The Literary Art of Melissa Zink

The Literary Art of Melissa Zink

I felt I was not gifted, and I had never understood that I could develop skill, one does not have to be born with it.

Abstract Expressionism. You either love it or you hate it.

It was America’s first internationally-recognized art style. It put New York City on the map. Some thought it was genius, others thought it trash.

Jackson Pollock, flinging paint across a canvas on the floor, was its poster child.

But it almost derailed the creative impulse of Melissa Zink (1932-2009), one of the most original artists of our time.

Melissa attended Swarthmore College, the University of Chicago, and The Kansas City Art Institute, an amazing achievement for a woman of her era.

You’d expect with those credentials she’d be a household name, another Georgia O’Keeffe, but she couldn’t relate to the dominant artistic style of 1950s.

“I don’t know how we all lived through abstract expressionism,” she said later. She loved classical art and her instructors at The Kansas City Art Institute denigrated her efforts.

The Literary Art of Melissa Zink at Debra Eve's

So Melissa turned her back on art.

A few years earlier, she’d married businessman Bill Howell. For the next decade or so, she devoted herself to raising their daughter Mallery and running their business, a custom-framing shop in Kansas City.

Melissa  prepared other people’s art for display, but submerged her own longings.

By 1970, Melissa’s frustration boiled to the surface. She convinced Bill to move to southwestern Colorado, where she opened a needlework shop. “I had never been an outside person. But…there was freedom there in a way I’d never known it. Without a well-structured plan, I felt that this was a move that would change my life.”

It did. Bill had neither understood nor encouraged her artistic yearnings. The marriage came to an end.

Odd Scenes in Clay

In 1975, at age 43, Melissa married Nelson Zink, a gifted psychotherapist fourteen years her junior. They moved to New Mexico and settled near Taos.

One evening Nelson asked her, “What do you want to do with your life?”

Melissa couldn’t answer directly. She had to pull the covers over her head. “I want to be an artist,” she whispered.

Nelson, a modern Renaissance man, had discovered clay beds near their house and taught himself to create and fire pots. He asked Melissa if she’d like to try. She couldn’t make a perfect coiled vessel, so she fashioned a series of little clay heads. “I think you’re on to something,” Nelson said.

With that tiny bit of encouragement, I started making odd scenes in clay.

The Literary Art of Melissa Zink at Debra Eve's

“Odd scenes” doesn’t begin to describe Melissa’s three-dimensional stories. Here are some titles:

  • Autobiography of An Eccentric (1980)
  • A Private Shrine (1980)
  • A Fin de Siecle Drama Induced by a Surfeit of Chocolates and French Novels (1981)
  • My favorite, Museum of the Mind (1981), pictured above.
  • Virginia Woolf, Myth and Metaphor (1987)
[Update March 2014: I’m sad to report that Stephen Parks passed away late last year and the gallery’s site has been removed, so I can no longer link to these works.]

Miners and Explorers

Melissa went on to create in paint, mixed media, and bronze.

I divide artists into two categories, miners and explorers. The miners go deeper and deeper into a fairly narrow vein of subjects and techniques, while the explorers are looking for new and exciting ways to express themselves. I’m definitely an explorer.

In 1993, long-time friends Stephen Parks and his wife Joni opened Parks Gallery in Taos to honor and house Melissa’s works. I’m currently on location attending a writing retreat with Jen Louden and was able to visit Parks Gallery and chat with Stephen.

The Literary Art of Melissa Zink at Debra Eve's
Melissa Zink

The Beauty of Books

Although not so obvious from these examples, Melissa’s passion for books and the literary life drove her artistic expression.

In the post image at the beginning, Melissa poses with “The Guardians,” executed in bronze a few years before her death. They are titled Chamberlain of Letters, Minister of Words, and Book Warden, a testament to the undying power and delight of the printed word.

I viewed the back of the sculptures. They’re embossed with what looks like an infinity of dictionaries and illuminated manuscripts layered upon each other. Melissa used a special technique to make her own stamps.

Everything I find most beautiful and moving is in some way connected to books.

In 2000, Melissa represented New Mexico in the From the States exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.

A year later, she received the New Mexico Governor’s award for Achievement in the Arts.

Melissa left us in 2009 at age 77. From the time she embraced her calling in her 40s, for the next 35 years, Stephen Parks says, “There were never enough hours.”

Like many of us, Melissa Zink incubated and experimented until the time was right. And one day, mark my word, she’ll be a household name.

Remember, what’s in style may not be your style. Keep going with your dreams.

Do you consider yourself a miner, an explorer, or something of both?


13 Responses

  1. wallace king
    | Reply

    I love her work! Love the clay figures – the rinocerous headed man and the little “houses.” Her bronze work is beautiful. Thank you for bringing her work to a wider audience. She’s brilliant and I love how you manage to find all these amazing people and bring their stories to a public that may not have been familiar with them before. I’m saving up to buy one of her pieces.

    • Debra Eve

      I knew you’d love her! I feel so fortunate to have visited her gallery and seen many of the pieces. The photos do not do them justice at all and she wrote stories to go with many of them. Her mixed media stuff is just amazing. Like you, I’ve told myself the first big windfall I get will go to buying her work!

    • Stephen Bradley

      I was Melissa’s photographer for many years and acquired some of the early sculptures. Unfortunately, my circumstances have changed and I’ve decided to seek a market for these pieces. Does anyone know of a gallery that handles her work these days?

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      I don’t, Stephen, sorry. Did a quick search…you might want to check this out:

  2. David Stevens
    | Reply

    Fantastic story once again Debra, thankyou
    be good to yourself

    • Debra Eve

      Thanks, David! So appreciate you stopping by.

  3. Susan Keeley
    | Reply

    I find myself moved to tears by this woman’s experience. Thank you so much for sharing Melissa Zink’s story with us.

    • Debra Eve

      Thanks, Susan. Melissa is an amazing woman who’s one of my true sheroes now!

  4. Monica
    | Reply

    Thanks a lot for sharing her story. It was touchy & inspiring.

    • Debra Eve

      You’re welcome, Monica. So glad you enjoyed it.

  5. Lisa Firke
    | Reply

    So great that you got to see her work in person!

  6. Ellen Samuels
    | Reply

    I enjoyed reading this. We bought a mixed media work of Melissa’s and while it was a huge investment we have now enjoyed it over the past 15+ years.

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      A good friend and I have sworn that if we ever get to the point where we could afford it, we would buy some of her art. You’re very fortunate. Thanks for stopping by, Ellen!

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