Melanie Norris’s portraits push beyond the physical and deep into the psychological. “What sets mankind apart is the broad range of emotions that flesh out their personality; the things that can neither be seen nor described, only felt,” she told me. Born and raised in Johnson City, North Carolina, she got a BA in Studio Art at East Tennessee University in 2011, and swiftly moved to just outside of Asheville, where she has been painting feverishly ever since. We spoke via phone about her new body of work. She was fired up and articulate, but also conscious of the fact that her verbal descriptions of the paintings can only do so much. Editor’s note: the work below is from the series she talks about.
With your portraits, do you feel like you’re getting closer to your subject’s essence, or are they a place from which to lift off and explore something else?
I think both. I think, more from my perspective, it’s a place to lift off. It’s a vessel for all these emotions and things I want to explore. So I use the faces as a structure, basically, for these abstract emotions, exploring things, dealing with things. And then, the way that people view them, they often have a more personal response, like, “Oh, you really captured this person’s essence.” But I think that what they’re tapping into is a universalism, not necessarily specific to one person.
So you’re digging deep into the emotional inner life?
Absolutely. And with this new new body of work, I’m kind of reinvesting myself in just the material, formal qualities of painting. What does this color do? What does this texture do? How can I play around with these? So I’m trying to take a step back where I went pretty far forward into the psychological implications of like, ‘What does it mean to paint this person in this way?’ And now I’m kind of taking a step back and saying, ‘I paint faces almost incidentally.’ I'm working more towards the materials, the textural aspect, trying to become a better or more interesting painter in a technical sense. Because I think that with anything, you have to constantly brush up on your chops. You’ve got to make sure you’re doing it the right way and not too far into the thinking and feeling part of it. So right now I’m just kind of reinvestigating materials and using the face as the vehicle for the materials.
Is there a specific theme to this work?
It’s about how we’re different people from one second to the next, and the duality of who we are and what we think about. And I think it’s strongly influenced by what we’re going through today as Americans — how it is to navigate your way through life in the current society and how one person can inhabit two conflicting views or opinions, and how that is a respectable and honest thing versus something that should be criticized or called out or whatever. I’m just trying to explore people in their natural, genuine state and show that as beautiful and honest, versus something that is incorrect or something that should be criticized.
I love that. We’re so contradictory. And at one point in my life I might have seen that as a flaw. But now I just see it as being human.
Exactly. How could I be the exact same person I was even just two minutes ago? We shift so much, and I think that’s what makes us so wonderful. Humans are wonderfully complex and awful and beautiful. I think that is something within reason to be celebrated. And I think with my portraits, I’ve naturally moved into just doing that, painting multiple figures as one portrait, like, ‘This is who I am because I’m multiple people.’ And I think about a lot of different things. This is just one of the things that I’m thinking with this series. It’s also about shifting moods and how I see people today, and I see it in myself even, where happiness and sadness and anxiety and all of this stuff, it’s on a pendulum that’s so heavily weighted, it shifts quite a bit from moment to moment. And what does that mean? Why is that? I’m not unique in that. I see that in a lot of my peers. And so is that a new thing? Is it new to us because we’re experiencing it for the first time as a generation? I think that the older I get, the tougher life feels and the more I feel the need to explore it as a sense of self-preservation.