Melissa Cowper-Smith is a multimedia artist who uses projected video animation, digital printing, papermaking, collage, and painting to express forgetting and the passing of time. Her works depict natural and agricultural landscapes, objects, and domestic interiors.
I am interested in the spaces inhabited by artists, farmers, gardeners, and folk healers. People who work with their hands- who have intimate relationships with the material world. I look for relics- the cherished, the decorative, the aging, the falling apart, the broken. I seek juxtaposing imagery- combining the everyday with the life-changing. In my work there are sofas and bombs, natural disaster and flowers.
In developing my work, I visit and informally interview people who I am inspired by. I take photographs, make paintings, and appropriate imagery to develop pigment prints on handmade paper and projected animated videos. Recently I've been exploring mixed-media encaustic. By using materials and skills from both past and present technologies, I both hold onto older ways of making art, and seek current methods.
In my compositions, I use gestural and dripping paint marks to represent time passing, the obscurity of moments past, and the movement of my hand. I blend transitional points of view, illustrating how daily perception is composed of many experiences and memories with no single perspective. I favor bright colors and patterning to express emotions- striving for combination of playfulness and tension.
I am currently in the midst of a new series inspired by people in Central Arkansas and the Ozarks who grow their own medicine. For this project I've interviewed several herbalists and gardeners who regularly use herbal medicine. I've taken photos of their homes, beds, gardens, kitchens, chairs, tools and favorite objects. From these interviews and photos I plan to make a series of images exploring health, illness, plants, tools, beliefs, and spaces. I am thinking about how spaces- rooms and gardens- can be mental, physical, cultural, real, and imagined.
Melissa Cowper-Smith has exhibited in many galleries and venues nationally. Recent exhibitions include "The 60th Annual Delta Exhibition" at the Arkansas Arts Center (2018), "Traces Remain" at Rockford University Museum, Rockford, IL (2018), The 2018 Small Works on Paper Touring Exhibition (Arkansas Arts Council), "Shelter In Place" at the Laman Public Library Gallery Little Rock, AR (2017), and "Dawn Holder + Melissa Cowper-Smith: Traces Remain" at Historic Arkansas Museum (2017). Melissa is a founding member of tART, an all female art-collective based in New York City. Between 2006-2011 she exhibited her work with tART. She moved to Morrilton, Arkansas in 2011 to create an eco-farm (Wildland Gardens) and to continue her art practice closer to nature. In 2013, she founded a second all-female art collective, Culture Shock, based in Arkansas.
Melissa received a BFA in painting from the University of Victoria in British Columbia before moving to New York City (2002-2011) to complete an MFA at Hunter College. She teaches at the University of Central Arkansas.
Cotton and Papermaking Fibers
Since moving to Arkansas I have forged a connection between my gardens and my art. I started by growing cotton for papermaking and have expanded to growing many other fibers including mulberry, hibiscus, rose-of-sharon, hosta, canna lily, daylily, iris, garlic and onion. I've recently developed my herbal gardens and have included medicinal herbs in new paper- wormwood, comfrey, elecampane, marshmallow, plantain, calendula, fennel, rue, and ashwagandha. There is remarkable beauty in the transformative process of growing, tending, picking, cutting, boiling, mashing, straining, pouring, couching, and drying formed sheets. Each sheet is unique- it is of a place, a time, a moment, a particular plant, and the work of my hands.
I am fascinated with the history of plants- ethnobotany books clutter my tables. Of all the plants I grow, cotton continues to be one of the most historically important. Not only does cotton represent slavery, plantations, and Arkansas's civil war history, it also epitomizes industrial agriculture. Over the past 100 years it has been grown in increasingly large plots of land, it is bombarded with chemical additives and has been engineered to meet the requirements of mechanical harvesting. But it has a complex history- it was once grown on small farms, to be used for medicine, to be spun by hand, and to be woven into cloth. I want to directly reconnect to our material culture. By making art from products I grow, I can ask others to question their own relationship to art objects, materials, food, medicine, commodity culture, consumption and the environment.
More on Wildland Gardens
In 2011, I began the process of building an ecological farm on eight acres in the Morrilton Area of Central Arkansas. At Wildland Gardens you will find curving gardens filled with annual and perennial vegetables, herbs, grains, seeds, flowers, cotton, fiber plants, fruit trees and berries. I also have a flock of egg laying hens, bees, and three horses.
Culture Shock (formally the Show & Tell Art Collective) was founded in the fall of 2013. Current members include Melissa Cowper-Smith, Melissa Gill, Tammy Harrington, Dawn Holder, Holly Laws, Sandra Luckett, Rachel Trusty, Louise Halsey, Melissa Wilkinson, and Jessica Mongeon. Past members include , Sofia V. Gonzales, and Paige Dirksen. Culture Shock holds monthly critiques. During the critique one artist shares their work and receives constructive feedback from the group. In addition to fostering one another's creative work, the collective provides members with exhibition and networking opportunities.