By LJ Nicholson
When you have the desire to create things and make art, it never fades throughout your life. From your earliest elementary memories to times you cherish with children, the drive to showcase beauty never slows down.
Melissa Elenbaas, 48, of Grand Rapids came to Grand Rapids Community College to continue her education and work on a degree in the arts to further strengthen her skills and develop as an artist. Read on to learn more about Elenbaas and her artistic process.
How long have you been attending GRCC? Is this your first experience with college?
I began at GRCC back in the fall of 2019. I (was originally) taking two classes per semester. I dropped it back to one class in the fall of 2020 when I chose to homeschool my daughter for a year while the vaccine was being developed. So it will take me a bit longer than the usual two years.
I did attend one year of college as a music performance major back when I was 19. But I was too young and didn’t know how to get what I wanted back then. So, now, many years later, I do know what I want and I am learning how to pursue it.
What is your major?
I’m working on my Associate’s of Fine Arts through GRCC. The art program is great here. All the art professors are awesome. From the first drawing class with Professor Budden, to art history with Professor Overdevest, and even the department head, Professor Antonakis, (they) are super helpful and have always pointed me in the direction of growth and development.
How long have you been an artist? When did you plan on having art become your career?
Since I was a little girl, I loved to draw and (I) excelled at it. I remember being in sixth grade drawing DarkWing duck characters, and my friends were all gathered around me looking at my drawings. My teacher said, “Now if only you could do your math that well.” Yeah, I did not like math.
Then in fourth grade, an artist from the high school came to our class and showed us her art. I remember these gorgeous drawings with amazing shadowing and shading, and I was absolutely mesmerized. I thought, “I have to do that someday!”
So from that early on, I knew I wanted to be an artist. When I got to junior high and high school, I took as much art as I could, which was a good amount back in those days.
One of the first jobs in the design field I (had) was Book Interior Designer for a publishing house. I designed the interiors of books to coordinate with the book covers. That was a fun job; I really liked it. I did the interior design for Kate Gossling’s book, “Multiple Blessings”, and worked with other authors that were mostly a specialty market (people like Phillip Yancey, etc.) and so probably not so well known by the general public.
How would you define art?
Gosh, that’s a good question. I think it depends on who you ask. I have certain goals that I am always trying to accomplish in some fashion. For me, there has to be some touchstone of beauty. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a beautiful painting, but even a deep truth expressed well is a beauty to me. That is what I am drawn to and what inspires me, and what I try to see in others and what I want to come through in some way in my art. I want to have the final piece wow an audience with the beauty and skill of the technique.
Is there something you have seen other artists do that you do not do?
There is a thing we are taught to do in drawing which is visually measuring with a little stick. It’s a process of finding a unit of measurement, (like the length of) the head, and then measuring how many “heads” long is the torso. I am not always faithful to this measuring (technique). My process is more intuitive. Professor Antonikis, just forget you read that!
When making art, what part of the process do you find the easiest and most difficult?
I find the (whole) process of drawing the most difficult. It really is (an exercise) involving drawing, erasing, looking again, feeling something is off, looking again, erasing and redrawing. And because the drawing is the foundation of the piece, I want to get that exactly right before I move on to the shading or adding color. Once I get to the shading phase, it can become somewhat meditative for me.
I sometimes find it challenging when the drawing phase is eluding me. Like when I have to erase again, or start over on another page. But that is just part of the process. Start over or erase, and redraw.
What is your favorite style of art? Do you follow your favorite style, or use your own and why?
I would say my favorite style changes over time. Right now my favorite artists are Gustav Klimt and Henry Toulouse Lautrec. Both from around the same time, but (they have) very different styles. Klimt’s work is absolutely stunning! His figures are gorgeous and packed with symbolism and meaning that I love. Even his figures of death are beautiful. My favorite piece of his is called “Judith II,” which depicts the biblical character Judith with the head of Holofernes, which you almost don’t notice because it’s so much in the shadows. This was during Klimt’s gold series, so Judith is surrounded by gold and overlaid with a gold neck decoration. But her expression is what makes the painting stunning to me. If I could capture expressions like that in my work, I would feel I had not wasted my life!
As far as style, mine is still developing. Right now (it’s) very detailed with naturalistic coloring. However, I really love more expressive styles, like my favorite contemporary artist, Salman Toor. (Looking at the painting,) “The Bar on East 13th Street,” I am in love with it! The greens, the expressiveness of all the characters and colors, the nod he is making to the Manet painting, “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère.” It’s really a masterpiece.
When you try to come up with an idea for a piece, what inspires you the most? Where do you turn to for inspiration when you feel lost?
Sometimes ideas come to me out of the blue. Often I have to create art because of an assignment for a class. I always want my art to be something different than what is expected. Sometimes I need to rebel with my art, so I will include the bare minimum requirements, but then go off in a completely different direction than the examples shown. This is what I did with (my) piece called “Nobodies at the Trek,” which features a half-mannequin and two other partial mannequins. This was an assignment where we had to include a mannequin drawn from life. But when I looked at the shoes on the leg-only mannequin, it reminded me of a piece I had learned about in art history, called “Charles I at the Hunt,” where Charles is wearing these stunning knee-high kid leather boots with square toes. So I patterned (my) piece after that piece, and I had a lot of fun creating it.
What critique of your work made the most impact on you?
That’s an interesting question. I would have to say it must be when my third grade teacher, Mrs. Crump, told my parents I had talent, and that they should enroll me in a summer course at Kendall. I think being recognized for my drawing back then, when I was quite vulnerable and shy, and didn’t have a lot of friends, was probably a critical time for me to begin believing I had something of value in me.
The following questions I asked regarding Elenbaas’ piece “Disconnected.”
What’s the main idea and concept behind this work?
This piece is about being together, but not really being together. It’s about our bodies being in a place, but our minds being in another via our devices. It’s about disembodiment through our devices.
Why do you include the alien? Why is the alien eating a turkey leg out of all other human foods?
I included the alien because I wanted to push this concept to its ridiculous limit. The people are so into their devices that we get the idea they wouldn’t even notice if something important happened at the table. And as we can see, some important things are happening at the table—the dog has tipped over the gravy and is licking it up, an alien has descended, not only that, but he has taken it upon himself to eat the turkey that has been prepared. Which apparently is not a problem, because the turkey remains uneaten by the people, and the wine remains undrunk. They only have eyes for their screens.
Why is the background solid black? I like that it adds a contrast to the bright glow of the phones, but is that the purpose of it?
I wanted to try a dark background. I have always admired the Baroque era (artworks) where they used a technique called tenebrism, which is the extreme dark backgrounds with bright highlighted areas shining out at us. This is what I was trying to play with on this piece. I would say I somewhat accomplished it.
What details are important that a viewer should pick out from this piece?
Well, there is a lot to look at in this piece. And it makes me laugh when I look at it. Mostly because of the dog, the alien, and the baby. Look at them. They are really the only ones present, not disembodied. The baby looks at us as if to say, “can you believe this?” The dog is like, “hey, I just tipped over the gravy and no one is stopping me!” and the alien is like “hey, I’m an alien, and no one even knows I’m here. I’m gonna eat this un-eaten turkey, since y’all are too busy.”
This piece is about paying attention to what is important right in front of you. (Just like what I) say to my daughter every day, “Look for those amazing beautiful things, hidden in plain sight.”
If you would like to check out more works by Elenbaas, check out her Instagram.