Artist Spotlight

Artist Spotlight: Melissa Smith Kennedy

In the Artist Spotlight series of blog posts, The Layered Onion highlights an artist in the community. We’ll get a chance to learn more about them and their work. 

In this post we are featuring Melissa Smith Kennedy (she).

Melissa Smith Kennedy is a self-taught mixed-media collage artist based in Charlottesville, Virginia. She has always enjoyed art, but decided to pursue it in earnest in just the past few years. Melissa copes day to day with autism and PTSD, and finds making collages helps to keep her balanced.

Melissa did a Q&A with The Layered Onion, talking about her art:

What first drew you to art?

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in art. One of my earliest memories is of my mom reading book after book to me while I studied the illustrations. Textures were particularly fascinating—how could marks on paper look so much like kitten fluff or tree bark or bear fur that I could almost feel them? That was magic, and I wanted to know how that type of magic was made. 

I’ve always liked creating. Over the years I’ve dabbled in practically every kind of art or craft there is. I’ve drawn, painted, learned to dye and spin my own yarn, sculpted clay, made paper, learned needlework and printmaking. I think collage is my favorite because of its simplicity—just paper and glue, readily available materials, but there’s so much those simple tools can do. 

Melissa Smith Kennedy, Lesson One. Vintage papers, dictionary and magazine on mixed-media paper. 2022.

How would you describe your artistic style?

Playful, often with a dark undercurrent. I like freeing images and shapes from their given context and letting them interact with each other in new ways. Sometimes they have surprising things to say to each other. Sometimes they make me laugh. 

Composition and fitting pieces together is an important part of your work. How do you decide what goes where? Are you always collecting fragments as inspiration?

I am blessed/cursed with an overly analytical brain—I like to know everything about everything, facts and data and how things work and why. I love reading and research and theorizing, taking things apart to see how they work. But sometimes that leaves me spiraling with a lot of noise in my head. Too much of that leads to depression. Working at art, working with my hands and focusing on images rather than words quiets that side of my head, reminds me how to play and tune in to emotions. I have to turn off that analytical brain when I’m working on a collage, otherwise I get hung up on trying to make the work mean something, or worrying about the composition, or if the colors are okay … I get tangled up in details. When I just let go, stop thinking in words and just open myself up to image and color and pattern, I feel like I’m following where inspiration leads instead of controlling it myself. I really love the feeling of that state of flow. 

I have an enormous stash of pages torn from magazines, patterned paper, bits of ephemera, and so on. I’m always on the lookout for anything that might be used in a future collage, and I’m not above dumpster diving for old wallpaper samples. I also have far more old photographs than any one person needs, bought in an unfortunate eBay spree during a hypomanic episode. Since then, I’ve limited myself almost exclusively to materials I can get for free. People are usually thrilled to donate their old magazines for artistic purposes. 

Where do you draw inspiration from?

Everywhere and nowhere. Honestly I feel like I’m just along for the ride when I create collages. I flip through papers and images I’ve already cut out, put them next to each other, shift them around, and notice patterns and feelings. I try to keep it instinctive because when that analytical side kicks in, it stomps all over creativity and tries to impose meaning onto the page instead of letting it develop organically. I have a terrible time trying to create when given a prompt; it just doesn’t work for me that way. 

You have an interesting eye for color. Do you approach a piece with a certain color in mind or let the pieces speak to you or a combination of both?

This is going to sound strange, but sometimes I use a color for its sound. That’s how it seems to me, that sometimes I need to put a loud triangle or a humming circle into the piece. I don’t have true synesthesia, but that’s the best metaphor I can think of. I let the piece tell me what it needs.

Melissa Smith Kennedy, Miss Alternate Universe. Mixed-media substrate, magazine images. 2022.

You often utilize human shapes and combine them with abstract colors or patterns. For example, a human-spaced cutout filled with a cosmos pattern over a photo. What inspires you about human shapes?

I find I keep including portals and frames in my work, and the human shapes are both. I like playing with those ideas. Portals, of course, are doorways to somewhere else, and frames are a way of focusing the viewer’s attention and privileging what is in the frame. When we take the human out of the image, what’s left behind? Who are we, beyond our bodies, our faces in these spaces? Or what else is there in the space when the human, the former focus leaves—what pulls our focus then? What happens if the individual slips out of the frame, or breaks it? What is the frame? I like the questions. 

One of my favorite poems, “Keeping Things Whole” by Mark Strand, begins: 

“In a field

I am the absence

of field.

This is

always the case.

Wherever I am

I am what is missing.”

I love that contradiction: I am what I am not. I’m trying to explore that in some of these collages. 

Thanks for sharing your magic with us, Melissa! You can see more of Melissa’s work on her Instagram @paper_loves_glue.