Artist and illustrator Melissa Ferreira likes to spend her days in the studio, in the garden, and in the company of loved ones—cats included. Finding inspiration for her craft in her day-to-day life, she creates children’s book illustrations, paintings, collages, low-relief pieces, and 3D art. Whatever the medium, Melissa’s work reflects a dreamer’s vision. As a member of the illustration faculty at the Rhode Island School of Design during its winter session for over twenty years, Melissa has a personal approach to creativity that she teaches: ask questions and try to respond honestly and wholeheartedly. Melissa is a New Englander with Portuguese-American roots who now spends her days making art, and dreaming, in Brittany,
Melissa illustrated Bear’s All-Night Party by author Bill Harley with charmingly detailed acrylic paintings. As we release our new reprint of the title, we were thrilled by the chance to recently catch up with Melissa and ask her about her creative life.
Maggie: How did you discover your love for art?
Melissa: Well, kids are creative little beasties, right? So I think virtually any kid is going to love making things and wiggling around, albeit with their bodies or some kind of musical instrument or thing that makes noise. I was wholly normal as a kid. I would say normal as in not having any special art gifts. You get that box of crayons—the standard stuff, coloring books and drawing paper and maybe some special pencils. I think that’s something that was always there. I have a few memories of making things, but nothing grand.
The presence of just being creative as a child normally is one thing I think is a gift of the universe. I remember just spending hours and hours by myself, climbing trees, playing with milkweed, kind of pulling it apart, digging…in other words, I had no temptation to play with video stuff. You amused yourself with just imagination. So I think more than saying the love of art, just the love of letting your mind wander and going with it. I would say that’s always been a part of me.
Maggie: What role did art play in your life during your childhood and your early adulthood?
Melissa: I was kind of a closet creator, if you will. I would copy photos from the TV guide, or what few books might have been around. Then once in a while, I would show my parents…and to my mortification, my mother or father would have company coming over and they would say, “Show them the picture that you did!” So it was encouraged and they were proud, but I was very, very, very shy.
I started at UMass…and then maybe third year in, I took an art class and absolutely loved it. Once I did that, I’m like, “whoa, I still want to be socially engaged, but man, I want to take this art thing and do something with it.” At that point, I applied to Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, and very happily, I received a big scholarship. That is what changed everything—to go to a school where art was taken seriously and the feedback was more critical. Just like anything, you get to meet people who know other people and you see things that you wouldn’t have seen in my slice of art life prior.
Maggie: You used to teach at the Pont-Aven School of Contemporary Art, and you’ve been teaching illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) for over twenty years. What has been especially meaningful or memorable about these experiences?
Melissa: If there’s one thing I’ve learned working in Pont-Aven, as an artist and as a teacher, it’s that if you wish to create, and you’re not under oppression, and you have your faculties there, and you have time, we all can make interesting things. For the American foreign exchange students I would teach, there’s something that you can find when you’re displaced, when you’re out of your same-old, same-old. You’re going to be able to figure out how to draw, figure out how to navigate whatever your level is with the language. You’re going to see yourself through a different lens when you’re working in a space that is somehow unfamiliar yet familiar. The pencils are the same, the paper is the same, your two eyes are the same, but something in the brain shifts. You make stuff that surprises you. And that’s really cool. The same thing at RISD, right? Where you create and you use the energy that’s all around you.
Maggie: I’ve read that you like to encourage students to ask questions and respond with honesty. Would you say that art asks questions, or answers them…or both?
Melissa: In Brittany, France there are a lot of art galleries and such. But when it becomes a tourist spot, it very often can be art that’s a little less genuine. I remember speaking to a man who has a gallery here. The stuff that he paints would be this look of the time of Paul Gauguin, which is the late 1800s. A lot of it would be women who went working in the fields wearing the traditional costume, with a…kind of bonnet. I remember asking him, you know, “Have you considered doing something where it’s a little more contemporary?” And he said, “No, that won’t sell.” I really like this person and what he does is perfectly legitimate, but his answer put a little pierce through my heart. I’m glad he was honest with me…but I don’t get it. People have said to me, “Well, why don’t you do this, this, or that because it will sell?” Because I have no desire to do it.
It’s a good question. Chicken and egg. I believe there are some days where art poses the question, and other days it gives the answer without itself changing. How’s that for being mystical? I’m always asking questions, I’m always doubting. Sometimes…I feel pretty confident, but there’s always the circle of “Why do I like this? Is it good? What does it mean to be good?” So it’s always amusing, kind of back and forth, right? Question answer, answer question. It’s like ping pong, and sometimes the ball goes right off the table and then rolls out of the room, down the steps, out the door, under a bunch of thorns…other times, it rolls right where it’s easy to pick up. And if you can’t find the ping pong ball, pick up something else and start playing with that. Use the mallet to scratch your back as you're trying to figure out what you're going to do next. Play ping pong with an egg. See what happens. Oh, that doesn't work. Ah, if I boil it, peel it, I hit it really softly, it can work.
Maggie: I’m curious, what happens when you get stuck—when you come to a creative roadblock?
Melissa: For maybe twenty years, I’ve had this book written by Anne Lamott called Bird by Bird. It is a hoot. I strongly recommend it. I was, at the time, picking up these guides on writing, hoping that they would somehow help with the visual artist’s block. And that one did for some reason.
I have the capacity to always stay busy. Never ever have I been the type to just plop in front of the television to escape artist’s block. That’s just not my way. In Providence I had a small house in the city, and the garden was tiny and the dogs were there. It was mostly dog release between walks and that kind of thing. In France, I garden like a fiend. It rains a lot so the soil is generous. For artist’s block, I will do garden tasks, stick my hands in the ground, and let my mind wander. Maybe this ties back to being that kid playing in the meadow or digging holes in the backyard. And that was never being a naturalist, that was just being a kid.
So it’s diversions in the garden, letting the mind do whatever it does. And it might be just concentrating on the garden, but it might also be thinking, “Oh, a seed goes in the ground. And look what happens.” And then when I come back to sit in my studio, I could think about growth, I could think about good weather and bad weather, I could think about the animals eating the garden stuff, I could think about how it feels to have your hands in the dirt. How do you make that into a visual?
I would say that’s a way, and then the other thing is just starting from nothing—well, not nothing. In the recycling bin at the bottom of our driveway, they have a yellow plastic sack to place all your items for recycling. Two years ago, in the big bin with the yellow sacks, someone had thrown out an entire set of 26 volumes of an old encyclopedia set. Of course, me being Miss Scavenger, out they came, the two sacks filled with those encyclopedias. So if I have an artist block…I’m just going to cut out hours and hours of interesting stuff from the encyclopedia, and then start to put them in piles and then start to put them together. Artist’s block and I, we’re very, very good friends.
I have companions in the studio: I sit here, Artist’s Block sits right at that corner, there’s another one called Anxieties who sits to my right. I have a couple of critics too. Then I often joke that there’s like the Monkey, you know, they talk about the noisy mind monkey. You’re trying to work and it’s pulling your ears. It’s like taking all those things you’ve cut out and tossing them on the floor. So I’m never alone, I have all of these things. It’s a matter of making sure that Anxiety sits over there amusing herself, and Artist’s Block, she does her thing. Monkey, I just have to accept the stuff that’s going on the floor. Then the cat sometimes comes up on the table and lies on the cutout scraps as well.
I would say that the worst thing—and everyone’s different—but the longer I refrain from doing something, the harder it becomes to start working on it again.
Maggie: Did you experience any of this—artist’s block, that is—when working on Bear’s All-Night Party?
Melissa: I remember living in Providence. So even before the fabulousness of moving to a place that really feels like a place that I was made for, if I had artist’s block and I was working in my home studio, I would pack up my sketchbook, and I would go to the bakery café. I would sit there sketching. In fact, I am pretty certain most of the sketches which started Bear’s All-Night Party were done with a series of visits to the bakery. Likely a corn muffin, certainly a large black coffee followed by another large black coffee.
For me, working in that kind of space…if you're feeling anxious about creating, but you're in the bakery, other people are talking. There's the clanking of cups. There's the in-and-out movement, the flow of the clients. Just that kind of white noise of real life can help with any kind of block, any kind of anxiety because you're distracted. You're not just sitting at your home table in your studio with the aforementioned “beings” that are there. You're in real life, and then you're focused. I find that really pleasurable.
Maggie: Can you tell me a little more about what it was like to work on the illustrations for Bear’s All-Night Party?
Melissa: The bears all started as acrylic paintings and then were finished (to varying degrees) using Photoshop. I paint in thin layers then do hours of thin cross-hatched strokes. My favorite tip? I use a glass palette for my colors and put it in the freezer between sessions. Thaw out is quick and there’s no loss of quality (or money).
You have a manuscript that’s to be broken down into a 32-page children’s book. You read the story, you reread the story, and you think of logical places where you can break up the text. And Bill’s story had a lot of text and the refrain of the song. You have to break it up and then take into account…at what point it will be too many words on the page, or too few. That’s part of your thinking. Then you print it out, you break it up, and then you begin the process.
As you may know, there’s something called thumbnails. Thumbnails are tiny scribbles (that are bigger than a thumb nail), similar to how you would make keynotes for your texts. You’re making visual notes to explain what might happen, given that bit of manuscript that you’re going to include on that left/right page, two-page spread.
Once you’ve kind of figured that out, then you work at a bigger scale for each of those two-page spreads. You begin to kind of scribble rough drawings…and you’ll see a version of things getting a little bit cleaner. And then the next stage is that you do it maybe even cleaner still in black and white, then the final in color.
Those pages for the most part started as pretty detailed acrylic paintings, mostly to the size of the book. So not big things but one hundred percent the size of the original book. Then I added and changed a lot of elements digitally. I had the original painting, but with each of the paintings they were then scanned. And then in Photoshop, I made them lighter or added details. For instance, I added a little underground nest with sleeping snakes, which is not in the painting, so I added and changed a lot of things digitally.
I believe it was something like three or four months of work. More likely four, because I’m going back to that slow and steady, a motto of mine. I was determined to put in as many animals and details. For me, I’d imagine as a kid, a delight is that you can see something on the third viewing that you hadn’t noticed before. Or that a parent who is reading this may not notice something, but the kid is going to be able to go, “Oh look, there’s an inchworm on the back of the turtle.” Something that’s not mentioned by Bill, that’s not part of the story so much as it is logical to the environment in its own special way.
That’s the process—it’s truly multi-multi step, and if you’re smart, you figure out how to make it interesting for yourself. This goes back to when I teach students. I say, “Try to figure out how to be clever, how to sell the assignment while still doing something you want to do.” And that’s when you can still stay on the rails. For me, having some constraints or boundaries actually forces me to be more creative.
Maggie: As someone who creates paintings, collages, low-relief pieces, and 3D art, how do your creative processes differ?
Melissa: I venture to say that for me, they’re all absolutely the same. Sometimes, because I’m scared to say, “Perhaps I’m going to do a series like this,” I just start something. And if it goes, it goes. And if it doesn’t, I put it aside, but I never throw it out. It gets put in a stack, and then later on, there might be a better time. And always, always, I leave things open for the unexpected. It goes back to the honesty thing. There’s never a full image that comes to my head. It starts, it comes to the table, we sit together, I start doing something—and then Anxiety gives a couple of comments, Critic gives a terrible smirk. Then I’m like, “Okay, we just keep going,” and then I add the unexpected.
One way I encourage students to ask questions and respond with honesty comes from a quote that I printed a dozen years ago from Merce Cunningham. The quotation is, “A good teacher keeps out of the way.” In other words it’s not being lazy. It’s not just letting everyone flail.
As a fine artist, I make my own starting point and end point and then hope that there’s a venue or something who might receive it. As an illustrator, there’s a mission. You are to take a delightful story about bears, and you’re to put it in some kind of visual order that corresponds with the words.
As an illustration teacher or creative teacher, I give assignments, but there are times where things go off the rails. Like, wobbling is good, it’s exciting, and sometimes it just goes off the rails. But if that student is on to something, I say, “You know, guess what, it does not answer the assignment, but you’re doing something.” Man, it’s like the person can’t help it at that point, right? They’re excited. They’re motivated. They’re following some muse. Then I say, “Well, don’t waste your time. Don’t waste your time just doing something because I’m asking you to do it. Go—go have a great trip. Let’s see what you do in another week or two.”
Maggie: How have your Portuguese American roots and your time living in New England and Brittany, France, influenced your work?
Melissa: It’s funny because the Portuguese American thing—it was my grandparents’ family which three of the four grandparents were younger children born in the United States. Of my four grandparents, only one was born in the Azores Islands, which is midway between Portugal on the European continent and the United States. These volcanic rocks, these are the Azores Islands: they speak Portuguese, they’re part of the country of Portugal. Evidently, in the early 1900s, there were big waves of migrations from those islands because people were dirt poor. There was nothing other than farming and fishing. It was a very closed Catholic society with big, big families—not joyous living. So my grandparents’ families came to the United States. They went to the corner because in New England there’s a significant population of Azoreans who eventually became American citizens.
My parents can understand Portuguese; my father can speak a little bit. We kids, at least in my family, felt a drive to become American. In terms of how it influenced me as a person and as an artist, I feel far more American than I feel American Portuguese, except for the value of family, which I believe is kind of universal for many of us.
There were rights and wrongs, everything seemed to be pretty black and white. Like you did as you were supposed to do. I was always kind of a rebellious kid. Timid, timid, but in spirit, rebellious. There were also very strict rules - I just never understood it. It made no sense to me and I think that, being a kid wandering the fields, living in a strict family made me even more creative. Do you know what I mean? It became its own kind of lovely escape and reverie and so forth.
There’s a stereotype for New Englanders, it comes from the Puritans, that we work, work, work. And the Portuguese American thing too, like you had to work. I’m not talking odd jobs, but, you know, be productive. And so I would say: family, a sense of resistance, persistence, focus, and Portuguese stubborn, perhaps.
And then coming here to Brittany. I came speaking high school level French. I would step out and go to the café every morning for breakfast. I would sit there, work in my sketchbook, and listen to the movement around me. I’d be there with a dictionary, cobbling together phrases with guidebooks. It was mind-blowing, world-changing to come and to struggle with language—and to see that you could still make these incredibly rich connections with people despite the problem with the language. I was just kind of like a puppy, shamelessly going up to people and chatting. Brittany has given me a sense of confidence in other humans and a sense of wonderment that, you know, you have it as a kid but then you don’t always retain it as an adult. Again, returning to kid level language. And it is so beautiful here. That absolutely plays into virtually everything that I make.
Maggie: What advice would you give for inspiring and nurturing a young child’s creativity?
Melissa: Well, encouraging a child of course is a given. You need to feel comfortable thinking outside of the proverbial box. I would say give kids a lot of space, and encourage magical thinking and things that are outrageous.
If you want my serious advice for kids, I’m frightened by the way that amusement seems to dominant screen time. Probably the greatest gift of my childhood was to have the freedom to be bored with nothing to do except amuse myself. I was just compelled to be by myself, to be outside or be in my room and make stuff. I’m frightened that even though there are so many fantastic things that kids have access to, there also needs to be more time devoted to being idle, to explore and more time for simply using one’s imagination.
Maggie: If you could have anyone from history over for a dinner party, who would you include?
Melissa: I really can’t decide. I’m like, “Well, how many people would be ideal?” Here’s what I’ve decided on for now. I want Eleanor Roosevelt, Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg, my niece who’s just turned eighteen, and Michelle Obama. And I’ll send you an invitation if I can get the others to accept. That would be six with me, but I’m going to bump it up to seven. So you could come—and seven is a lucky number.