and soul purpose? Am I happy?”

Being an artist can be daunting. Convoluted tax laws exist to benefit wealthy art collectors. Money from oil and extractive enterprises fund institutional projects. Institutional leadership is largely white. Consumers balk at the prices set by artists. In Sharon Louden’s “The Artist as Culture Producer,” artists share career anecdotes, including one mid-career artist who regularly shows at museums. She finally makes a six-figure salary. In the Bay Area, college graduates in tech make that much because their salaries are commensurate with the high cost of living. Society wants artists to capture the zeitgeist, yet invisibilizes artistic production as a “labor of love.” But if artists are cultural producers, then devaluing artists is a devaluation of culture itself.

What can non-artists do to support us? Share our work, market our events, connect us to clients, pay us equitably, volunteer/join boards, create funding opportunities and advocate for policies that support the arts (like Prop 28!).

Thanks – so, what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
I make large paintings and mixed-media installations that explore cosmologies. Currently, I’m reading Silvia Federici. I also read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities for the first time and loved it. I’m drawn to so-called subversive genres because they critique the center, which in the US is the mythos of Western modernity that enables climate change by wresting stewardship from Indigenous peoples.

What if we fast-forwarded to the future, and we were all living in space? Space is a place of absence that gives birth to stars. I’m curious about the overview effect, which is when astronauts feel an overwhelming sensation of compassion when they see Earth from space. More importantly, I’m drawn to that threshold between body and self, nostalgia and futurity, home and exile. A lot of my colors, shapes, and patterns explore the dramatic shifts between light and dark: forests, deep oceans, atmospheric clouds. I dream a lot, and in my dreams, I’m often alone, thrillingly exploring new places.

What matters most to you?
A few years ago, Lava Thomas’s sculptural tribute to Maya Angelou was rejected by the city of San Francisco. Largely due to the efforts of Black women, the sculpture was reinstated. I often have conversations about what it means to elevate AAPI issues and our community. I look towards the leadership of Black and Indigenous communities because their struggles for liberation have existed ever since the formation of the US.

In the arts and creative industries, where so many economic opportunities are linked to who you know, I’ve seen creatives remain silent on toxic industry people and patterns, which disproportionately impacts BIPOC, as we already face systemic barriers. If you can (meaning it doesn’t endanger your well-being), say what you think and feel even if it’ll make people upset. If you don’t call people in, they will continue to behave unprofessionally, and someone more vulnerable than you may suffer.

In 2020, I was at a remote art residency where I was harassed by a park ranger. A year later, a DEI consultant for the organization informed me that they were trying to frame my experience as misinformed and remove my name from the list of former participants altogether. Long story short, over a thousand people read my web post, and hundreds signed my petition to suspend the residency. The residency was suspended in 2021 (although it did reopen in 2022).

To paraphrase Merlin Sheldrake, collaboration is a dialectic between cooperation and competition. Being objective and having integrity – which I define as commitment to your truth – can help to prevent interactions from devolving into name-calling. I approach encounters, even the challenging ones, as lessons in expansion. Learning how to parse them out from noise – other people’s fears, anxieties, and projections – is the difference between resilience and bitterness.

Art-making is world-building. It’s a bit like magic in that it can expand and shrink possibilities. This kind of change seems to terrify some people. But the world is changing, whether people like it or not. Artists can choose to help define the future. Art is sometimes a vessel, a tool, or a weapon. It can also be an intimate look, a warm hug, or a prophecy.

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