Mel Cook is a visual artist currently living and working in Chicago, Illinois. She was born and raised in Ohio. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio in 2009 and attended Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois where she received her Master of Fine Arts in Painting in 2012. She has previously taught at Illinois State University and Illinois Central College.

She is currently a teaching artist at Marwen in Chicago, Illinois. Her work has been featured in Art in Print and most recently in New American Paintings, Midwest ed. No 125. This year she was a participant in The Center Program at Hyde Park Art Center and a summer resident at Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture. Most recently her work has been exhibited in Chicago at The Hyde Park Art Center and is currently featured at Heaven Gallery.


NICOLE: Can you tell us a little bit about your creative background? Where did you study and how did you decide to practice painting?

MEL: I studied painting and printmaking at BGSU. I always loved painting, but it wasn’t until my senior year that I knew I didn’t want to stop and I would do anything to keep doing it. I decided to go to grad school right after graduating, which many people advise not to do, but I had hit a stride in my work the last few months of school and I knew I needed to continue this work and not lose momentum.

But the politics of the everyday affect larger modes of thinking and I’m much more concerned about how these structures of thinking are embedded in our culture.

I didn’t want to move back home and work retail. It felt like a life or death decision. I needed out of Ohio so I packed my bags and moved to Illinois. I was at ISU for three years. It was great to have three years of total focus on painting. I was obsessed with painting. It was the only thing that made me really excited about life. I was literally living in a cornfield bubble of bliss.

NICOLE:Can you discuss the decision to include domestic scenes, like flowers, embroidery, and nature in conjunction with the words, for example,”MOTHER FUCKER” juxtaposed in the background/foreground? 

MEL: Ah, yes, MOTHER FUCKER. She is a beast. That painting was was a big shift in my practice this summer at Skowhegan. It’s a collecting tray of cliches, genres, tropes, and absurdity. I’ve been wanting to work with language for a while but wasn’t sure how I would want to do this or what I would really want to take apart and think about. Mother Fucker is such a problematic word that I hear so often. It felt all too relevant in its nod to violence, degradation, rape, incest, anger, and machismo puffery.


At this time I was also reading Mothernism, by Lise Haller Baggesen, and thinking about all of the complexities around the Mother. It always comes back the Mother. There is such a history of total revere for the Mother and also total abhorrence. It’s this duplicity that fascinates me. These extreme paradoxes that always seem to box in women. It’s extremely political and casual and I wanted the painting to have these moments of sincerity and also disregard and anger toward the imagery, the materials, the language, the viewer, and especially towards the history of painting.

I want to loosen up, to fuck things up, and to fail. I find this very exciting.

MOTHER FUCKER is structurally inherent to the composition and also a decorative veil. It’s always two things at once. These things are so embedded in the everyday and so blurred and distorted it’s exhausting to pick apart and the paintings reflect this absurdity.


NICOLE:How do you consider the materials that you utilize in your paintings? Example: chicken bone, stickers, wrapping paper, rope.  

MEL: A lot the the materials that I use are usually either trash that I find and fall in love with or weird tacky crap from thrift stores that are super cliche and trite. All of the objects I use have a relationship to craft or to celebration. I was a Girl Scout for the majority of my life and we were always doing crafts like making wreaths, sewing, beading etc. Signifiers of all of the cliches of girlhood; learning how to beautify the world and ourselves. This history of crafting, gift giving, making, and offering, like hosting parties, was passed on to me through all of the women in my family and it’s something I love but also feel ambivalent about. They always felt like tools for busying oneself, or trying to make oneself useful. Fuck that. But I still love these things. All of these things are deemed kitsch or cliche because of their tie to femininity which is so frustrating.


This ambivalence often manifests itself in my interest in death. This is where trash factors in. I spend a lot of time on my roof outside my studio and I found these amazing weathered chicken bones. I loved the absurdity of someone sitting on our roof eating a rotisserie chicken either out of shame or guilt or even survival (or maybe it was just a rat). I fell in love with them immediately. They are disgusting and beautiful and fragile and dumb and sad. All of my favorite things in one little smelly bone!

NICOLE:Your portraits are very apathetic, like moments in time. How do you approach a portrait in comparison to a still life? Is there a difference at all?

MEL: I treat them all as images but inherently they hold different histories. Working with the figure, especially the female figure, has always presented a range of problems that still life does not have. Working with the figure always feels very political because of the way women’s bodies are produced and consumed in images. As a response to this consumption I view the figures as being in the middle of looking or thinking. They are kind of hazy and distant, but autonomous because of their disinterest in the viewer. I’m not interested in their identity but in the tropes and cliches of portraiture.

Working with still life was and still is an alleviation of all of the anxieties that working with the female body presents. It has allowed me to build a new language within my practice that encompasses the same ideas but can manifest itself in the everyday. Anyone can access a table or flowers and this space can create a stage for new narratives, but the body is so specific. Flowers share so many of the same cliches that are layered on the body but they are more universal. There are a lot of parallels between them. I’m still approaching the images with similar interest in space and material but they are and will always be sisters, not twins.


NICOLE:You recently finished up a prestigious residency at Skowhegan. How did the experience change your practice or how you look at your own work?

MEL: My time at Skowhegan really helped me articulate the umbrella of my practice. I always felt like my paintings were stars in a larger constellation, but I wasn’t sure of how to discuss what that constellation was. I loved that Paul Pfeiffer described my paintings as condensed microcosms of the strangeness of the world. I would definitely agree with this. I am always thinking about the mundane encounters I have and how important these small gestures are in the world.

I felt that I needed to defend the seriousness of my paintings because I am interested in the nuanced politics of space, gender, language etc. I was around artists who are thinking about politics, but in terms of war and government. It can feel pathetic to talk about the politics of the everyday when people are making work about genocide. But the politics of the everyday affect larger modes of thinking and I’m much more concerned about how these structures of thinking are embedded in our culture.

Having Yael Bartana walk into my studio and tell me that I am doing very important work was validating and reaffirming. Skowhegan made me aware of the stakes, and how important all of these things are. It sharpened my awareness of how angry I am about these things and that anger has sparked a more aggressive shift in the work.

I loved that Paul Pfeiffer described my paintings as condensed microcosms of the strangeness of the world. I would definitely agree with this.


NICOLE:What does a typical day in your studio look like? 

MEL: When I first get to the studio I usually clean or do something mindless to get me in the mode of being in the studio. It’s like stretching. Then I like to put on music to dance to. Anything that I love to sing or dance to is good. I have to keep my energy up and feel excited, otherwise the painting suffers. Music really helps me feel free in the studio and take risks. Painting always feels so serious so it’s my reminder that I have to have fun when I’m painting. If I’m having fun, then I don’t care or think to much about what is happening in the painting. It’s like dancing, the dumber I feel, the better it usually looks. Because my work is intuitive I tend to paint in short bursts. It has to be the right moment, the right urge, the right everything…building up to this perfect moment. The paintings reflect this impulsiveness. It feels like a performance.

And then of course there are the long staring contests that come in between these burst of painting. I find that the longer I’m in my studio for the day the longer my brain unwinds and then I begin to have all of these new ideas surface, which helps generate the next painting. I do a lot of sitting, looking, and dancing.


NICOLE:What are you working on now? Any upcoming projects, exhibitions, plans? 

MEL: I’m still mentally unpacking my brain from Skowhegan. As soon as I returned to Chicago I was preparing for my current show We Have a Back Room With Other Things with Megan Stroech at Heaven Gallery which is up until December 3. So now it is really time to paint, look, and think. The work made a big shift this summer and I am really excited to see how it’s going to manifest itself in the next few months. I’ve been thinking a lot about landscape, working on a larger scale and working more gesturally.

I want to loosen up, to fuck things up, and to fail. I find this very exciting. I have a few shows lined up for 2017 that I am working towards.

The earliest ones will be this spring in Chicago. Both are group shows, one at Roots and Culture and one at The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art. Stay tuned!

Vagabond City Literary Journal

Founded in 2013, we are a literary journal dedicated to publishing outsider literature. We publish art, prose, reviews, and interviews from marginalized creators.