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Discovering a Long-Hidden Talent in Art

Melanie Berry and School of Art Dean Thomas Lawson share a Kodak moment during the 2014 graduation ceremonies. Photo Credit: Scott Groller

When Susanne Melanie Berry’s name was announced at graduation ceremonies last May, she strolled nonchalantly across the stage in a simple white shirt, cuffed jeans, canvas sneakers and sunglasses. She stopped to pose for a photograph with her arm draped casually around the shoulders of School of Art Dean Thomas Lawson. Compared to some of the other graduates, who danced or paraded in wild outfits and costumes, Berry appeared cool, calm and collected. That may be because she’s seen it all, having led a very full life before enrolling in the MFA Art Program at CalArts in 2012 at the age of 49. Growing up in Southern California, her working-class family was often on the move, and Berry lived in numerous cities, including Bellflower, Palmdale, San Juan Capistrano, Irvine, West L.A., Fountain Valley, Hollywood, and Venice, among others. The list of jobs that she’s held is even longer.

Berry produces installations, interventions, self-made books, photographs and sculptures, and has recently begun exhibiting her work in Los Angeles, New York, London, Australia and Frankfurt. Her work can be arresting. For example, some of her most recent sculptures involve the use of mannequins injected by clusters of syringes. And in the photographic work, Berry frequently takes Polaroids of everyday objects, like chandeliers or feathers, and blows them up to large-scale prints. Blurred details and imperfections add to the psychological complexity of the images. 

But before she started making art, she traveled a long and circuitous path.

A Life of Hard Work

Berry started working when she was 10, washing cars and babysitting. After leaving high school, she held a string of different jobs, often starting in entry level positions and then advancing up before moving on. 

At age 15, Berry was working on a fishing boat in Northern California. When she was 19, she was washing dishes in a restaurant in Napa Valley, and was soon doing prep work. Then she headed south, eventually becoming a pantry chef in a Santa Monica restaurant. “I got burned out on restaurants and then took a job in a dress shop in Los Angeles,” she says, learning how to manage the process in which a dress design becomes a finished product. 

Berry was then hired as a receptionist with a music video production company, eventually becoming an assistant producer. After she left that position, a building contractor hired her to clean his office. One year later, she was overseeing subcontractors and managing home construction projects. In any of her positions, Berry was a quick study. If she didn’t know how to perform a task, she’d call an expert and ask questions.  

“I had a strong work ethic,” she says. “I showed up and did the work.”

Berry got into art in a somewhat indirect way. About 10 years ago, she decided that she wanted to become a lawyer, after noticing that many of her artist friends needed legal help. As in much of her previous work, she began her quest at the bottom, first returning to school to get her high school equivalency degree and then enrolling at Santa Monica College (SMC). To represent artists well, Berry reasoned that she should learn something about art. She took drawing and painting classes at SMC and discovered that not only did she like making art, but that she had talent, too. Her teachers recognized her abilities and encouraged her to pursue a career as an artist.

On an Academic Path to CalArts

After graduating from SMC in 2009, Berry enrolled at UCLA, majoring in art and specializing in photography. Two of her closest mentors were CalArts alumni: celebrated photographers Catherine Opie (Photography & Media MFA 88) and James Welling (Photography & Media BFA 72; MFA 74). With their help, after earning her BFA in 2012, Berry applied to and was accepted into the CalArts MFA Program in Art. At the Institute, her work continued to mature, and through rigorous critiques, she learned to speak about it convincingly to other artists, curators and dealers—an important skill in the professional world. “The faculty at CalArts shared their experiences and passed on their views and insights, and that did a lot for me,” Berry says.

Connecting with the Audience

“I’m six-feet, two-inches tall, but I’ve felt invisible almost all of my life,” she says. “That sense of loneliness is a killer. I try to make work that’s aesthetically pleasing—images that engage viewers. My work also has a psychological component that addresses issues of vulnerability. If I can catch the attention of just one person who has had similar troubling issues and let them know they are not alone, then I’ve accomplished something.”

In all of her previous occupations, Berry persevered and mastered the tasks at hand. That same determination drives her art practice. “People will try to tell you that you can’t do things,” she says. “These are the people to turn away from. Just always remember, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Go for it.”   

Last edited by nstark on Feb 10, 2015
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