IN CONVERSATION- MELISSA ROMULUS AND THE PANBLACK TONE

“As you explore Melissa’s work, and even through our conversation, the feminine form is dominant, it appears to be Melissa’s protagonist, usually front and center and bold in character paying attention mainly to women’s issues”

THE PAN BLACK TONE

Hey, it’s your girl Kilali from THE PANBLACK TONE (TPT @the_panblack_tone) in collaboration with AYA Africa.

I recently had the pleasure of reconnecting with an old friend Melissa Romulus, we met years ago at work and mutually had an instant understanding of one another being the unwritten silence and frustrations of being young black women in an industry (fashion) that often favors you as a trend and that continues to exploit so many aspects of our communities, though the frustrations are real I think overtime we’ve both learned how to navigate it without losing sense of self (it’s tough for sure, but we prevail). Though I knew Melissa was and still is a very talented artist it only occurred to me as we were catching up that I had little real knowledge and understanding of Melissa’s artwork, typically I tend to deliver an Introduction article on artists, in this case this is 100% a Connection article between the artist and her work.

Source, Acrylic on canvas, 30×24, November 2016

Rain, Acrylic on canvas, 14×14, April 2020

But before we delve into our reconnection with Melissa, a little intro is still needed. Melissa is part of a unique group of black women, in fashion. Melissa is of Haitian origin, her parents immigrated to the U.S settling down in the metropolis of Washington, D.C before Melissa was born, and like many of us who are children of immigrant parents we straddle worlds and are influenced by the combined exposure. Throughout our conversation Melissa recalls the artwork her parents and other family members have at home, majority of which are the works (specifically paintings) of Haitian artists and artisans they know or that they spend time researching, most importantly  acquiring artwork that holds significance to them, Melissa commented that she thinks her parents “like having certain pieces that are iconic for those artists” such as collecting pieces that exemplify an artist’s technique, it’s very clear that the value of art is one of importance, worth and representation that has been bestowed to Melissa. This early introduction to art was the seed that sprouted Melissa’s interest in art and the world that surrounds it. As we all navigate through our winding journey’s, Melissa’s path led her to study Fine Art but ultimately, she decided to continue her learnings via explorations such as participating in exhibitions, leveraging her discoveries through travel and culture to influence her work and inspiration from books and the work of artists that she respects and admires, of which her all-time favorite artist is Van Gogh.

**PLAY AUDIO**

Let’s Play, Acrylic on cardboard, 36×24, 2011

Thinker, Acrylic on canvas, 16×20, April 2015

Durag, Acrylic on canvas, 14×14, May 2020

There are some many dope qualities about Melissa, but I’ve got to say her willingness to share her vulnerabilities are truly encouraging, there were moments in our conversation I found myself opening up about that I hadn’t considered doing but felt so fluid. I genuinely hope that our reconnection and Melissa’s apt ability to articulate her views and approach to her work transcends through this In Conversation article…

THE PANBLACK TONE: ok so art has definitely been a major influence in your life, but is there a significant moment that you could pinpoint the emergence of you as an artist?

MELISSA ROMULUS: I really started painting seriously when I was in high school, I also got my first real acrylic kit around that time because I wanted to start mimicking the paintings I was seeing when I was going to museums and from books and movies that influenced me, we had also moved to another area and I had always gone to school with the same kids, and now I wasn’t, I found spending that time by myself really forced me to cultivate those other interests that I had.

It’s interesting when you look at Melissa’s pieces, you can genuinely see the layers she speaks too, whether that’s her technique of building the acrylic on top of each other, or her use of patterns and colours her work forces you to look deeper, honestly, I’m not sure if that’s something she does on purpose but it feels like a nudge to view art more frequently in person, in todays world it’s so easy to view things online but I have to agree nothing beats physically seeing art up close and personal (most of us know this, but unfortunately we have also succumbed to life in a digital world, I’m definitely guilty of that). Naturally, I gravitate to Melissa’s work as she’s not afraid to use colour (if you’re new to The PanBlack Tone checkout our first article with Aya Africa in Dec 2020, and our IG @the_panblack_tone will help to give more context of our unconditional love for colour), it’s evident in her work that she is attracted to bold colours that are deliberately used to grab attention and defines colour as a connection to her Haitian origins.

THE PANBLACK TONE: I often find that artists across the afro diaspora use a lot of colour and patterns, that seemingly is influenced by their culture, would this be true for you?

MELISSA ROMULUS: Yes, especially lately, I try to use a lot of the same images and colours to connect a lot of the pieces because they have a lot of the same themes going on, especially more recently they’ve been about systems, culture, and things around that.

There was a defining moment in our conversation where Melissa expanded on how colour is interpreted in her work, though some of her recent pieces have been on difficult subject matters there is an underlining beauty in some of these issues that can be articulated via colour, that for her the image doesn’t necessarily have to be dark to convey the same message.

MELISSA ROMULUS: I really started painting seriously when I was in high school, I also got my first real acrylic kit around that time because I wanted to start mimicking the paintings I was seeing when I was going to museums and from books and movies that influenced me, we had also moved to another area and I had always gone to school with the same kids, and now I wasn’t, I found spending that time by myself really forced me to cultivate those other interests that I had.

Grab, Acrylic on canvas, 16×20, June 2017

Malfunction, Acrylic spray paint on canvas, 16×20, 2015

There’s definitely a common thread in Melissa’s approach where she implements a theme using pattern to connect her pieces, in her recent work she often incorporates circles that symbolize cyclical issues that we have in society, in essence the subject isn’t new it’s just been remixed into a variation of the same issue, a perpetual cycle where we continue to spin around, you can see this in “In Wake” and “The Gift of Hypocrisy” .

**PLAY AUDIO**

As you explore Melissa’s work, and even through our conversation the feminine form is dominant, it appears to be Melissa’s protagonist, usually front and center and bold in character paying attention mainly to women’s issues, though notably she creates pieces that are gender inclusive where the protagonist is the subject matter such as The Gift of Hypocrisy. The introduction in college to Kara Walker’s work, an African- American contemporary painter known for conceptual art, text art, silhouettist, and multimedia art who explores race, gender, sexuality, violence, and identity through her work is who Melissa credits for encouraging her to incorporate political messaging, striving to make it vocal enough to grab people’s attention. Admittedly knowing her work is not as shocking as Walkers, but the importance of Walker’s influence has stirred a compelling need that motivates Melissa to WANT to put her thoughts into her work, something that she had not considered or done before discovering Kara Walker.

Outside 3.2, the stable patch, Acrylic on canvas, 20×10, April 2020

A Place in the Underworld, Acrylic on canvas, 20×10, June 2017

Spring, Acrylic on canvas, 16×20, April 2020

There’s this dichotomy between “pretty” and “shocking” art, what appeals to the masses? this was a really interesting part of the conversation where Melissa talked about how “pretty” art is likely to sell faster, that people are likely to want to have pretty art on display in their homes versus pieces that shock or are perceived as hurtful, if I’m honest I’m drawn to a given piece of art because it moves me in some way irrespective of what box it falls into; I think for most of us that’s the case, I very rarely question my reasons why, I just accept it as an emotion that connects to the piece, until now there wasn’t a desire for me to look beyond that feeling. However, as Melissa expands on this notion it did irrefutably make me think about the other side of the agenda and the impact it may have on the artist, the subject and its effects on individuals who have directly experienced certain events. Melissa’s work may not be overtly shocking or “disturbing” but to her point does it have to be? the use of colour can be dramatized it can amplify a theme that could be disturbingly beautiful, it’s poetic in itself!

**PLAY AUDIO**

So, how do you do it… how do you create bold pieces, that stay true to you, reflect your thoughts and are able to provide you with a sustainable livelihood that doesn’t impair your morale compass? feels like a loaded question, ultimately it comes down to balance but I think that’s easier said than done. On the other hand, you have individuals like Melissa who confidently say that this is exactly what she is striving to achieve, by “finding ways to make art that speaks to people and makes them think about the world that they live in and is also aesthetically pleasing… but I don’t want to sacrifice what I’m saying to please people”, Melissa Romulus. It’s tough, as a community and throughout modern history that’s what we’ve been taught to do, to please a specific group of people by sacrificing our worth, I personally think that artists and creatives have been some of our strongest warriors, through their talents they have advocated, shared, disrupted, supported, encouraged our stories to be told, our voices to be heard and continue to invigorate us!

Signing off with Melissa taking us through Continental Divide, but for context and before you click the audio, during our conversation I had told Melissa that I see a physical reflection of her in some of the women she paints, to me there is a strength in the softness and poise in these women that symbolize Melissa, I’m truly grateful for this reconnect and to have deeper insight of an old friend and talented artist.

Be sure to checkout Melissa’s website www.melissaromulus.com and IG @melissaromulus.

Keep pushing boundaries,

THE PANBLACK TONE

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