Teaching art—and what it means to be an artist

Melanie Mowinski letterpress work

As the new semester gets underway, Professor of Fine and Performing Arts Melanie Mowinski is finding equilibrium through her own personal artistic practice—and passing along the latest lessons she’s learned to her students.

Mowinski, a designer, artist, educator, and activist, has long done letterpress art as part of her body of work; many MCLA art students have worked with her while learning how to use the press, located in Bowman Hall. A new series of cards explores ideas around returning to in-person activities and the resilience, grace, and focus we all need in this moment. One card says “Back together, not back to normal”; another reads “what yes comes from no?”

Yes from No

Exercise, meditation, and her creative practice have helped keep Mowinski grounded for the past 18 months. “I made these pieces to help myself move through this time with as much ease as possible,” she said. “The letterpress, as a repetitive act, is subtly calming and pleasant. As soon as I walk into my studio and start setting type, everything goes away. I am seeking those moments where my worry and anxiety can be minimized for at least a moment.”

Dedication to one’s creative practice—“showing up” as she puts it—is something Mowinski tries to model for her students. “That’s when things happen. You’re honoring that practice in you, honoring your creativity,” she said. “I try to talk about what it means to be an artist, how to show up for some of these things. I have a huge deadline coming up, and I talk about that. I try to integrate things I do as an artist with my classes.”

Through the pandemic, Mowinski thought deeply about how people find their voice as artists, and over the summer, she started researching “wilderness mindset”—how the brain approaches a survival situation. “My definition of wilderness is any place where there’s uncertainty,” she said. “I’ve been thinking about how to create safe spaces that allow us to explore uncertainty and the unknown, and how that feels in the body, and how to process it through the artistic process?” She regularly shares these ideas with her students, prompting them to think of art beyond the classroom, as something they can map into their lives regardless of what kind of careers they’re seeking.

“More and more people are seeking artistic outlets and wanting to be artists,” Mowinski said.  “The things we’re doing in class, yes, they’re assignments. But at the same time, you’ve chosen a particular major for a reason. How do you integrate this into what you’re learning? This is your life you’re looking at. How can you really embody this?”

See Mowinski’s work at https://melaniemowinski.com.