Meshell Melvin Yukon Prize icon 2023 Longlist

Artist Bio

From her beginnings and fine art education in southern Ontario to the home in the North she chose, Meshell Melvin has fashioned a professional art practice that spans thirty years. Her images reflect an interest in her community and the natural world around them. Meshell’s strongest relationship is with textile, a medium that she shares with a rare industrial chain-stitch embroiderer. Together, in an act of public portraiture they have performed at Yukon festivals, and as a member of the cultural team representing the North at the Vancouver Olympics. For a number of years, she independently studied animation and produced two short animated films. She has exhibited widely. Her work hangs in private and public collections, and has been featured in print, radio, television and is the subject of three short documentary films. Meshell’s commitment to art education parallels her devotion to her practice, and takes her on artmaking adventures across the territory.

Artist Statement

I approach fabric with the aesthetic of a painter, eager to get her fingers into the paint. I cherish my ofttimes drawing tool and brush; an obsolete industrial chain stitch embroidery machine. I find images and narratives in the landscape, in people, and in my own experiences. I am not often without my sketchbook. Ever curious and keen to experiment, I use many of my tools and materials in non-traditional ways. I am at my best, when I am creating.

Early in my career, my first pregnancy inspired a break from oil painting, and a search for a non-toxic medium. A year of exploration landed me in a relationship with textile and after 30 years, it still provides me with the greatest delight. I am enamored with fabric; I love the colour, patterns, and textures and how they feel in my hands. The stories and histories connected to each piece in the collection is like the chatter of old friends. Much of my path in this medium has been without a chart; there have been puzzles to solve and ideas, techniques, and methods to investigate. Most recently I have learned to use a laser cutter in our local maker space. This technology has transformed my process; it made possible a migration of salmon, and all the berries of the season.

The images are collaged with fabric and then permanently attached to the canvas with the chain-stitched line of my embroidery machine. The Universal Movement Machine was invented in 1865 and named for the capacity of the needle and foot to move in a multi-directional way. By maneuvering a handle underneath the machine, I am able to guide a continuous line of stitches over a piece of fabric. Akin to the way that textile became my painting medium, embroidery became my line.

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To explore the correspondence of drawing and embroidery I began to make contoured portraits with the machine. In 2003, Art Festival bound, the embroiderer and I set out for the first time to
demonstrate and perform in public. I was joyful. I had found something that felt entirely on the mark for me. Terrifying, challenging, fun, and full of intimate and creative exchange. The outrageous idea of “drawing everyone in the Yukon”, came in this first year. I will never draw all of us, but I have made a lifetime commitment to embroidering as many of us as I can.

My practice is both personal and social, believing art has a function for both artist and viewer. The objective is to have the work connect with the audience; that there might be a movement of feeling, of memory, of thinking, and new ways of seeing. I feel I have a role within the community; to light up the imagination, and to advocate for creativity as an instructor, performer, and maker. It has been the discipline of portraiture where the interaction has been the most direct that I have experienced some of the deepest artistic and personal lessons.

Meshell Melvin, 2023

Photo by Eric Pinkerton

Meshell Melvin, Berry Song, 2023, 3 of 3

"Berry Song"

2023: textile collage and hand stitching; 36” x 22

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Harvest time in the Boreal Forest, the understory is a blaze of colour, and the berries ready for picking. The plants and berries I have assembled are leftovers from, Berry Season 2020. This work began construction in the same way, but I found that the delicate shapes of the flora was getting lost. Following my Delight, I cut back the second layer of collage and allowed the plants to dance decoratively on the stage. In the past many years of approaching the details in my work, I have used a method of applying a fine layer of tulle overtop of all the tiny bits. Stitching through the tulle secures all the parts below, though it remains overtop of the colour like a fine mist. The moments before the tulle is laid – when all the pieces have been fully assembled – is when the parts sing all together bright and clear. This “Berry Song” was composed without a veil. The plants and berry shapes are held in place by tiny silk stitches, made by hand and savored along the way.

Meshell Melvin, The Covid-19 Collection of Portraits, 2020, 1 of 3

"The Covid 19 Collection of Portraits"

2020; embroidery on canvas; 6’ x 25’ (dimensions variable)

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As a way of engaging with others in our initial period of isolation, and to record this shared experience; I launched a Covid inspired Portrait Project. Supported by an “On Yukon Time special initiatives fund,” I brought participants to a virtual chair in the studio using video conferencing technology. The worry and fear of the Covid haze lifted as I connected with the participants. I found joy in the drawing and in the interactions with my models. Together we formed a community. Each of these models are connected to each other through their portrait experience me. I connected friends and families who were separated by distance, and strangers to each other.

Unique to my practice in its method and circumstances, This Covid 19 Portrait Collection of 150 portraits, has its own place amongst my ongoing portrait project of 1400, and when in exhibition hangs on its own wall.

Meshell Melvin, Invocation to the Chinook of Chu Niikwan 3 of 3

"Invocation to the Chinook of Chu Niikwan"

2019; textile and embroidery on Pellon; 40” x 268” x 12” (dimensions variable)

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This textile instillation was created during the Chu Niikwan Artist Residency on the shores of our great river. My thoughts focused on the home and travel route the river provides to the fish species; in particular the Chinook salmon, whose migration of 3142 km is the longest salmon migration on the planet. Once bountiful, these fish provided for the people, the animals and the forests throughout the whole watershed. In recent years their population has fallen drastically, and despite fishing restrictions, the numbers have not recovered. It is devastating, and the implications are inconceivable. In face of this leviathan, I determined to make a big magic, a long prayer song, to guide the Chinook home.

Meshell Melvin, Berry Season, 2020, 2 of 3

"Berry Season"

2020; textile collage and embroidery on linen; 50” x 32”

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This work was created for the residents who live in Whistle Bend Place, a continuing care home in Whitehorse. It was devised to be a colourful Wayfinding feature, to support the residents in orienting themselves within the building. More than a landmark, it intends to stimulate the senses, awaken memory and entertain the viewer. The landscape, the plants and the gatherers are story prompts to encourage spectators to share their own stories. Most essentially, for all the berry pickers in the audience, there are berries to find and plants to identify.

Meshell Melvin, First Mother rises to defend the Arctic, 2018

"First Mother Rises to Defend the Arctic"

2018; magazine collage on canvas, 12” x 12”

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I was in anguish and in rage at the eminent prospect of the American Government opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for Big Oil to plunder. I called on the First Mother to rise from the deep and smite the bastards.

Meshell Melvin, Mountain Buck Brush Ablaze, 2019 1 of 3

"Mountain Buck Brush Ablaze"

2019; Textile and Embroidery on Linen;18” x 24”

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This landscape was a return to textile after a brief affair with acrylic painting. I resumed exuberantly, with new ideas to explore. The work was in the studio while the Chinook were made and completed just before Berry Season began. Experiments in this piece lead to new approaches in the two larger works. A fresh use of thread informed the making of the salmon and new methods of layering and overlapping the fabric, guided the construction of Berry Season.