Challenging times for artists

Melinda Stickney-Gibson

Artist Melinda Stickney-Gibson, creator of a singular body of well-respected minimalist abstraction and expressionism, and I have had deep discussions about art, commerce, and the rigorous pursuit at various points of challenge and change over the past 30 years. We talked long into the Phoenicia night after a fire took much of her pre-Catskills work, when she was a rising star in the Chicago scene, and she’d embarked on a powerful body of massive works that incorporated elements of what survived. We explored the travails of shifted relationships as a new body of work emerged in the woods outside Woodstock. There were even periods of lightness, when the painter’s pieces gained different hues, a buoyant but still thoughtful turn.

She’s in Mount Tremper now, snowbound up a slick sloped driveway speaking from her grand studio about recent years’ success. When I ask how things have been going, Melinda Stickney-Gibson laughs with heart and soul.

Her galleries have been closing. The space that supported her rise, in Portland, Oregon, moved out of its physical space. Littlejohn Contemporary, in New York, did the same. John Davis, in Hudson, closed shop.


“The economics of the world have changed. Mid-level art couldn’t survive,” she said. “This has been the first time in 30 years that I’ve had no physical representation. It’s been an interesting time…I’m not sure where to go.”

Stickney-Gibson’s been applying for grants, looking for non-profit spaces that can exhibit paintings such as hers. But she’s also fighting against the encumbrance self-promotion will have on her actual time in the studio.

“I’m figuring it out,” she said as we speak about how all of the arts has shifted in recent years, from a world where a business built up to market the creations of authors and artists, until eventually the marketers started deciding what they wanted to work with, ostensibly leaving the job of selling to artists themselves.

Laying Down in Falling Snow by Melinda Stickney-Gibson.

Which has forced artists such as Stickney-Gibson — whose career has included dozens of solo shows, glistening reviews, and collectors across the nation — at a juncture where she’s considering the full-time work her galleries did for years, and the effects it could have on her work, her art.

“Fashion, sadly, has a lot to do with the art world now…I miss minimalism,” she said as we spoke about the popularity of self-consciously “bad” art, the entrance of design work into paintings, the loss of personal depths being explored in two dimensions. “I’ve been fortunate, I’ve had a good run. But I’m wondering now what happens to those much younger than I.”

The painter admits to keeping notes, filling journals about what’s happening to others. Focusing on the many ways in which the lower levels of those starting off in the arts have grown more crowded while the top sales have been fueled by nothing but money and pedigree. As well as the thoughts that fill her imagination as she sees empty spaces she could fill with her paintings. If only she had the time…

But Stickney-Gibson is also quick to admit being in the midst of a creative rush, rising to her current challenges as she has before. No galleries ready to put her pieces on a wall, pulling her work their way twice a year? That means no expectations, no gallery owners worrying whether the artist’s new representational experimentations will sell to their collectors. 

But there are also collectors calling in to help. One, in Chicago, is letting her store works in a space. Thoughts have started to move towards a possible exhibition…

“I’m working smaller because smaller paintings are easier to ship. They take less paint,” she noted. “It’s a little scary doing figurative work after all these years. But it’s very exciting, too. I’m feeling energized.”

We speak about complacency and the ways we find, consciously and not, to challenge ourselves and move forward. Through moves. Through grand ambitions. Through returning to the things that fill us with hope and letting them massage our souls back to a fertile place.

“One can get nihilistic… ” Stickney-Gibson started to say before catching herself. “I work every day. I have my routine. I’m still excited going into my studio. It’s still an adventure going in there where I’m pencil to paper, brush to canvas, and I can feel all will be well. It’s like a drug.”

It’s also the way a true artist such as Melinda Stickney-Gibson can still step back and see how she’s progressing, at least in the deep understanding it takes to create an emotion-ridden work of art that speaks to others as it has listened to her. 

“I think of Guston,” she added, addressing another Woodstock artist, now long passed, who had markets shift around him, and tastes, as he rose to flurries of challenges and created new works that challenge and delight new audiences to this day. “He always said he needed to tell a story.”

Just as Stickney-Gibson’s work, embracing the representational, hints and rages at recent political issues, at the rise of #MeToo.

“Talk of living life…” she noted.

At which point we decided to catch up again at our next crossroads.