Profile and photograph by Michael C. Butz
Years 24 • Lives Akron • Creates Akron • Degrees BFA in painting and drawing, The University of Akron’s Myers School of Art
For the past several years, Melissa Markwald’s artwork has turned heads – literally and figuratively. She primarily creates portraits, and her large-scale oil paintings have been on view at places like Massillon Museum’s Studio M, the Malone Art Gallery at Malone University in Canton and The BOX Gallery in downtown Akron’s Summit Artspace.
Her first major series, 2014’s “Anonymous,” dealt with transforming the unknown into the known.or the past several years, Melissa Markwald’s artwork has turned heads – literally and figuratively. She primarily creates portraits, and her large-scale oil paintings have been on view at places like Massillon Museum’s Studio M, the Malone Art Gallery at Malone University in Canton and The BOX Gallery in downtown Akron’s Summit Artspace.
“I was interested in taking normal people and using the medium to make them more important, make them iconic in some way,” she says. “I was taking people no one knew, and people would look at the paintings and say, ‘Oh, that kind of looks like Molly Ringwald.’ There was this expectation that people thought they were supposed to know who the person was, but it was nobody.”
She took a similar approach with her 2016-17 series “Rosie,” but for those works, she painted friends instead of strangers. All of her subjects were dressed like Rosie the Riveter, the World War II icon that represented women joining the workforce.
While the mid-20th century Rosie was a mass-produced wartime call to action, Markwald’s Rosies are individualized and eminently more relatable to 21st century viewers. Her subjects communicate a wide range of emotions, and together, the paintings offer commentary on themes such as feminism, gender identity and representations of strength.
“It was a refreshing series for me because there was a lot of collaboration between me and the subjects,” she says. “I was like, ‘What do you want your painting to look like? What take do you want to have on it?’ Letting the subjects have that decision was really interesting.”
The arts community has taken notice. Markwald’s work has repeatedly placed at juried exhibitions in the region, and last year, she earned a scholarship to participate in the summer undergraduate residency program at the New York Academy of Art.
“It opened my eyes. I got to meet so many people and learned so much there about technical skill,” she says of her New York experience. “I learned that everyone finds their own way of doing what they want. There’s no one way to be an artist, there’s no one path. Everyone gets what they want out of it.”
Markwald didn’t take interest in art until late in high school, but that was enough for her to explore it further while at The University of Akron. She was drawn to the process of making art more than the finished products she created, and she landed on using oil paints instead of acrylics for similar reasons – they force her to stop, let the paint dry and think about her work.
In addition to her schooling, she credits her time working at the Akron Art Museum as a “major influence” on her decision to pursue art.
“I was a security guard there for six years, and talking to the public about the artwork really opened my eyes to all the different purposes art can serve to different people,” she says. “I was always amazed. People would come in and they’d say something about a painting I’d seen a thousand times and (then) I’d have to look at it a completely different way.”
What’s her favorite painting at the museum? “Opened Box” by Philip Guston.
“He used to go to his studio late at night and paint until he did something that made him uncomfortable, and then he’d leave,” she explains. “Every time I look at that painting, I always try to look at his brushstrokes. I wonder at which moment he ended. I wonder what the last stroke was.”
These days, Markwald still discusses art with patrons – but it’s now her artwork that’s the topic of conversation.
“I think most people, when they see my artwork, they expect they should know what it’s about or know who the person is, but I also get a lot of people who question why I’m doing it,” she says. “To see them perplexed by it, I always find that really interesting.”
Markwald adds people assume that because she makes realistic images, there’s no concept behind them. One person in particular, she recalls, questioned one of her straightforward, realistic paintings.
“He was like, ‘that’s a really big photograph.’ ‘Well, it’s not, actually.’ I ended up talking to him about it, and he was like, ‘Why isn’t it just a photo?’ We had a long conversation, and then he left. He came back for another opening and was all fired up, and he said, ‘I get it now!’” CV
Lead image: Melissa Markwald in her Akron studio.
“As a student, Melissa pushed herself to make more work and show it at every opportunity – she had obvious ambition and guts. It’s also been exciting to see her post-baccalaureate work grow as she has continued to push her artistic practice by adding varying degrees of abstraction and scale shifts to her portraits. Some of her recent work has begun to address questions of empowerment and gender norms as well. It is especially exciting to watch young artists as they find their voice.”
– Arnold Tunstall, director, University Galleries at The University of Akron Myers School of Art