Melissa Zink and the book

Melissa Zink, c.1995, Embudo, New Mexico. Photo by Margery Franklin.

  It’s difficult to write about Melissa Zink. I’ve seen only one art piece by her, and then briefly. Photographs, because they’re from only one perspective and most of her work is sculptural, can’t tell me everything I want to know. I need to see what she does in the round, and I need to examine its detail, because some of it is very detailed indeed. She has written much more about what she’s created, and how, than most visual artists do, and that’s a help. It’s also one of the reasons, I think, I’m so drawn to her work. She loves words. Her art is all about the experience of reading. She loved books.  

She must have been a terribly dissatisfied person for most of her life. She studied art, chiefly at the Kansas City Art Institute where abstract expressionism was the rage. She didn’t like it. She couldn’t do it. She married, raised a daughter, and worked with her husband in a custom framing shop. Her painting, she said, was “uncertain, kind of whispy.” How awful it must have been to need to make things, but instead only frame what others had made. But she could read, couldn’t she? I’m sure she did.    

In 1970, Melissa Zink’s frustration led to what she later called “a rebellious moment,” when she convinced her husband to move to the southwestern Colorado town of Silverton, elevation 9,318 feet. Something about the mountains, a feeling of freedom, began to change her, and change her life. Over the next five years, she divorced her husband, then married again.   

Melissa and Nelson Zink. 1980. Photo by Margery Franklin.


One day, saddened by her confusion about her life and its purpose, her husband asked her what she wanted to be. “An artist,” she responded. He encouraged her, and one day suggested that she might like to try potting instead of painting. That first pot was a disaster, but it was the beginning. Soon she was making odd little creatures in clay and setting them in ceramic scenes. In 1979, in her mid forties, she had her first gallery showing.    

Melissa Zink working. Late 1970s. Photo by Margery Franklin.

 One of the wonderful things about Zink is that she never stopped evolving as an artist. When she died at 77 last year, she was still growing and changing. From the beginnings of her life as an artist in her forties, until the last, she had a wonderful sense of humor (chock full of  irony and whimsy). In her hands the book achieved a marvellous resonance. I’ll never look at one in quite the same way again.   

Art of Biography, 1991, mixed media. 17x42.5x5 inches.

From the beginning her goal in her art was to explore and replicate her own experience of reading, although she wasn’t always conscious that that’s what she was doing.  Her first ceramic sculptures in the late 1970s and 1980s were stories, but so multi-faceted.

This so-called story was a strong visual image and its accompanying feelings, she wrote in a speech in 1994. More properly I think it might be called ‘as if it were a story.’ I disguised myself as an itinerant potter who with her faithful companions, Dog and Valise, traveled the world, the past and the present. I became someone called Gypsy Dog and with my best friend, Hattie Max William, enjoyed another series of adventures through time and place.    

Gypsy Dog Alias Gertrude Stein, Paris, 1906. 1985.
Predictably, Water Dog arrived late for the Scribing of the Mystic Garden. 1983, ceramic and mixed media. 9.5x26.5x16.

 She thought of many of her works as museums.    

The largest of the museums, The Museum of the Mind, was built in 1982. I was beginning to be interested in metaphor and in this piece I used a mysterious structure filled with representations of art objects and odd debris, a metaphoric storehouse of images in the artist’s mind. One side is covered with names of my favorite artists, among them Stanly Spencer, Marcel Duchamp, Goya, Hogarth, Breughel, and many others. You can see a figure on her hands and knees searching among the shards for a lost image.  

Museum of the Mind, 1981, ceramic sculpture, 19x17x17.

In the mid 1980s she began to use a wider variety of materials, especially wood and paper. In the early 1990s, she experimented for a while with arrangements: I would provide the setting, figures and objects which a hypothetical viewer-purchaser could arrange as she or he fancied.   

By the 1990s, the number of elements in her works had multiplied, and many of them took an even more distinctly literary turn. Her figures became more abstract at the same time as they became more profoundly human.    

Illuminations from a Dark Wood, 1999, mixed media, 22.5x18.25x7.75.

Dante’s Dark Wood was “one of a group of pieces called ‘Sticks,’ some of which were derived from the Divine Comedy and some from the properties of the sticks themselves…   

From my scatter shot approach, I hope you can see how intricate the process was, how varied and filled with odd twists and turns. And as she grew she understood more and more clearly the focus of her quest:    

… from the unconscious came the understanding that what I had been looking for was a multiplicity of images. What I had so longed to catch hold of and understand was how to convey the linearity of books and of reading. I could see that the magic I wanted to express lay in presenting many images simultaneously and discretely, so that it would be impossible to see the whole at once. The reading experience, the looking-at-book experience is compressed from hours to minutes, but the structure is the same. That is, the viewer looks at one, then another, then another image, just as one reads another page and sees another mental picture or leafs through the illustrations of a book, pausing here, hurrying there. And with each image, another feeling. And I wanted there to be a simultaneous sensuous experience of an object which would consciously or unconsciously evoke old books. I knew other things as well: that I wanted to use paper, particularly old paper; that I could have text and use sculpture as much or as little as I wished, that the colors I loved were the colors of old bookbinding and end papers. I knew that the computer could reproduce all the type and borders, numbers and letters, worlds legible and illegible, illustrations from old medical books and catalogues, all the things I had looked at and loved. I had managed to smear the line between my life and my art ….    

I’m not going to try to say more, or even quote more. This is, after all, only a post. Thanks to the Melissa Zink Retrospective, I’ve acquired enough material for a life or two, or at least a library of  long, long books. I’m going to conclude with some of my favorite pieces and a special thanks to Stephen Parks and the Parks Gallery in Taos, New Mexico for permitting me to use the images in this post.    

Reader and Writer Imagining. 2004, mixed media, 13x17.5x3.
Some People, Some Times. 2000, mixed media, 27x43.5x2.
Tender. 2004, oil and mixed media, 19x17x2.

Author: latefruit

I am forever writing the great American novel, practicing the piano (in hopes of joining an amateur string quartet someday), gardening, and now, since I've gotten old when I wasn't looking, trying to figure out what that means.

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