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Melissa Schriek on Human Connection, Choreographing Dancers

Melissa Schriek on Human Connection, Choreographing Dancers

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The Dutch photographer talks about pushing her comfort zone and creating before thinking

Melissa Schriek has had a glorious summer. Her ongoing bodies of work The City is a Choreography and A Study of Uncomfortable Positions received excellent write-ups (here and here). Her unique eye has also earned her commissions for fashion labels Tony Ta and HENK. Where she goes from here is up to her, and the possibilities are endless.

Seeing Melissa’s work for the first time is impossible not to pause. It’s striking. The images are like a crazy dream, where you’re the spectator of a balletic trance. The city hums in the background. It’s raw, sometimes bent out of shape. But her heroes — the ones you’re taking in — are full of grace. Quickly, the activity jolts you awake to this thing called life.

Photo by Melissa Schriek
Photo by Melissa Schriek

Weeds. A stranger. Where do you begin and the city end? Does being in the open shift the borderline? “The city is public but also personal in how we use it and see it,” she tells me.

Melissa looks at these questions with scientific precision. Through trial and error, she has developed a unique visual language. Shapes carve a narrative that is delightfully expressive and tender. She says, “when I choreograph, as when dancers move, every physical detail matters. Even as small as the way they are holding their fingers. Fingers straight with tension or relaxed makes a big difference in the energy and story that I’m telling.”

Photo by Melissa Schriek
Photo by Melissa Schriek

Melissa is tackling massive themes. She uses underlying humor to ease you into conversation with primal human truths. We embody contradiction. We are agile and awkward. Some street poles are bent, and so are we. We are pack animals, each wired with neurons that define our vision. How do we reconcile that and interconnect? She thinks deeply about the way people relate to each other in a shared space. This phenomenon is critical to her.

“We live alongside each other instead of with each other. What is our connection? I’m interested in how people relate to their surroundings and to each other. Emotionally and physically.”

Photo by Melissa Schriek
Photo by Melissa Schriek

It took her years to understand how she sees the world and how to capture it. It took her time to feel free to make what she needs to make. When she explains this, I feel her completely. Our creative cohort, every generation, feels this deeply. It’s a courageous leap, trusting the fire inside you and letting it out. Once you do that, everything’s personal. Every detail of your story is a manifestation of your life. You’re always working off of yourself. But, what are we meant to do as creative people, if not express and heal?

She reflects on how challenging it can be to find your voice. Her repertoire is still developing. Comparing her work from last year to now, she sees a huge difference. She adds, “progression will always be there, it’s exciting! I like the idea that artistic practice can go anywhere; there are no rules.”

Leaving rules behind is like stepping into the void. Sure, people can tell you what to do, but none of it binds you. You’re free to intuit, look within, pull from ever-growing knowledge, and dare speak your truth. Every bit that you dig deep for is your plutonium. Melissa’s is an acute sensibility to human connection.

Photo by Melissa Schriek
Photo by Melissa Schriek

I asked her how vulnerability plays out in her practice. Now, if we’ve met, or you know my work, then you know that my entire world-view is rooted in vulnerability. I won’t escape this thing. “Every artist is vulnerable, especially when starting and developing an idea,” she says openly. Her projects often come from a very personal reflection on a specific subject. She always feels at risk when showing an intention to people for the first time. Often, she’s not sure if she’s on the right track.

“Heck, at times I’m not even sure what I want to say until I see all the images come together. Sometimes I create before I think.”

 

For a long time, she thought that was bad. As if there was a prescribed way to do things, like planing out an idea before making it real. With experience, she saw that there is no right or wrong way to create. Today, she does what best fits the project at hand. She’s learned that not everyone will like what she does, and that’s okay.

Photo by Melissa Schriek
By Melissa Schriek

“Just start. Don’t wait. Work out the smallest idea you have.”

 

Melissa is predisposed to action, which makes sense with her background in dance. To keep her inventive fire blasting, she stays in motion. She figures, “if you made an image, your idea has become physical. If it stays in my head or as a sketch, I can easily forget about it or push it to the side.” She often works on different stories at the same time. She will start new ones while still working on another. It’s a sharp way to keep going.

She’s able to zone in on details because she practices being present and self-aware. She notices when techniques or projects start to feel comfortable. To Melissa, comfort zones are not harmful. They mean that she’s “mastered something by doing it a lot.” Whenever it gets to that point, she looks for a way to make it a challenge immediately. “When I noticed last year that my images were anonymous, I decided to create portraits with the face visible. In that way, as an artist, you can renew yourself,” she tells me.

“You can end up amazing yourself, or it can be a disaster. Either way, it keeps you on your toes.”

Photo by Melissa Schriek

Listen to Melissa talk in-depth about creativity during the pandemic on Blissfully Aware.


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