Featured Artist Melissa Borko Tevere
Interview by Karen Hunter McLaughlin
This is the very first of a our new Featured Member series. The series, updated monthly, will include interviews of and by MamaCITA members.
KHM: I think it was kismet that you were the first member to be chosen (out of a hat!) to be featured, Melissa. Of all the MamaCITA members, you may be the most well known. Is there anything you’d like tell us that others may not know about you or your art-making?
MT: I have been seriously making art since high school. My family was very poor, (though I never really realized how poor), and I knew that if I wanted to be the first person in my family to go to college, I had to get a scholarship and I was determined! I became very serious in my pursuit of art. I would draw or paint almost everyday after school and on the weekends. I remember sitting in my bedroom, drawing, bundled in layers of clothes, my feet painfully cramping up from the cold because we couldn’t afford heat, other than a wood burning stove whose heat didn’t really reach my second floor bedroom.
I did receive a scholarship – I attended Temple University’s Tyler School of Art on a full tuition 4 year scholarship. The painting department there was very competitive and was filled with students dreaming of graduating and living the artists’ life – modern day Vincent Van Goghs – artists who lived and breathed art, who didn’t have jobs that got in the way of their creating art, who didn’t have children or families or commitments. It was all about the art. We would work in our studios late into the night, drinking cheap beer (Natty Bo’) and talking about the meaning of life as it relates to the creation of art. Very high aspirations and lofty talk from 19 year old idealists!
The thought of being an artist was scary and intimidating to me. I had very little confidence in my ability but what I had was determination and the belief that I was going to make art for the rest of my life no matter what. My junior year’s spring semester was spent studying abroad in Rome, Italy. One night at a student party, our instructors stumbled in, drunk on wine. Susan (an accomplished artist living in Iowa now) was one of my teachers. She said to me that night something I will never forget. (Though in her inebriated state, she probably forgot it the minute it tumbled out of her mouth!) She said, “We (the teaching staff) were at dinner tonight and we were talking about which student we thought would continue to make art for the rest of their life. We chose you – even though you are not the most naturally talented.” At that time, this statement was a blow to my already low confidence. (Key in depressing what-a-let-down music.)
KHM: You founded our group but how has MamaCITA changed your life?
MT: I graduated from college, got a job, met my future husband, moved to San Francisco, got married, had children. Through it all, I always made art. I would come home from work, pre-children, and paint. I would sneak up to my studio, post-children, while my babies were napping and paint. When I was in my late 30s, I started feeling like something was missing in my life. I had plenty of girlfriends – none were artists. Our conversations revolved around our children, our husbands and re-decorating our houses. We would escape as often as we could to the bar at night to drink and pretend that this life we were leading was enough.
But it wasn’t enough for me – it was not the life that I had dreamed of living when I was an idealistic student studying painting in the mid – 1980s. I was still making art, but it was a secret part of my life. I started to feel bad about myself. I felt like I was hiding a big part of my life. I even felt bad for the poor paintings sitting in my studio, facing the wall. I still had no confidence in their quality or worth but I felt driven to do something, anything!, to get out of the rut I was in. That is when I decided to start MamaCita.
I have always believed in the power of community and the idea that there is strength in numbers so I set out to create a cooperative of women who were in the same situation as me – artists and mothers. MamaCita has been my life saver. Through my work with MamaCita, I found my confidence and my strength. I discovered that I am an idea person. When I have an idea and share it with my fellow members, I always feel that they believe in the possibility and viability of these ideas, no matter how seemingly unreachable and far-out these ideas appear. And reciprocally, their seeing me realize the potential of my ideas has given my fellow MamaCitas the confidence to pursue their own ideas.
KHM: What’s next up for you?
MT: My latest body of work has been inspired by my association with the literary magazine, Philadelphia Stories. I recently was involved with editing the book Extraordinary Gifts: Remarkable Women of the Delaware Valley: a collection of fiction and art inspired by historic women from our area who have changed the world and paved the path for contemporary female artists and writers. The woman that inspired my contribution to this project was artist Alice Neel. Neel was born and raised in Delaware County and attended Moore College of Art and Design before moving to New York to complete the body of work that has made her most famous – portraits of her family and friends and people from her Harlem neighborhood. Her portraits are intensely emotional, confrontational and more about the essence of the person than the reproduction of their physical characteristics. Her paintings are also very formal – she pays particular attention to composition, line, color, shape and the juxtaposition of the transparent and opaque, the finished and the unfinished.
My paintings for this project form a triptych. I painted myself, naked, inspired by Neel’s painting of herself nude when she was in her 80’s; I painted my children, Jacob and Chloe, inspired by Neel’s paintings of her own children and her friends’ children; I painted my stepfather in the last few weeks of his life, inspired by the frank psychological and immensely personal nature of her work and also by Edvard Munch’s transcendentalist paintings.
KHM: Last words, to sum it all up?
MT: Over the years, Susan the tipsy Tyler professor’s statement has proven true. I have continued to make art – I can’t imagine NOT making art – and I will continue to make art.
Thank you Susan. You were right.
Melissa Borko Tevere, September, 2014