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At Home With Melissa Jarram

At a strange time in the world, we took some time to reflect on how our homes have taken on a new meaning with multimedia artist / illustrator / painter / animator Melissa Kitty Jarram. We commissioned three of her paintings around the theme of the home, with the proceeds of the originals and prints going to Rhythms of Life, a London homeless charity, and chat to her about her background and her work.

Where did you grow up?

I’m Chinese born and half British. My dad was a working class kid from Loughborough who ended up in the engineering industry. He was sent to China in the 80s when it opened up to the West for the first time in modern history, that’s where he met my mum, and I was born. We lived in a hotel in Xi’an (the old capital and home to the Terracotta Army) for the first 7 years of my life, then moved to Nottingham when my dad’s work sent him back in 1998. Since then I have been British, and fought to study Illustration and Animation at Kingston University, much to my mother’s dismay (she always wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer).

How has lockdown been for you and how has it, if at all, affected your work?

I’m not going to lie, I secretly love lockdown because I definitely waste too much time and money on my social life. I’ve used this time to start reading again, and learning, and watching films and documentaries that have been on my list for ages. The solitude is quite welcome in my world, it’s offered a lot of opportunity to reflect and grow. In regards to my work, it’s made it a lot more difficult because my work is usually informed by emotion and chaos which happen to be the two things that have been removed from me alongside social interaction.

What is home for you?

Home is anywhere I’m not having to live out of a suitcase, and somewhere I can place a sentimental object without fear of having to pack it up into a box within a year or two.

Where did you draw inspiration from for this painting series?

This series was initially very difficult for me to start, given that I had just been wiped out for 3 weeks after getting Covid, and as I mentioned above: the total lack of a social life or external stimulation. I began painting figures lounging around and infused them with symbols drawn from mythology (for example aspects of Hestia - Greek goddess of the home and hearth), but I wasn’t happy with what I was producing. I had a moment where I felt a bit defeated and blamed it on being in lockdown, which was like being in a really nice prison with one cell mate. When I thought of that simile, I realised I was just making excuses for what was simply a creative block as there is an abundance of amazing prison art! It was never about outside stimulation. I started watching documentaries about prison art, and then decided to start from square one. I drew what was directly in front of me: basically a bunch of still life drawings and paintings of sentimental objects that I was grateful to own. I then started making those drawings and paintings more and more abstract, and adding elements of what I was seeing on TV into them. The TV being our window into what was happening in the outside world. The final painting I made is called “Solitude”. This is actually a painting of a digital illustration I made in 2017, where I was first subjected to what was equivalent to a lockdown. I was working in Shanghai, but only for a couple of days a week. I didn’t know anybody and because the apartment I was staying in was about an hour’s train journey outside of the city, I spent a lot of time on my own in that small flat. It’s where I first learned how to use Adobe Illustrator, which allowed me to make digital illustrations which kicked off my career. This piece is significant to me because I found the isolation very difficult back then, however now I relish in it, which makes me realise how much I’ve changed, adapted and grown. Since then I fell back in love with painting, so it felt fitting to make a painted version of it.

Who are your biggest influences?

In terms of aesthetic influences, I would say a lot of renaissance art for the beautiful rendering of the female form and the poses. I adore the fluidity and the curves and the softness they exhibit, and the references to Greek Mythology. I also love artists like Marlene Dumas and Cy Twombly for their expressive marks that seem almost accidental. Georges Braque and the Expressionist painters are another for all their bold shapes and colours. My mum is a huge influence for all her tenacity and fighting spirit.

What’s next for you?

I’m currently working on the next collection for menswear designer Bethany Williams. Our project is a continuation of a collaboration with this amazing organisation called The Magpie Project, who help a community of families on the edge of homelessness in the Newham area. This collection will be centered around the importance of story telling and how we can bridge culture gaps with them. Stories are key to human interaction and the creation of harmony in society as well as being capable of the complete opposite. We live our lives through narrative, I find it all really fascinating as it lends more understanding of the human condition and how we work as a species, as well as making me question what objective reality is.

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