Inspiration: Melissa Forman

A few months ago, my friend Melissa Forman and I were asked to interview each other for an online arts magazine called The Artist Interview. In honor of her opening this weekend at Corey Helford Gallery, I'd like to share it with you. Melissa is one of my biggest artistic influences, not to mention an amazing person and one of my closest friends! We’ve been through a lot together (which you'll read about shortly), and I’ve watched in awe over the last few years as she has produced some of the most hauntingly beautiful, intricate, and compelling paintings I’ve ever seen. Go Melissa! I truly couldn’t be prouder of her. I hope you enjoy our little walk down memory lane:

The Artist's Interview:
Melissa Forman and Paul Richmond

Melissa Forman and Paul Richmond displaying different levels of enthusiasm at a Dolly Parton cd signing in Manhattan

At first glance, it might be difficult to find a connection between the work of artists Melissa Forman and Paul Richmond. The figures in Forman’s haunting, Victorian-inspired paintings seem like they might feel a little out of place in Richmond’s extravagant, disco-colored world. However, thanks to a deep-rooted friendship between the two narrative painters that began during their senior year at the Columbus College of Art and Design, their personal and artistic journeys are forever linked. Upon graduation in 2002, the two formed a mural painting business, but spent the following year concocting much more than decorative wall treatments.

Now living in Lakewood, Ohio, Melissa is busy creating paintings for a solo exhibit at the Corey Helford Gallery in LA this October. Meanwhile in Columbus, Paul is also preparing for a solo show scheduled for next June at the Halsted Gallery in Chicago. The two friends took a break from painting to ask each other about their processes and to reflect on some of their most colorful adventures.

Melissa Forman
Interviewed by Paul Richmond

P: So, Melissa...(imagine me as Barbara Walters giving you a smug little grin), tell me about what you’re working on right now.

M: Oh wow, I definitely won’t be able to take you seriously if I’m imagining you as Barbara Walters. Now, I’m picturing you with feathered hair and a pastel pink suit while everything’s in soft focus...

But anyway... I’m currently finishing up a series of paintings for a show at the Corey Helford Gallery in Culver City, California. The show opens October 3rd and I still have a few things to finish up. I decided to call the show “Garden of Shadows.” It’s a group of paintings that deal with some health issues I’ve been dealing with and my experiences with our current health system. I have been through some really barbaric things just in my search for a diagnosis and it’s been a really frustrating and frightening experience. Because of all of this I was reminded of archaic ways of practicing medicine from medieval times. I decided to include the ideas behind those practices in my paintings.

Ancient medicine used to include a method of diagnosing patients called the Four Humours. Each humour was meant to represent a different balance or imbalance in the body and was represented by a certain color, mood, temperment, disposition, and plant. I created a painting that visually illustrates each humour and the personalities that supposedly go along with each diagnosis. Also a lot of cures for common ailments were derived from plants. Medicines were made from things found in the environment. This idea led me to include plants commonly used for healing and different elements from nature in each painting. Practicing medicine in medieval times was more like practicing alchemy and tended to be rather barbaric. This idea led me to create an eerie mood and a subtle sense of surrealism in each painting. The paintings are dark, moody and introspective (like most of my other paintings) but this group includes a lot of rich color and deep black backgrounds. They express a lot of the feelings I've had throughout my experiences but also relate a sense of hope and a message of good things ultimately being able to come from dark times.

P: Meticulous attention to detail has always been your trademark, even back in our mural painting days. I may have gently teased you about it once or twice as I recall, but honestly I’m in total awe. How do you do it?

M: Well, I think if I were telling the story I might not use the term "gentle teasing." I remember a few silent drives home from our mural painting sites because you were completely frustrated with how long I spent painting one figure. :)

But, you were probably completely justified in your frustration. I am obsessed with detail and always have been so I end up spending twice as long to paint something. It just doesn't seem like a trait of mine that can stopped. I've definitely gotten better at letting go and knowing when something is finished. I am a perfectionist at heart and always have been. I get lost in detail and love noodling things no matter how miniscule others might find the tiny intricacies of objects. To me, the details are what make things beautiful and unique and interesting.

As far as how I do it, I'm not sure if it's something I can explain. Honestly, I just sit and toil over things until I'm happy with them. I think I just see things in a different way than most people and that lets me capture details that others might not ever see.

Oh, and I use the smallest paintbrush ever imaginable. That helps.

P: Tell me a little about your process for developing the imagery in your work. Once a hauntingly gorgeous scenario pops into your head, where do you go from there?

M: Well, you seem to have worded your question pretty well as far as describing my thought process. Things do just pop into my head. I am inspired by everything around me: pictures in magazines, passages in books, scenes in movies, people I see walking down the street, just everything. Once I see something that inspires me, and a new scene pops into my head, it stays there for months and slowly evolves and morphs into something I feel is worthy of being a new painting. Once I have a concrete vision in my head I search for the right costume. Then comes finding the right model and setting up the photo shoot. I don't do any sketching before hand. It's almost as if I sketch everything mentally.

So after shooting the photographs, I photoshop the hell out of them. I paint into them, I add new facial features from other photographs, I change the lighting, I change the color and finally I end up with something that looks like my "mental sketch." The final photoshop document then gets printed and I use that as reference for the final painting. I always have a pretty specific idea of the mood I am trying to portray and what type of story I'm trying to tell. A clear vision seems to make the thought process and painting process a lot easier.

P: We loved traveling to Portland for your opening at Compound a few years ago. I was so proud of my Melissa that night! Since you’ve always been a pretty private person, I was wondering if it’s weird for you to see rooms full of strangers admiring your very personal artwork.

M: I always thought that it would be difficult to sell my paintings since I make such personal pieces. However, the more I do it the easier it gets.

I love getting emails from people that seem to be truly inspired by my paintings and really "get" them. I make what I think are beautiful images in hopes that others will feel the same way, and it's so incredibly rewarding when people viewing my work can understand the story I'm trying to tell. Painting for me has become a way of communicating and connecting with others and I've discovered through exhibiting my work how truly fulfilling that is.

P: Ok, I have to ask: How soon will you be wanting to go back to Dollywood after our ill-fated “work trip?”

M: Oh, the Dollywood trip...what a disaster...I mean...adventure. ;) Ha ha, anyway, I think one trip in a lifetime is more than enough of Dollywood for me. ...not that I didn't love the idea of painting a mural in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee in the Smoky Mountains in the middle of winter on a 300 foot long concrete wall...

I will, however, never forget our trip there or how hard you tried to convince the manager of the park, Mr. Morgan Duckworth, that he needed an impossibly long mural painted by you and me, or the free passes you conned him into giving us for a day of discovering an entire theme park devoted to your hero and longtime diva love, Dolly Parton.

I would however, like to forget the headache I brought home with me after a weekend of walking through a museum of Dolly's dresses and supportive garments. And perhaps I'll try to put behind me the memory of sitting through an hour long simulation ride through which Dolly incessantly screamed and giggled, only to culminate in a cold shower for the entire audience when Dolly's onscreen helicopter splashed into the river.

Oh, the memories. :)

P: Our friendship means the world to me, and we’ve seen each other through a lot of highs, lows, and insane adventures. Do you have a favorite Pauly and Melissa story?

M: Well, as far as Pauly and Melissa stories go, I would have to say that the best, and all around most impressive, would have to be the Tammy Faye Memorial Party story, although that story didn't just include you and me, but our unsuspecting significant others as well...

How exactly you got yourself and three friends invited to the private party at Tammy Faye's manager's home I will never be sure. But the thing that really stumps me is why we all so willingly decided to fly to Palm Springs, California to honor Tammy Faye with you. I have to admire your powers of persuasion. :)

I love the surreal thought that we all spent the day of the party in a fabulous California home surrounded by a misfit team of "celebrities." Standing in the living room listening to Ron Jeremy play a duet on the baby grand piano with Cloris Leachman had to be the highlight of the day. And of course you looked fabulous when you presented your painting of Tammy Faye to the entire group wearing your partially see through leopard print shirt. If only I had made time to get a drawing of me and Ron from the caricature artist or eaten a piece of the cake that was shaped like Tammy's makeup bag it would have been a perfect day. :)

Paul Richmond and Melissa Forman with Paul’s painting Remembering Tammy Faye
at the Tammy Faye Memorial Celebration in Palm Springs

Paul Richmond
Interviewed by Melissa Forman

M: We spent years trying to get on the Oprah show. For some reason we never got a call from her. What's up with that Oprah? But if she finally comes around and asks you to be on the show what would you talk about and what would be the title of the show?

P: Oh, Oprah! She just doesn’t know what she’s missing, does she? Or maybe she does after our video entry in her “Cher’s Biggest Fan” contest. In retrospect, wearing the jeans with Cher’s face painted on them in front of my Cher mural while holding a Cher doll might have given her the impression that I’m mildly insane.

I still believe it will happen, though. Dennis enjoys teasing me about the time I was late for an appointment because I was daydreaming about being on Oprah and turned onto the wrong freeway. Interestingly, I’m not sure why I’m obsessed with this idea in the first place. I think I’ve seen all of maybe two episodes of the Oprah Winfrey show in my entire life. Nonetheless, I’m prepared for the day when we do get the Oprah call (notice I said “we,” because you’ll be there with me).

Our episode will be called “Coming Out In a Purple House,” We’ll tell the story (very dramatically) of the day we were working together in the house where we were painting crazy purple ceiling murals everywhere. In the lavender glow of our work, I revealed to you the shocking news that I’m gay. Looking back, there may have been a few clues that could explain why you didn’t seem as surprised as I expected, but nonetheless, that was a monumental day for me. I had never told anyone before, nor could I admit it to myself despite years of miserably failing to pull off the “straight life.” Even the frumpy clothes and bad haircut were a painfully thin disguise. You helped me work through the complicated process of unraveling all that denial, not to mention giving me a complete head-to-toe makeover too! Thanks to our friendship, I became a new man.

Now isn’t that the kind of transformative tale that Oprah fans live for?

M: Your artwork deals with a lot of personal experiences and emotions. Are there things that you won't ever talk about in your paintings or do you consider your life an open book for people to read through your visual work?

P: Getting personal with my work has definitely been an evolution. You may remember my college days where I pretty much just tried to mimic what other people around me painted. Somehow, my attempts at dreary landscapes didn’t seem all that genuine, even to me. When I graduated, I had no idea who I was as an artist, or even as an individual. After the purple house incident, all that changed. Coming out of the closet affected every aspect of my life, especially my artwork (though it took me a while to get comfortable with that development).

I remember when I made my first “gay painting,” First Time Out. I worked on it in the evenings after we finished mural painting for the day. It explored the turmoil I was going through over my first sexual relationship with another man. I never intended to share this painting with anyone. I even kept it hidden under my bed when I wasn’t home, but eventually I showed it to you. I remember hiding in another room while you looked at it because I was so scared of your reaction. It seems pretty silly now, but I guess it was just new for me to expose something so personal in my work. Of course you were incredibly supportive and encouraging. You said you loved it and that I should even submit it to a local juried show. I burst out laughing, but eventually I decided to give it a shot. After all, what good would these paintings do anyone collecting dust in my bedroom? And we both know I’m horrible at keeping anything a secret!

Today I have a whole portfolio of paintings that explore the intricacies of my journey – from my humble beginnings as a repressed, diva-worshiping, Midwestern boy to the out and proud, (still diva-worshipping) man I’ve become. I have a long way to go as an artist and as a human being, and I plan to document it all through my work. I spent enough time during the first part of my life hiding the truth from myself and everyone around me, so it’s no holds barred from here on out.

M: You've always been a person with a lot of goals and aspirations and you never cease to amaze me with how you make those dreams realities. What are your current goals regarding your paintings and what would be your perfect job/career/life?

P: My main goal for my paintings is to keep developing as a storyteller. As you know, I had a fabulous mentor named Linda Regula when I was a kid, and she taught me that the story was what mattered most -- over technique or style or any of the other things that seemed to be more of the focus in art school. Of course I want to develop in those ways too, exploring new approaches to the craft of painting. Currently, when I work on a piece of art, I feel that same sense of excitement and possibility that glued my ass to the chair at the dining room table twenty-six years ago, making pictures of myself as a Disney princess. Sure there are time’s it’s stressful, or even infuriating when something looks like crap (not that you would know what that experience feels like!), but it’s also the most incredibly fulfilling “work” I could ever imagine.

As far as career goals, I’d love to find that perfect, dream-gallery that honors its artists as well as its clientele, and helps nurture relationships between both parties. I know they’re out there and I’m working on it. Currently, I find myself devoting a lot of time to promoting and marketing my work, and I hope to make the right connections that will enable me to spend more time creating it. I would also love for our dream of moving to a cool city and sharing a studio space to come true sooner rather than later. And mostly, I hope to find a good balance between my creative work and personal life one day. My partner, Dennis, is an incredibly supportive, wonderful companion and I need to make sure to reserve time for him too (apart from the paintings of him that make their way onto my easel from time to time).

M: You've always been someone who closely follows celebrities that you admire and idolize. Who's the new diva in your life and why? How does she inspire your artwork?

P: The diva thing seemed to start at birth. I can’t explain it. Before I could hardly dress myself, I was wrapping blankets around my waist pretending to be Snow White. And after a bevy of cartoon heroines, I then turned my sights to a human diva (albeit one with cartoonish characteristics) – Dolly Parton. Since then, I’ve been very loyal to my be-wigged muse, though I’ve added others through the years like Cher and Madonna. A well-rounded collection of diva music is an important part of my artistic process!

In response to your question about current divas though, I suppose you might expect me to extol the virtues of someone like Lady Gaga or Katy Perry here, but I’ve got a surprise for you. If I had to pick the diva who is currently my biggest inspiration, I would have to say it’s you. After all, my definition of a diva, at least as it pertains to my own experience with them, is a female role model embodying the qualities or characteristics that a gay man aspires to. That describes my feelings about you to a T. Of course it would help if you got collagen injections so your lips would start taking over your face, but not a requirement.

Watching the way your artwork has evolved since we first became friends, I’m far more impressed than I could ever be by someone bursting out of a disco ball or lip-syncing while flanked by shirtless dancers. Of course if you want to somehow incorporate those things into your process, it would be a good way to secure your leg-up on the diva competition. But even without the schmaltz, you’re a tremendous inspiration to me. I’m so glad to see how your relationship with the Corey Helford Gallery is leading to great opportunities for people to recognize how awesome your work is, and I know this is just the beginning!

M: You've recently achieved a lot of success with your etsy store. Now that the Batmobama print has made quite a splash what's next on the agenda?

P: Well, I appreciate you asking this question even though you undoubtedly know the answer already. I call you to brainstorm every detail before I start most projects!

I was really surprised by the response to Batmobama and Robiden. I painted it for an election-month exhibit at the World of Wonder Gallery in LA, but never expected people all over the world to take an interest. Selling paintings and prints through my online store has certainly opened up my work to a broader audience, and I like being able to interact directly with people who appreciate the crazy ideas I come up with. Growing up, I felt so isolated and completely alone. Surely no one else in the world was grappling with the same issues as me! Now I know differently, and it’s thanks to the connections I’ve made with people who see my work and relate to it. Art’s pretty amazing that way.

Currently, I’m painting a triptych called Pin-Up Payback. It features heartthrobs Justin Timberlake, Zac Effron, and Robert Pattenson caught in classic, underwear-exposing pin-up predicaments while 50’s-era cheesecake girls look on admiringly from windows and doorways in the background. I love old pin-up art! There’s something cute and refreshingly innocent about these characters who couldn't even walk down the street without their skirts blowing up or their panties falling down. However, I felt it was high-time to turn the tables and cast men in these scenarios. After all, gravity affects them too! When it’s finished, I’ll be offering limited-edition giclee prints in my online store, and the original will be included in my upcoming show at the Halsted Gallery in Chicago next June. The title for the exhibit is Gay Day at Paulyworld, and I intend to make it a Pride Month for Boystown to remember!

M: You've always been a great storyteller. What story from our adventures is still your favorite to tell?

P: Wow, there are so many to choose from – like the time we auditioned for a movie and I had to pretend to be a gangster courting your affection, or the night we stayed up until morning hanging tiny, mirrored craft-circles on my ceiling only to decide that it was hideous. Or how about our attempt at being radio djs, or maybe the Halloween we dressed up as Sonny and Cher (you looked so cute with that moustache, by the way!).

Ok, I’ve decided, and surprise, surprise – it involves Dolly. Remember our trip to New York a few years ago for her cd signing? We arrived at the Best Buy in Manhattan at about 6:00 a.m. because I was convinced we’d have to beat the crowds in order to secure our spot in line. As it turned out, there were only two other people there, and it stayed that way for the next few hours while you and our friend Andy sat shivering on the sidewalk beneath a blanket and I paced excitedly in front of you. After all, I certainly couldn’t sit down and risk getting dirt on my hand-painted Dolly jeans! Anyway, despite the freezing cold and endless parade of sneering businessmen mocking our devotion, that four hour wait was still great fun (at least for me!).

And when we finally made it inside, what a pay-off! Dolly was adorable and as gracious as could be with super-charged Southern charm and a little girl giggle to punctuate each sentence. I’ll always treasure the sparkling pants I was wearing that day that now shine a little brighter thanks to her autograph. And I’m sure the compliment she gave you about your “cute little hair” made it all worthwhile for you too! Funny that I don’t think I’ve seen you style your hair that way since…

For more information about Melissa Forman and Paul Richmond, visit their websites:

Artwork (top to bottom):

Nocturnal Bloom, 16” x 20” oil on panel by Melissa Forman

The Crown of Nightfall, 14” x 16” oil on panel by Melissa Forman

The Mask of Twilight, 14” x 16” oil on panel by Melissa Forman

The Cher Within, 24” x 36” oil on canvas by Paul Richmond

The Dollypop Guild, 36” x 48” oil, acrylic, sequins, rhinestones, and glitter on canvas by Paul Richmond

Batmobama and Robiden, 24” x 36” oil on canvas by Paul Richmond


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