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.
[Guest post by Jessica Guzmán. Photo and art provided by Melissa Johnson.]