Melissa Walter: from NASA illustrator to abstract artist


As an artist, Melissa Walter does not intend to — or want to — elicit a specific kind of reaction from a viewer of her artwork.

“It is not my intention to control the viewer, nor for them to necessarily even make the conceptual connections that the work is based upon,” says Walter, an artist and graphic designer who, for the past two decades, has worked with NASA in full-time and part-time capacities as a science illustrator.

What’s most important is a connection is made. In her exhibit “Of All Things,” at ICE Gallery, Walter is doing exactly that.

Walter — who has exhibited at the Smithsonian’s S. Dillon Ripley Center and locally at Quint Gallery, the San Diego Art Institute and the San Diego International Airport — took some time to tell us about her work, her inspiration and why she loves what she does.

Q: Tell us about your new exhibit at ICE Gallery at Bread & Salt.

A: I was invited by Michael James Armstrong, the owner of ICE Gallery and local San Diego artist, to create a site-specific installation. ICE Gallery is the only San Diego space to exclusively present this type of work. My installation, “Of All Things” is a large-scale, abstract, sculptural work created from thousands of paper tetrahedrons and other geometric forms that were individually constructed with the help of local volunteers and painted one at a time.

Q: What was the inspiration behind it?

A: Being challenged to create a site-specific piece, my first and foremost inspiration was the space itself. The architectural elements of the gallery I was drawn to are the specific dimensions the gallery, elements present on the floor, and a window which became the most important part of the conception of the work and the jumping off point.

Although, for my work in general, I often am drawn to using science as a conceptual component, which is a direct result of my background as a science illustrator in the astrophysics field. For “Of All Things,” though the physical gallery was my initial inspiration, many of the aspects of the piece were also informed by the theoretical topic of the multiverse (the theory that we are not a singular universe and instead one of an infinite number of universes). From repetitive imagery, to the specific geometric forms, to the element of shading, to the purposeful constriction upon the viewer to experience the work from a specific viewpoint, each decision connects to specific speculations of other universes beyond our own.

Q: What do you hope a viewer takes away from seeing your work?

A: That is something I don’t often think about because it’s an element that’s completely out of my control as an abstract artist. ... Of course, I hope the piece elicits some kind of reaction; however, that reaction is not for me to direct, assume or predict. I create abstracted imagery so that those that come in contact with it can create the relationship that they want to have with it, devoid of my influence if they so choose. In my view, how someone personally chooses to respond to abstract work is just as valid as the original impetus that drove the artist to make it.

Q: What do you find the most challenging when it comes to your art?

A: I am consistently trying to push my work to new evolutions. However, that continually puts me in a place of naivete — learning new skills, developing new techniques, and making a lot of mistakes. Though the end results are frequently rewarding, the process can become quite stressful, considering there is often this element of unpredictability. That being said, staying within my comfort zone for too long just isn’t an option for me.

Q: Most rewarding?

A: For many years, I was a graphic designer. That career was creatively rewarding; however, my goal was mainly to create for someone else, to make direct purposeful connections to a specific audience. As an artist, while I do hope my work is accessible to others, I now have the opportunity to conceive what I personally want to see exist in the world. Of course, there are some projects that need to consider the greater public, although, more often than not, I am creating for the pure excitement of creating — to see something tangible emerge from my thoughts, to sketches, to final piece. That is truly remarkable.

Melissa Walter: “Of All Things”

When: Conversation with the artist, conducted by artist Akiko Surai: 1:30 p.m. Sunday, doors open at 1 p.m. On view through Sept. 29. To view exhibit, an appointment is necessary and may be made at the website below.

Where: ICE Gallery at Bread and Salt, 1955 Julian Ave., Logan Heights.

Admission: Free (artist conversation and exhibit)