Portrait of an Artist: Melanie Thompson

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Salt Spring Island artist Melanie Thompson looks to nature to provide the materials for her unique and functional lamps. Thompson combines her basket-weaving skills and found items like grasses, rushes, and seed pods to create the sculptural pieces. Her work will be on display as part of a joint exhibition with painter Carolyn Kramer at the Sidney and Gertrude Zack Gallery [950 W 41 st Avenue, Vancouver]. The show runs from February 6 to March 3.

The Straight reached Thompson by phone to talk about her work.

Where do you find your materials?

The basketry material I buy from a basketry supply person on Salt Spring. The willow sticks I get from just around the roadsides and people’s gardens and friends who grow basketry willow. The plant material, generally, I just get it from ditches and roadsides. I ride my bike a lot. When I’m in Vancouver I’m riding along the dikes in Steveston. On Salt Spring I’m always walking. If in gardens I see some nice seedheads or grasses, I always have my clippers with me. I just forage, kind of, for materials.

Why do you like using materials you find in nature?

Part of it that I really love is that they’re so beautiful. Even in their decaying state I find them really beautiful. When I was originally making lamps, I’d think: ‘What would happen if I used that?’ Or, ‘Could I use that? It’s so beautiful. I wonder if other people see the beauty in it like I do’. Part of the reason was to collect the stuff and just present it in a way that I hoped people might go, ‘Hey, I never realized how beautiful that dried poppy head could be’. Although I do think most people see the beauty in nature. And I really liked the fact that I wasn’t buying something to make something with. And part of the real pleasure for me in making the lamps is going out and collecting the material and just being outside.

What is the most challenging part about using these materials?

I guess a lot of them are fragile. On their own they can be very brittle, but together, in a group, and when they’re woven onto a frame, they have an integrity and they’re stable and they’re not nearly as fragile as you might think. You can knock into them and they don’t break. But if it was a single grass stem it could easily be broken. And you can ruin it if I’m weaving too tightly. And sometimes I collect material and then when I go to use it, it’s dried, it kind of falls apart. For instance, cattails, they just disintegrate and they get all over everywhere.

Portrait of An Artist is a regular feature on Straight.com that profiles local visual artists. Suggest an artist to profile in the comments section below or by sending a message via Twitter to @thomsonreporter.

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