A Portrait of Melinda Gray

On October 10, 2012 by Andrea Magee Steedman

Ninety-nine percent of the time when I look at art I am unimpressed.mel2

Partially because of my training in Art History: I always hear the echoes of Rothko, Rauschenberg and Cezanne.  Truthfully though, the main reason is I have expectations from art others don’t.

I want art to teach me something I didn’t know, I want art to say something, take action, make a difference, tell a story that’s never been told before.  Yes, I expect a lot from art.  I have sometimes found art that does this outside of textbooks, and it always delights and impresses me.

So imagine my pleasure when I visited the senior art show of Melinda Gray upon her graduation from California College of the Arts.  Gray’s art does all of the above: it gives a voice to the disenfranchised, those who can’t speak for themselves.  It takes action, spreads awareness, and with her newest project, hits home with people: literally.  Gray’s work is about the foster care system, and it tells a story too: her own story.

When I visited Melinda Gray’s apartment and studio, the always-smiling Melinda met me downstairs, her curly golden Rapunzel hair almost reaching her waist.  On the way in I noticed mosaic art she has been adding to her apartment building at the bequest of her landlord.

Melinda Gray’s apartment is littered with half finished art pieces the way other people have magazines and knick-knacks.  During the interview I asked her about her story.  After being taken away from her mom when she was 11, she told me she never thought growing up that she would even graduate high school.  That most basic assumption for most kids: that was never given to her by any of her many foster parents.  When it became apparent she would graduate high school and even get into college, Gray knew what she wanted to study.  The only subject that stirred in her a passion was art—but she certainly wasn’t planning to make art about foster care.mel3

That didn’t cross Melinda Gray’s mind until one day she was doing research into the foster care system and read a statistic that stopped her in her tracks: only 2% of former foster care kids will graduate college.  Gray was going to graduate college …  she was going to be part of that 2%.

Now if you ask her, Gray has many statistics about foster care memorized: 80% of prisoners were once in foster care system in California.  50% of former foster care kids will become homeless within 18 months of emancipation.  Foster care kids are 6 times more likely to be abused in their foster homes than with their parents.  California has 100,000 foster care kids: 1/5 of the nation’s foster care kids.

mel1These statistics are embedded on Gray’s heart, and she embeds them in her art as well.  Her ceramic pieces, all handmade, wear these statistics like badges.  You can’t look at Gray’s art without hearing these numbers ringing in your head.  Gray’s art goes a step further, though, using the art form to reference specific elements of the issues.

The piece “Cheers, 2% of Foster Children Graduate College” is two goblets, which although made of ceramic, are reminiscent of the fine chalices of medieval art.  They reference the fine honor of the small number who make it into that statistic.  They are in red, white, and blue and reference the motif of the American Flag, a parody of the attention the U.S. Government pays to foster kids.

Gray’s piece “80%” is made up of pots in white, black and red.  Small and squat, they are meant to be displayed in sequence, from floor to ceiling, for which purpose she created burned shelves, leaving the smell of smoke hanging in the air.  They sport black stripes, as subtle reminder of this cultural motif for prisoners, and displayed in such sequence, you almost can’t pick out one from another: despite the fact each one is unique.

Her tableware series pieces are white, their unfinished surfaces stained with black.  They look as mel8if they have fallen off a picnic table and into the mud, trampled on, and then made to hold food again despite their damages.  These pieces are made to mimic paper plates and plastic cups, speaking to the disposable way the system treats foster kids.  Gray told me this piece was her attempt to “bring the issue to the table.”

At her senior show, Melinda Gray also showed a few other pieces, including  two flags she made, some political cartoons, and in a corner tucked away was a miniature file cabinet with pieces of paper filed away carefully.  On the wall was a list of desmel10criptions, which corresponded to a drawing or painting inside.  This piece was the only one where Melinda actually talks about her experiences.  She told me at her apartment that she didn’t want to be the focus, she wants to raise awareness for the issue.  But it broke my heart to read descriptions of her experiences: “4. My first foster mother asking me to call her mom, it made her mad when I said no.” “5. She cut my hair.  She wanted 2 hurt me and she did, she removed a limb.”  Although these pieces are political, they are meant to shed light on an issue—they tell a story too.

The What Is Home boxes, though, may be Gray’s most brilliant piece of all.  Melinda Gray explained to me how she came up with the idea.  “Whenever I would start to talk [about foster care] my classmates would close up—I wouldn’t get any feedback, it was just too sensitive.”  So she came up with the idea for a question, just a SONY DSCsimple question, which she would ask of people.  What Is Home? When I saw the box with the answers that people had dropped in taped next to it, I thought about my home …  my answer to the question was a place I was safe.  And then it really hit my heart: foster kids don’t have that.

To drive this point home across California, Gray is having boxes made, and arranging to have them installed at schools, art galleries and public places across the state in order to collect responses from Californians from all walks of life and raise awareness.  Initially 100 will be scattered around the Bay Area, and Gray hopes the project can spread after that.  Individual businesses can purchase boxes, and Melinda Gray has also applied for grants to make this a reality, as well as starting a kickstarter page.  “If the general public knew that 1/5 of foster care kids are here in California, that might make a difference.  That’s what the What Is Home project is about.”

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