Of Guise and Dolls: a conversation with Melissa Ichiuji

Stripped. Photo courtesy of the artist.

As we spoke about a class she was teaching, and of past events, Melissa Ichiuji toyed with a knife and wasp’s nest. “I am restoring a piece that has to go back to Belgium. It had a wasp nest inside.” The nest wasn’t an infestation: it was a part of Kissie Kissie, a figurative doll that rests on its shins. Leaning forward somewhat seductively, arms arched back, the anatomy of its face had been replaced entirely by the hexagonal weaving of a hoard of wasps. She holds up the replacement nest she’ll use to fix the sculpture. “It’s gorgeous, right?”

It’s the third time Ichiuji has restored the work since 2010—as part of a private collection in Brussels that regularly lends the work to various European exhibitions. All the packing and unpacking, and shifts in climate has taken its toll. At the time we spoke, it was in preparation for the exhibition “Dolls and Taboo” at the House of Culture in the Province of Namur, which will include works by Pierre Molinier, Pascale Martine Tayou, Cindy Sherman, and Louise Bourgeois, amongst others. “But they chose this sucker to be on the cover of the catalog and on the side of the museum. So, I have got to get this thing in the mail so it can be there by the opening day or I’m going to be in big trouble!” She offered with levity. Although, with less than a week to fix the work, and three weeks to ship from her studio in rural Virginia, to the mid-March opening of the exhibition, she’s feeling a bit of pressure. “These are the kinds of things you don’t learn in school, and you could spend a lot of time doing this kind of stuff.”

Melissa Ichiuji Sculpture

Kissie Kissie. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Ichiuji is a 2006 graduate of the now defunct Corcoran College of Art and Design (the program has since been absorbed by George Washington University in 2014). In 2005 she grabbed considerable attention from The Washington Post for her (non) performance, Stripped. Over the course of several months she slowly gave up the comforts of life, concluding the project by standing on a table outside the Corcoran over the course of a day in May, and into the night, before ending the piece a day early from medical concerns about dehydration and hypothermia. It’s one of the few performance pieces she has done since capping off a 14-year career in dance and theater. Since graduating her work has consisted mostly of figurative soft sculpture that is often surreal and sexually provocative. Recently, from public interest and demand, she has begun teaching a class on doll making—Guise and Dolls—in her Virginia studio and the Washington DC area.

I assume since people are contacting you [to take this class] they already know about your work, they know what you do, and they respond positively to your work.

Yes. Oh! Why? Were you concerned about the content in some way? It’s never come up! I’ve been under the radar for as many years as I have been here, but I started letting people know what I do and it hasn’t ruffled any feathers. In fact, since doll making seems approachable and doesn’t have all the baggage of fine art, people feel comfortable coming here without any experience. And they also feel comfortable knowing that they are as free to be as edgy or weird as they want. People love the opportunity to have a place to do that. And since the instructor has already gone there, they feel comfortable being able to do that themselves.

What’s the content they are producing?

Some students use journaling as a jumping-off point. Some dive right in to very personal and sensitive content. Some tend to want to throw a penis on their piece. Like right away: the first piece out of the gate. Which is fine with me.  I have professional artists in my class but for many, this is their first experience with sculptural work and they are focusing primarily on shape and gesture. I make clear from the beginning that the piece doesn’t have to be representational. You are free to take what I teach you in terms of making an armature and go completely abstract if you desire. Some of them aren’t ready to do that, which is cool. But, I’m very impressed with my students’ work.

Melissa Ichiuji Sculpture

School Girl. Photo courtesy of the artist.

When did you start using dolls in your work?

I started when I was about six. This is why I teach what I teach… doll making as a tool for self-discovery and healing. When I was five, my house burned down to the ground in the middle of the night. The whole family barely got out. So there we were in our nightgowns, in the middle of the night, running through the woods trying to get to the nearest neighbor. We lost everything in one night, and started from ground zero. We were dependent on neighbors for clothes, and ended up in a little apartment. I don’t recall my childhood being depressing or sad. Now, having said that, my mother went through a severe depression. She nailed blankets on all the windows, and I took to scavenging scraps of her clothes and shiny objects, and precious things, and started making little dolls. And they entertained her. I have a collection of them; she kept them. It felt good. It felt like I was doing something productive. It was comforting for me and they made my mother smile. Then I discovered boys and dance—and started a career at 17.

In my early 20s I was on tour with a production of West Side Story. We were doing a show in Scotland. I went to a museum. It was called The Museum of Childhood, and they had all kinds of dolls. Like, everything: very sophisticated to very crude. One doll in particular struck me. It was a bone—just a bone—with a little piece of fabric tied around the waist. It looked like a very poor child had made this doll out of n-o-t-h-i-n-g. But the impulse to do that! I looked at that and thought, I know what that is: that feeling to make something that, not only would you want to take care of it, but it was like a surrogate for yourself. Like, a way to organize a kind of chaos, and tame it. What I didn’t know is that about a week later I would break my ankle on stage in Scotland. So I was sent home to recuperate. While I was there I couldn’t do much, so I started sewing again. My love of making things with my hands was reignited.

But there was a space of time between when you broke your ankle and when you enrolled in the Corcoran, right?

Yes. But something was set in motion. When the injury forced me to stop dancing for a while I gravitated to an old childhood language I’d used to express myself when I was hurt.

When did the dance career come to a close: that chapter where you would segregate dance from when you started attending the Corcoran?

I probably didn’t stop dancing until 2000… or 2004. It’s a little blurry. It took a while to ease out of performing. I had been very entrenched in the dance, TV and theatre world in New York and DC. 

Right, but you do still incorporate dance in your work, too. It’s not like it’s DONE.

Well there’s always the feeling that I would like to revisit dance more in my work. The question is how to incorporate it without it being d-a-n-c-e! [pantomimes jazz hands]. There’s always that question, for me, anyway. 

Melissa Ichiuji Sculpture

Shape Sorter. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Do you get that question a lot, or is that, like, an interior dialog?

Well, not so much. It’s just something I love to do and I feel like I’m robbing my spirit when I don’t dance. I still take classes. And even in the beginning of my doll making class we do a physical warm up. I believe that if you are trying to render the figure you have to understand what the spine is doing. It’s just like if you put a pencil in your mouth, your brain doesn’t know you are not really smiling, but your brain feels happy. So, if you want to communicate how your doll is feeling, put your body into the position that you want it to feel. Also it’s important to me that the class develops a sense of community which is why we do physical exercises. It’s a bonding thing. I want the class to be an environment where people are free to reveal themselves. So if everyone starts with group exercises it opens channels and builds trust. I don’t know… It’s an old theater thing.

Since you are dealing with this restoration now, what does that make you think about when it comes to what materials you use?

I didn’t know when I made Kissie Kissie that I probably should avoid using organic materials that are fragile. But I did, and that’s part of the attraction of the piece. Much of my work is about things that are unstable and falling apart. But yes, I do think about conservation a lot. And also “How will this be photographed? How will it be packed? How much will it cost to ship? Is this material going to hold up with people not wearing gloves or getting stored in damp places?” So I always check myself: am making choices with integrity? Am I cutting corners? Am I challenging myself and my practice? But if you talk to collectors, being a collector is not an easy position. A collector takes on the responsibility being the custodian of ephemeral items that have to be stored and taken care of. It is a big-ass job if you are a serious collector: it takes commitment.

Is this the only piece you have in the exhibition in Brussels?

No. There are three pieces.

What are the other pieces in the exhibition?

There’s a piece called Shape Sorter, which has a Madonna and Child motif. The mother is strapped into a highchair. She is dismembered and her lips, eyes, breasts, and pubic triangle have been carved out like puzzle pieces. The baby stands on the tray examining and tasting the pieces. He is discovering mother and woman through these shapes. And a piece called School Girl, which is a girl laying on her back inserting school letter blocks into her vagina which you can see through the thin membrane of her tummy. Edification by way of eroticism.

I recently saw you were migrating toward steel. How is that going?

It’s going great! I love it on so many levels: working with fire and heat and it forces me to use different muscles. It’s funny; I’m working with something hard, and unyielding, and very masculine and industrial. But my impulse is to want to beat it into a feminine shape. Rather than allowing it to be what it is, I want to make it soft. That’s the impulse. It takes a lot of work to do that.

I’m working on this piece called Goddess of the Burning House, in preparation for an exhibition at the American University Museum (Washington, DC), in November, and I was interested in female monuments. And I think there is some kind of statistic that of all the monuments in the nation there are maybe 8% that are of women. So I thought it might be interesting to explore that idea.

That gets back to your house burning down as a kid.

My work always tends to touch on the same types of things: the fragility of the condition we are in: the push and pull of life and death. I think, no matter what I make the work will continue to tap that vein.

By John Anderson

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