When Art Opens Doors: Melissa Milton
One of DSN's members, Melissa Milton, was diagnosed with Dysautonomia, and like many of us had to figure out what this meant for her life, and what she was going to do now that she was required to spend so much time lying down. Like her motto suggests, she made the most of it and found an activity that she was passionate about and could do lying down and in the water. Below is an interview with Melissa, her process, her inspiration, and her life.
1. What drew you to art? When did you start?
Like many people, I have always dabbled in art. However, I did not start painting in earnest until I became disabled. My circulatory system will support me standing up for about 5 minutes at a time and I can sit up for between 1 - 3 hours (depending upon whether I can elevate my feet). So I spend the majority of my waking hours having to lie down. I initially began painting as a way to pass the long hours of being forced to lie down due to my autonomic nervous system malfunctioning. However, it was so enjoyable that it soon took on a life of its own. Instead of feeling frustrated that I had to stop what I was doing and lie down, my attitude shifted to “Okay, now it’s time to paint for awhile. This will be fun!”. It has helped me to adapt in a positive way to my physical mobility issues.
2. What mediums do you work with? How would you describe your subject matter? What themes seem to occur/reoccur in your work?
I paint on a touchscreen tablet using conductive paint brushes and styluses. This was simply a pragmatic decision. I enjoy using watercolors, oils, acrylics, and pastels. However, I paint while lying down. I needed a way to paint where I didn’t have to worry about spilling wet paint on my sofa or bed.
I didn’t realize it at first, but a recurring theme in my artwork is weightlessness. This comes from my daily water therapy. Like many people with dysautonomia, I am limited in my ability to stand up on land but have no such limits standing chest deep in the low gravity environment of water. I get in water every day to help my circulation, strengthen my muscles, and assist my lymphatic system. I cannot do aerobic activities even in water so I swim very slowly, partly floating. Water is my physical freedom and I’m always happy while in it. If you look closely at my artwork, you’ll notice that in most of it there is a person, animal, or object floating or moving about weightlessly.
3. Tell me about your piece. Is there something in particular that you wish to convey with this artwork or perhaps emotions or ideas that you running through your head at the time?
Both “Elizabeth’s Moonbeams” and “Cloud Burst” are the result of my daily water therapy and convey the theme of “weightlessness”. One evening I was in the water admiring how the pool lights bounced around within and outside of the water. The idea came to me of doing underwater photography of people. My first underwater model was one of my daughters. She is the model in both of these art pieces. In “Elizabeth’s Moonbeams” she was actually sitting on the floor of the pool while I photographed her. I later digitally painted upon the image to make it appear she was floating in clouds. In “Cloud Burst” she was floating on top of the water’s surface. I later painted upon the image to make it appear as though she were bursting through colorful clouds. By the way, somebody has to really, really like you to pose for photos underwater for you!
4. What does art do for you?
I believe we all need dreams and goals. It’s part of the human condition. It’s also true that working with your hands can be therapeutic (I’ve read studies indicating it releases certain brain chemicals that are conducive to happiness). Speaking as a disabled individual with impaired mobility, I believe that finding something I can do which involves working with my hands and which provides me with dreams and goals is very beneficial. In my case, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the number of people asking to buy my art. I’m actually about to go “live” selling it online in November. I don’t know how much will sell (and I expect sales to be modest) but even attempting to do it is providing me with dreams and goals.
5. When people ask you what you do how do you respond?
When people barely know you, I don’t feel like it’s the time and place to start a conversation with them about your medical issues. So I just say “I’m retired”. I actually was only six years away from my planned retirement date when my body wouldn’t allow me to work anymore, so people usually accept that. However, on occasion someone will comment to me that I’m "too young to be retired". When they do, I simply say “Medical issues forced me to retire earlier than I’d planned” and I change the subject. That said, who knows? If selling my art becomes a regular part time thing, maybe I’ll start responding “I’m an artist”. That would be nice.
6. What inspires you? What are you currently reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
I love listening to people talk about their life experiences, especially those who on the surface seem different from me. If you really listen to others, it seems obvious that we have far more in common with one another than we have differences. I enjoy listening to people in person and enjoy watching well crafted movie dialogue as well. A well written movie oftentimes has a lot of well thought out dialogue concerning the human condition which makes you think. I often watch/listen to movies while doing my water therapy and while lying down painting.
7. What do you think the biggest challenges to creating art are? Do you have one that is particularly troublesome for you?
To me the biggest challenge is to make yourself try something new you’ve never tried before. When people praise you over and over for a certain type of artwork, it’s easier to want to stay within that comfort zone rather than try something at which you may fail. However, if we don’t try new things we won’t know new things.
8. Do you have a piece that you are most proud of?
So far “Elizabeth’s Moonbeams” is my favorite. I’m sure the fact that she’s my daughter and it looks just like her biases me. I love my daughters SO much! (Fyi, I keep pestering my other lovely daughter to get in the water for me for a photo shoot. She lives a nine hour drive away so it’s harder to get together, but one of these days it’ll happen!)
9. What do you want your work to do for others?
Sometimes Life’s challenges can feel like doors that have closed on you. I will feel like my art has contributed something positive to the World if it helps at least one person who is facing one or more of Life's “closed doors” to actively seek out an Open Door. I believe we human beings tend to find that which we seek out.
10. Do you have a motto?
I do! It was, in fact, my great grandmother Melissa’s motto: “Things turn out for the best for those who make the best of how things turn out."
11. What three things never fail to bring you pleasure?
My grandchildren, fresh flowers, and chocolate. (I could make a longer list but you limited it to three.)
12. Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
Yes! Apparently with me it always circles back to water. I am currently experimenting artistically with dropping colored liquids into clear water and capturing photographs of that which I later paint. It creates a beautiful illusion of colorful clouds.
13. Are there different skills or techniques that you are hoping to learn/try in the future?
When I was younger I never enjoyed abstract art, but it’s growing on me. I’ve spent the last few months experimenting with it. I seem to be improving. I hope to learn how to do good abstract art and then incorporate it into the water themes.
14. If you could have an art class with any artist in all of time, who would be your top 3 and why?
Edgar Degas, because I would love to learn how to paint the way he does with his ballerina tutus and backgrounds.
Maxfield Parrish, because he is my very favorite 20th Century artist and I've enjoyed studying his artwork as well as reading an article he wrote as an elderly artist about how to emulate his painting techniques and colors.
John Singer Sargent, because I would want to learn how he paints such dark, neutral backgrounds (that make the people in his foregrounds “pop”) without them looking muddy. When I try that, to me it just looks muddy.
You can see more of Melissa’s art on her website: MelissaMiltonArt.com