BY Marimar McNaughton
A solitary female form skirts the shoreline of Masonboro Island. On this unblemished outpost inhabited by wild marine life Melissa Manley — conceptual artist metalsmith jeweler potter printmaker painter — straddles two worlds one fixed one fluid.
Along the littoral that ephemeral edge that divides the sea from the land Manley found a shrine among the shell beds a fount of natural history in the flotsam and the jetsam fetched up by the ocean. On this island unencumbered by time she discovered her muse and the inspiration for her master’s thesis in art.
During a three-year odyssey she commuted from home port in Wilmington to Greenville where she attended graduate school at East Carolina University on weekdays. On weekends she raced back to immerse herself in Masonboro’s charms.
“My very best friend bought herself what I like to call her mid-life-crisis-Boston Whaler ” Manley said.
The women who named themselves the “cowgirls of Whiskey Creek” took their children including Manley’s daughter Meredith now 11 to the island every day that first summer in 2003.
“We’d go out there for hours on end and I’d wander. There was a section a huge swamp of shell fragments with thousands and thousands and thousands of shells as far as I could see.”
Walking one afternoon it suddenly dawned on her that every shell once held a living creature. “I became enthralled with the whole concept of those cycles and the water and everything.” She was on the brink of surrendering to a calling to create.
“I think at that point it was about life on the edge of two things that connect. So I kind of became obsessed with edges the water and the beach and the ambiguity ” Manley says.
With a portfolio of prints and paintings from her undergraduate degree from UNCW buoyed by the sacrifice of family and a swell of enthusiasm from a host of well-known Wilmington artists such as potter Hiroshi Sueyoshi sculptor Michael Van Hout jeweler Tim Brown and painter Mary Ellen Golden Manley applied to ECU and was accepted.
Driving to and from Greenville along the way she explored the edges of roads medians plant life pine trees and clouds.
Nudging those edges — of the land and the water of the real and the temporal of the fixed and the fluid — pushed Manley’s pencil over the pages of her sketchbook nudging designs into three dimensions. The metamorphosis is evident now in touchable wearable shell-encrusted jewelry sea-inspired vessels and assemblages cobbled from the ocean’s detritus. The juxtaposition of edges is mapped onto the edges of frames chased into the edges of vessels fashioned into the edges of bracelets brooches and pendants.
Combining those edges with a passion for arcane art iconography Egyptology and the Renaissance Manley developed a recognizable idiom.
In May 2006 she earned a Master of Arts degree. In June she moved into Independent Art Company where she creates and teaches from a shared space on Ninth Street in Wilmington.
Inside the rehabilitated metal warehouse her work benches are lined with pinchers crimpers hammers and saws for cutting bending and shaping raw material into polished pieces. Her bookshelves are lined with volumes of art books historic texts and ephemera.
In October 2006 she mounted her first one-woman show Water Spirits in Independent’s lobby.
One silver bracelet is contoured to fit a slender wrist. The crest of the bracelet is sculpted like the motion of wind-lapped waves. The surface is stamped and drilled to resemble sea foam that drifts across the flat surface of the bracelet’s cuff. Tiny shells and bits of seaweed from Manley’s sea-bed plunders are pressed between Plexiglas and inset into the silver surround like jewels.
Hauling out myths from cultures past Manley treads on the edges of the earliest known repositories of collected artifacts.
“My second year of grad school I had to do a presentation and talk about something that influenced my work ” she says. She chose wunderkammer. Translated from German the Renaissance word means “cabinet of curiosity.”
“There was a whole period of history where people were amassing private collections that were the origins of museums. No one ever thought to gather stuff together and keep it in one place. Why would they?”
In recreating wunderkammer for a new audience Manley laughingly calls herself a “remnantologist ” creating vignettes “little snapshots ” culled from her sea chest.
Most of her treasures are arranged like a compass pointing to where she has been collecting archiving creating. Contents like clues include mounted maps of the Cape Fear River shelves for displaying driftwood fish bones crab claws feathers. Some are composed with verses gleaned from years of foraging history books literature and song lyrics.
Her vessels whether they are hammered from copper using methods handed down from Colonial metalsmiths or crafted from steel wire and animal gut resemble the wet drapery technique of the ancient Greeks to imply the movement of swirling water.
In so many ways Manley’s work tugs at the edges of the mind. Like a hydraulic whirlpool the vortex of her spell pulls the viewer in like an intoxicating undertow.
Manley says she is fortunate to have studied with professors who were not shy who encouraged their students to articulate their philosophies. Fearlessly she smudges the line between gestation and creation.
“This is me playing ” Manley says about a grouping of funky wristlets. “I wanted to make a series of bracelets for all the Nereides – the 50 daughters of Nereus.”
Inspired by the mythical Mediterranean Sea nymphs who dwell with their father at the bottom of the briny deep Manley crafted 20 bracelets from disparate organic and synthetic materials; one from found beach glass and copper another a tiny conch shell fragment on reclaimed wire. Some bands are made from monofilament net line or aquarium tubing embellished with plastic vegetation or gelatinous lures.
Her signature pieces read like a journal entry encapsulating the journey from sea sprite to artist.
“Once I absorbed enough stuff — and thought about stuff — I then just made stuff.”