Melissa Lee Johnson


Check out the wonderful campaign art for the 2018 Milwaukee Film Festival

Matt Wild, August 16, 2018

It’s still summer, but it’s never too early to start thinking about the Milwaukee Film Festival. The 2018 installment—the festival’s 10th—is set for October 18-November 1 at the Oriental Theatre (now under the stewardship of Milwaukee Film), Avalon Theater, Times Cinema, Fox-Bay Cinema Grill, and a pop-up cinema at Kenilworth Square East. More than 300 films will be screened and oodles of events and conversations will be held. Plus, the fest falls over Halloween this year, and we may or may not have something spooky in the works…

But never mind that now—let’s take a peek at MFF2018’s wonderful campaign art! Created by MIAD graduate and Shepherd Express illustrator/designer Melissa Lee Johnson, the artwork features a “dollhouse”-style depiction of life in, according to Milwaukee Film, “a fictional, aspirational Milwaukee neighborhood.” There’s more than a passing resemblance to the East Side, too: a bowling alley, a yoga studio, and a raccoon lurking by a dumpster all make appearances.

“Our goal for this campaign is to celebrate the diverse audiences who enjoy our films and the diverse community we call home,” says Milwaukee Film, “starting with imagery of families and home (allowing for many interpretations of what constitutes family), and gently expanding to include portraits of beloved facets of our community, ultimately culminating with an image incorporating both the home and community aspects into a large portrait of a city neighborhood.”

Also of note: Johnson and her boyfriend make cameos in the birthday party scene, and there’s a pink unicorn on the roof. Eat your hearts out, Wes Anderson and your niece or nephew’s kiddie art class.

Festival passes and ticket 6-packs to the 2018 Milwaukee Film Festival are available now.

A World Created With A Pencil

Rose Balistreri, April 17, 2017

The pencil is such a basic way of making marks on paper that it’s easy to overlook as a serious medium for art making. The beautiful range of values, from faintest gray to deep, shiny black, and the great variety of textures, lines, moods and feelings the simple graphite stick can create is often underestimated. Which is what makes “Drawn Out,” a show devoted to this humblest of tools, and now on display at The Portrait Society, so notable.

Galleries rarely show exhibits of drawings. The medium is too fragile, difficult to display and not regarded as serious enough. Drawings are often considered preparatory works for larger, more permanent and therefore, more commercially viable pieces. So it’s a risky venture for a gallery, which after all makes its money by selling art.

One enters the Portrait Society space and is immediately sucked into the very large, luscious sky drawings of Todd Mrozinski. Surprising and intriguing, these drawings change from photo-realist, black-and-white skyscapes to almost abstract studies when we get closer to the surface. Chunky textures of bark (on trees) are set against smooth grays with clouds erased to form soft white puffs and wisps.

The drawings capture sky, clouds, trees and landscape, some with urban references that give a more specific sense of place, others that just float ambiguously.  There is great attention to detail, with a range of mark-making — hatching, scratching, blending, erasing — and gorgeous values juxtaposed with heavy gestural passages, a kind of pencil impasto!

After being confined to the little jewel box of a very public studio in the Pfister Hotel, where he was the Artist in Residence in 2015, Mrozinski is now back to working alone in his own studio. You sense the transition in his work, the feeling of freedom, space, of breathing the not-always-fresh Riverwest air from his studio in the Nut Factory.

A very different approach is offered by artist Mark Ottens, formerly based in Chicago and now in tiny Oostburg in Sheboygan County, and primarily an abstract painter. “When drawing, I am anywhere, I am nowhere. I am alone, the world is suddenly with me. I am drawing my way home,” he muses in his artist’s statement.

Perhaps there’s a freedom that comes from being anywhere. His drawings are not about capturing precious images and techniques. They can be playful, experimental, yet very beautiful in their own right. And they can sometimes feel obsessive. Otten has several, amoeba-like, highly-detailed, small drawings and a very large extended “doodle” with faces and filigree forming a fantastical web, creating a kind of “Where’s Waldo” surreal explosion in a work that’s 6 feet by 3 feet.  All those works are in black pen. He is also showing some whimsical, colored sketches he did on his brother’s cancelled checks! These are super fun. They may have text, little favorite sayings, bits of poems, songs, many with faces exquisitely rendered and quite colorful.

The work of Melissa Lee Johnson is also colorful and combines delicate drawing technique with soft, brightly-colored panels reminiscent of a page from a graphic novel. Her work offers a strikingly different approach to drawing, closer to illustration, which she majored in at MIAD. The work often includes text.

Her work can be funny, thoughtful, and suggest heartache, breaking up, jealousy, being cheated on. Revenge through art? She uses her own set of symbols, referencing internet, social media, texting, etc. I got most of it, but for some of I had to ask. This feels, as you’d expect, like the work of a young artist — fresh, urgent, immediate though very well crafted, almost painstaking. It straddles fine art and Illustration, a division which is perhaps passe’, though still apparent in some gallery settings.

The fourth artist is the recently departed icon of Milwaukee, the sculptor Adolph Rosenblatt. There are five, colorful abstract drawings based on trees on black paper. Rosenblatt was always looking, always seeing and he loved trees. These were some of the last works he created before he died, and make a sweet bookend to his long career. They are intense but gentle, full of life and vitality, just like he was.

Without belaboring the point, “Drawn Out” confronts the presumed insignificance of drawing and old notions about drawing as a preparation for more important, valuable works. Drawings can achieve permanence and an incomparable quality, and even when they don’t can allow us, the viewer, in on the process of the artist.

Deb Brehmer has been longtime arts writer, has taught at MIAD and has in recent years become a key part of the gallery scene with her Portrait Society on the fifth floor of the Marshall Building in the Third Ward. Even though the gallery is a business, her passion for educating, risk-taking and sheer love of visual art comes through in the often unusual or provocative shows she’s exhibited. This one is no exception.

The Performance and The Stage

The Milwaukee Art Shore, July 5, 2016

As a woman, and maybe as a man but unfortunately I can only speak to one, there is a societal eye imposing a stage and prompting a performance out of us in our everyday lives, doing everyday things. What I mean by that is, women and their bodies are everywhere in society, and they're expected to act a certain way and appeal to certain people. There is a stage, and a performance, whether we are conscious of it or not. And yes, I include myself in this performative group of ladies, because after speaking with artist Melissa Johnson, I can see it. Miss Johnson is intelligent about her work, and I mean that. She knows how to talk about her work and the art sphere in general, and most importantly she knows what she wants to say. With a recent degree from MIAD in Integrated Studio Arts, she is confident to speak eloquently about her work and the process she takes to get there. 

Melissa started the artistic process very young. She remembers always being drawn to, well, drawing, and that desire never waned. Puberty defined that desire for her, and she began to work more diligently and routinely on projects. She feels that the lack of mobility we feel as young people can be channeled into various activities as outlets of expression, and for her that form was art. She grew as an artist throughout high school, coming up with her own inspiration. I asked Melissa the question “how do you come up with what to draw when there’s the whole world accessible?”. Agreeing with my implication that it’s overwhelming, she revealed her process, at least her process as it was as a beginning artist. She likes to work in systems, or categories, as a way to isolate the world around her. In high school, she used to draw the things she read as a system of inspiration. “I did Alice in Wonderland a lot when I was younger, and I love Kurt Vonnegut. I did Cats Cradle, Poe poems, the classics, I guess.” This helped her grow from focusing on the technicalities within art (the basic skills, essentially) to focusing on developing her own visual language within her work. At university, she was able to reach a point where she gained enough vocabulary and had experimented enough to then create her own worlds within her illustrations. I couldn’t imagine that feeling, but Melissa explained it perfectly; “I felt self-actualized. I felt I could finally express what I wanted to say.”

When reviewing her work, I couldn’t help to feel her characters were watching me. Not in that semi-creepy Mona Lisa way, but in the bluntly direct and almost haunting manner that seems to perfectly balance the beauty and dreamy aspects within her work. We talked about this at length, and her answer was far more wonderfully complex than I had anticipated. “I view my drawings as stages. I’m really interested in young women feeling like they're constantly being looked on.” The characters in her work stare bluntly at the audience in order to acknowledge that stage, and comment on how the female body or form is being presented. Melissa plays with this idea a lot in her work, often presenting women outside of imposed beauty norms such as not shaving body hair or labeling themselves as “effortlessly nasty.” What is most interesting about this theme personally, is the conversation about identity and performance within each piece. Male or female, there is something relatable about identity presentation and the acknowledgement that you as an individual present yourself to the public domain everyday, and by understanding this, how does that presentation change. Melissa describes this interest simply; “I’m interested in watching people watching you and how you perform then. It’s so constant; women are always on stage.”

In addition to the somewhat political conversation Melissa’s work engages in, there are also strong personal elements within her art. She describes the characters she draws as various versions of herself in a way that adds a personal and confessional feel to the pieces, in addition to the detail of the objects she chooses to draw. Her work doesn’t always have to hold the feel of a diary, but she speaks confidently about every element being at a level ground for her. She says, “they’re only important to me, and that’s okay,” when speaking about the various objects strewn about in her work. And that’s important to note, because it speaks to her motivation as an artist. Ultimately, her work seems to be for her, and it’s okay that the audience doesn’t know, and might never know, why certain objects in her work are so special to her. By doing so, her illustrations are simultaneously private and public, and personally, that is pretty impressive. 

Melissa’s process normally takes place in the late night private hours or in the fresh mornings, and each piece typically takes a few months. Some are easier than others and therefore take less time. The ones that fall into systems and categories she's already developed, so each piece really varies. She primarily uses chalk pastel, colored pencil, and graphite, but she likes to keep things simple and direct. She’s participated in several different art shows, one held by a dear friend to her, and now seems confident to move on to new and exciting artistic adventures as a recent graduate. She hopes to collaborate with artists in the future and potentially animate her drawings as well. Overall, there really isn’t anything she would produce that she wouldn’t be comfortable showing to the public sphere; “Being a woman who is going to be vocal and not chill, I’ve had negative responses to that, but it doesn’t bother me as much. I’ve thought about this, and I think what I’m making and saying is important. In general, when I’m nervous about if something is too personal, I find more people can connect to it.” 

Lastly, I asked her to describe a moment for me during her creative process that particularly resonates with her. She tells me, “There’s just this feeling I get when I’m working on a drawing and I know it’s going to be a good one, even if it’s only five percent done. Just knowing I can overcome the challenges in the process, no matter what.” Melissa’s work can be found on her website where she continues to present inspiring images regularly. Wherever she wants to go, I’m confident she’ll get herself there. 

Pink is the Color of Our Insides: 4 grrls: pt. ii at The Lunchbox

Kayle Karbowski, February 5, 2016

I came across “The Grrls” collaboration on Facebook first as Elizabeth Rath’s profile picture. In addition to being an art student at the Milwaukee Institute for Art and Design (MIAD), Rath is also a fashion model. It’s not entirely uncommon to see images of her pop up on my feed, mid-runway stride dressed head-to-toe in clothes I could only wish to pull off in my daily wardrobe, but something about this picture was different – familiar. Perhaps it was the theatrical makeup, the playfulness of the pose contrasted with a stark stare that might be expressing a subtle “fuck you”, but could also be just a simple case of “resting bitch face” while in the midst of a daydream.

In the same day, more images from the same shoot appeared on Facebook, but this time from collaborators and fellow MIADians Sarah SicklesMarissa Macias and Melissa Johnson. It clicked. The styling and expression I recognized was from Johnson’s illustrious drawings of young women in spaces reminiscent of early 90’s platform video games. Most often in some form of fashionable undergarment, the characters in Johnson’s drawings are usually accompanied by speech bubbles – sometimes in conversation with one another or sometimes speaking directly to the viewer. These women are not unaware but they are unconcerned with our presence as they go about their business jumping rope, drinking High Life or simply lounging in their environments that may or may not be on fire.  

Later I would come to find out that this collaboration was spawned from a practice in art direction by Johnson. She invited Sickles and Macias, both aspiring conceptual fashion designers, to talk about their current clothing lines and how they relate to the contemporary art world. An interview and photo-shoot would take place, using Rath as a model for each of their clothes in a Johnsonian world impregnated with the interlacing ideas of Sickles and Macias’s work. Rath, much like Johnson’s characters, does not model as a “fashion model” in this shoot. Her body is not a fleshy mannequin molded to show off a style, but is an active performer. An intensity shines through the still images as she sternly grips her braids, effortlessly sways them from side to side, or, gracefully yet awkwardly, dances with a floating pink balloon. Like Rath’s own performance practice, a sense of serious play catches us off guard; we don’t know whether to laugh or furrow our brows and thoughtfully scratch our chins. So we do both.  

Now, as I sit in my studio while the grrls work in The Lunchbox, the four of them are posing for photos, laughing and discussing the way their different bodies fit into Sarah Sickles Pube Panties, a line of women’s underwear with beaded, pube-like strands on the outside crotch. Sickles work in fashion and photography features her body, as well as other young women, as a form of self-investigation. The Pube Panties are aesthetically beautiful with hues of pink and sparkling beads, but they simultaneously ask us as viewers to consider what we think of “the bush” these days. Does it make a woman “uncleanly”? Does having a shaved pubis recall pre-pubescence, and is therefore sort of perverted to prefer? These somewhat uncomfortable questions concerning the political female body are echoed again and again throughout 4 grrls: pt. ii and is what ultimately drew me (and the rest of After School Special) to invite them to do a second collaboration.

Upon approaching their installation, the intensity of a pink we came to describe as “melting strawberry ice cream” is as exhausting to the eyes as staring at a computer screen for hours on end. Along with the clothing displayed on hot pink hangers and the video of Rath moving about this created space to a slowed down version of “Heart of Glass” by Blondie, the way the space screams “GIRL” is aggressive, off putting, and kind of cozy. The uneasiness is intentional, and the grrls know that most of their viewers will be quick to criticize it. In fact, they hope you will.

As Macias put it, when talking about her own work, there is something about female sexuality that our culture finds frightening. Her ornamented utilitarian clothing line, though not always overtly feminine or reserved for the female body, aims to fight the idea that “gear” or functional clothing has to be void of fashion. In the video presented in the 4 grrls: pt. ii installation, Rath is dressed in a yellow ski mask with a gold patterned fabric around the eyes matching a halter bra and knee-high socks attached to sneaker soles designed by Macias and a pair of Pube Panties designed by Sickles. As she walks around the set, sometimes daydreaming upon a pile of clothes, sometimes caressing a cellphone, we are not sure whether we find her endearing or if she seems threatening.

Recalling the attitude of the Riot Grrrl movement of the 1990’s (hence, the title of this show), this idea of creating a girl powered world bleeds from the pores in the walls, the fibers in the clothes, and the pixels in the screen in the 4 grrls installation. As the five of us sat on the ground just outside of The Lunchbox to discuss their personal practices and their collaboration, our conversation quickly led into a discussion about our own girlhoods. It seemed as though we all held a desire to reconnect with a side of ourselves we felt too ashamed of growing up. Now in our early twenties, we feel it’s time we allow ourselves to do so. “BECAUSE we are angry at a society that tells us Girl = Dumb, Girl = Bad, Girl = Weak,” says the Riot Grrrl Manifesto, the 4 grrl’s fashion their own ways to begin navigating the complicated cultural climate around feminine identity. Although the color pink is often thought of as an ultimately artificial color, it is good to remember that pink is the color of our insides.

femfest 2016: meet melissa, artist and poster creator

People With Panache, January 22, 2016

Melissa Johnson and I met at 88Nine/Stone Creek Coffee and were able to find a corner tucked away from the 414 Music Live session with Allen Coté. (After the interview, I stayed to hear Jack Garratt’s live recording in the 414 Room; it was incredible!) Today, Melissa had her “last first day” at Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (MIAD). She’s in her final semester as an integrated studio arts major, which, I learned, means she isn’t limited to just one medium.

Here’s her little slice of Riverwest FemFest 2016:

People with Panache: What made you get involved with FemFest?

Melissa Johnson: I know one of the organizers, Olivia Doyle, from school. She had a music and art show at her house about a year ago with three bands playing in her basement in Riverwest. It was very DIY—she asked her friends and acquaintances to bring art, and I said yes because I always want to support fellow artists. Milwaukee has a really rich culture of doing that. 

So that was last year, and then the first FemFest was after that. I wasn’t part of it then, but it took off and did really well, so I definitely had my eye on it for this year. She asked me and five other artists to do posters this year, so of course, I said yes!

PWP: That’s awesome! It’s cool there is such a culture of artists supporting each other. How do you think this city encourages that?

MJ: Milwaukee isn’t an epicenter for business or culture yet, but that’s why this community of art and music has happened. A lot of times there isn’t an official space for artists and musicians to show their work, or record, or whatever they may do. Because of that, people feel the need to make their own way, create their own opportunities. I know so many people who have created their own spaces, their own studio space, like After School Special adjacent to Company Brewing.

I actually just had a collaborative show there with three other artists, and it was really great. There’s nowhere for artists to go if you don’t get it for yourself, so everyone needs to stick together and support each other. Milwaukee is small enough and has a enough of that small town feel where you know everyone, and everyone supports each other.

PWP: It’s incredible. And what do you hope people get out of your work when they see it?

MJ: First of all, the function of a poster is simple: to motivate people to go to an event. So when I shared it with people online and put it up throughout the city, I got a lot of great feedback. Things like, “I had no idea what FemFest was about until I saw your poster; the event looks cool and then I was curious,” which is a simple function. A lot of the work that i do isn’t necessarily portraiture but figurative of women and girls, and I channel who I want to be, like my ideal self or my fantasy self almost. And I find that a lot of times girls will connect with that authentic expression.

PWP: What have you learned about yourself while doing this?

MJ: I work pretty well under deadlines. (laughs) Working with other women is really great, but it’s inherently too easy to be solo when you’re an artist. If you ever need to get anything done, you’re alone, but I’ve learned the importance of staying in contact with people online, in person, whatever, to bounce ideas back and forth, and more importantly to make sure my art is going in the public and ultimately doing something. I’ve learned that other people are very important to the process.

PWP: What advice would you give to a woman who wants to become a successful artist?

MJ: I’m the one who needs advice! (laughs)

It’s really important to make connections, meet people and support your peers—no matter if they’re girls, or boys, or men, or women, or anything in between, but especially for women. I think there’s a lot of girl-hate, and that shouldn’t be a thing. Girls should always support each other; we need it!

PWP: So true. What do you find most fulfilling?

MJ: Having close and honest relationships and making work that is very authentic to myself.

PWP: What are you most excited about for this weekend?

MJ: I’m excited for the art sale on Saturday and Sunday night, to see what other work will be sold. I think there will be a diverse mix of work there, versus a gallery where it’s curated and a little more sterile. I’m also excited to interact with people — I have to be there to sell the work, so I’m hoping I get to talk to a lot of different people. The best part of it is that they are all people who are all going to be happy to be there. Gonna be good vibes!

The FemFest Gallery and Art Sale will be held for free, for all ages, in the space above Company Brewing on Saturday and Sunday of the fest, January 23rd and 24th, from 12pm-6pm.

10 Minute Critique

Debra Brehmer, 2016

There’s an effortless shift in Melissa Johnson’s works on paper from the functionality of a poster advertising and promoting “Fem Fest” in Riverwest, to color pencil drawings that while still referencing the low-down popular motif of posters with their tidy white plastic frames andsophisticated illustrational quality, function somewhere else. This vagueness of where they fit in (are they illustration, commercial design, feminist comics, fine art?) might very well be intended to elude classification, naming, objectification, ownership, and quick assumptions. Girlhood is the topic, positing the act of being female somewhere in a cluttered and manufactured world of straining desires, synthetic products, libations, bras, fishnet stockings, lucky horseshoe tattoos, mashmallows, ants, wine glasses and ferrets. There’s no shining things up here. In these well-drawn, even joyous accounts of women’s ‘objecthood’ and the societal forces that carve gender roles and identities, Johnson’s subjects lounge defiantly like unruly sailors within the poses of art history and its long fraught detritus of the reclining nude. But these girls are gnarly. Even in half dressed states they deny the tropes of seduction. No pastoral grounds or velvet chaise lounges here, only crowded, messy interior spaces suggesting the very familiar and often fraught terrain of girlhood’s counter-messages and confusing pressures. Oddly, even these messy places smack of freedom and in some strange inversion become a little bit like a paradise: Wouldn’t you rather live here than in a fully pretend ideal? Perhaps what adds just the right amount of pathos to the witty scenes is the word “Sorry”. Within all the activity and energy of the female protagonists, the word ‘sorry’ sneaks into each room — on a welcome matt, across a skirt . This feels so utterly and sadly feminine to me. WE are always apologizing, always worried about how we might be perceived, the feeling of ‘being watched’ so deeply embedded in the lineage of womanhood. ‘yes I’ll be strong, I’ll do and say what i want, but “sorry” I didn’t mean to offend you.”