Bon Voyage *WEB EXTRA*

BY Marimar McNaughton

Melissa Manley embarked on an art voyage that began when her family moved from Norfolk Virginia to Wilmington when she was 12.

From their Windemere home Manley journeyed down Eastwood Road riding her bicycle to Wrightsville Beach.

“When I was in middle school I was all about the Crystal Pier ” Manley remembers painting a picture of crusty old men selling bait sunburned girls squished into vinyl booths lunching on cheeseburgers and fries baking like hot potatoes in the sun.

“I wanted to be a surfer chick in the worst way ” Manley says trying for three years before tossing in the towel. “I was tenacious ” she says.

In high school Manley got hooked on history obsessing over Egyptian studies. She thought she wanted to pursue Egyptology in college. After spending a month in the foreign land she realized she was really a home girl and literally returned to the drawing board attending the University of North Carolina in Wilmington (UNCW). She studied art history with John Myers and printmaking with Donald Furst and Ann Conner (both have work currently exhibited at Cameron Art Museum through April 1). “You’re going to struggle ” Conner told her. “It’s not going to be easy. You might want to get that history degree.”

Those early loves summer days at the beach and a passion for ancient cultures trickled into her art work as a steady stream of inspiration from undergraduate studies to graduate school and back to home to Wilmington.

After UNCW Manley worked for jeweler Tim Brown at his shop T. S. Brown Jewelry at the Cotton Exchange. “Melissa was always really artsy-craftsy ” Brown says.

But she had no jewelry experience until Brown introduced her to metals and gemstones and the challenges of crafting wearable art.

“It’s not like a painting you can hang on your wall ” Brown says. “Somebody has to wear it. Will the stone stay in the mounting? Is the metal strong enough to hold up?”

Brown taught Manley to solder helping her overcome her fear of the fire.

“I remember when she was afraid to hold the torch. I’m really proud of her skills. She’s just gone so far with it. She’s a master now. Her abilities have gone way beyond mine ” Brown says.

While working for Brown he wrote a letter of recommendation for Manley’s scholarship application to Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg Tennessee to study with Keith LoBue.

The LoBue connection would prove to be a major turning point for Manely who was mentored after UNCW by Brown and other local artists notably Mary Ellen Golden Hiroshi Sueyoshi and Michael Van Hout.

When she returned from Arrowmont Manley set up a booth at Wilmington’s City Market for the summer and was adopted away by Golden to work in the Golden Gallery where she has been a surrogate member of that multi-talented family for more than 10 years.

“Mary Ellen has a very nurturing spirit. She told me one day that I was going to lead a watercolor class at her house.” It was Manley’s first lesson in teaching.

With Hiroshi Manley studied ceramics for four years at the Community Arts Center.

“Hiroshi has such a gentle demeanor. He didn’t push me … just facilitated in his Zen-like way.” The potter introduced her to wire work with clay and was the first to suggest that she make jewelry. Around the same time Michael Van Hout gave her a pair of tin snips and a piece of sheet metal. That was all the wind she needed to fill her sails.

Manley now holds a Master in Art degree from East Carolina University the only accredited art school in North Carolina. In Greenville she studied under Robert Ebendorf considered the guru of the studio jewelry movement in America and the Carol Grotnes Belk Distinguished Professor of Art at ECU.

“The person who really twisted her nose and said it’s time for you to make this commitment was Keith LoBue ” Ebendorf says. “When she met Keith he was doing jewelry and images that dealt with lost and found materials. He knows me very well.

He said ‘Bob is right there and you should really go and meet him.’”

Manley arrived at ECU with strong ideas Ebendorf says. She was eager to learn. “There was no turning back. She was a wet sponge ” he says.

Ebendorf recognized Manley’s maturity a woman with a family juggling much more on her plate than the other students. “We were gifted by her presence even though it was hard for her coming back and forth ” he says. For her part Manley found a support system at ECU a nurturing network of graduate peers.

“I made tremendous sacrifices ” Manley says. “My family had to sacrifice alongside me ” she says. At 38 years old and divorced she moved back home with her parents with her daughter then 8 to go to graduate school.

“I was so utterly compelled ” Manley says calling the move ‘a parachute maneuver.’ “You just have to jump and hope that the parachute will open ” she says adding “It’s not one jump but a lot of little jumps.”

“I knew what this commitment meant for her to go home on Friday evenings and to become a mother and at the same time try to have a social life then turn around and leave again ” Ebendorf says. “She had a real challenge. But that also speaks about her fiber her tenacity.”

When her three years were over he shipped her back to Wilmington. “I said look girl you’ve got such a footprint there ” he recalls. “That’s a calling card. You’re ready to hit the pavement. So much of the body of her work came right off the beach there and the topography and the coastline.”

After grad school Manley languished in the doldrums relentlessly questioning and answering herself.

“Do I get the square job?” she wondered at times.
Luckily she landed a studio at the Independent Art Studio on Ninth Street. From her work bench where she teaches privately and creates original work she looks back over her shoulder to see where she’s been.

“It’s such an imbalance ” she says. “When you’re in school you’re getting in shows; professors are pumping you to ‘do it.’ When you’re searching for jobs your inner dialogue is ‘I’m nobody and I was feeling like somebody.’ It’s scary when you’re an artist putting yourself out there to be judged. We’re a creative species. If we’re stuck in the jungle out of a crashed airplane we’re going to find things to wear make things to eat build places to live. For me I doubt there are any alternatives. I can’t see myself doing anything else beside art.”