A Story of How Creatives Can Access Their Own Brilliance Based on the Life of Taos Artist Melissa Zink (1932-2009)
By Thea Fiore-Bloom, Ph.D.
Have you ever heard of artist Melissa Zink?
No? You’re not alone.
She’s still relatively unknown outside of Taos and Sante Fe.
I started researching Zink after I read an amazing quote of hers, which I’ll share with you in a minute.
It’s a quote about how Melissa Zink lived before she broke the rules in art land.
It’s a quote about the pain of being well-behaved and not setting your heart free.
But I also see it as a quote that speaks to the delicious joy of saying; “screw all y’all, I’m going to make the art I want to make, instead of the art I “should” make.”
Art School Dropouts Rock
But some backstory would help you put the quote in context.
All her life, Melissa Zink desperately wanted to be an artist.
So she got up the courage to go to art school as a young woman in the 1950s.
But professors told the shy but brilliant Zink she was bad at art.
“Discouraged by the Kansas City Art Institute because she wasn’t doing abstract expression, Zink went 20 years doing very little art, though obviously working in her head all those years,” said her gallerist Stephen Parks.
“After she met and married her second husband, Nelson Zink, [a therapist, many years her junior] he asked her one evening, ‘What do you want to do with your life?’
She pulled the covers over her head and whispered, ‘I want to be an artist.’ Zinc was in her early 40s. There haven’t been enough hours in the day since,” said Parks.
Zink blossomed in the second half of life and became an accomplished prolific artist. She invented magical, mysterious works.
These creations ranged from figurative clay dioramas and bronze sculptures to mixed media pieces that combine sculpture, painting, collage, and assemblage.
Melissa Zink’s love of language and books was a river that coursed through her creations.
Here’s the Zinc quote that moved me. I saw it first on Pinterest and read more about it on Jane Lindskold’s blog. It was taken from a museum description panel in The Albuquerque Museum of Art.
Melissa Zink and Her Magic Suitcase
“It’s like you’re walking around with this enormous suitcase full of magic and you are never allowed to open it, because the rules say that the things in that suitcase are not worthy of artistic consideration.
Worlds, childhood memories, pretend, fantasy, archaeology—all that.
And so, until I could open that suitcase, I really didn’t have anything to work with.
It was like trying to paint with your hands tied behind your back.”
— Melissa Zink
Your Magic Suitcase
One reason this quote resonates with me is that I’ve had a theory for years about enchanted suitcases. You see, I think every one of us is walking around with a suitcase full of potent magic inside us.
And in your Magic Suitcase lies your most original novel, your most transcendent painting series, or your most poignant opera or play.
However, it seems our Magic Suitcases remain stubbornly locked until we wake up the sleeping genie snoring away within them.
This genie has been dozing off for decades. He’s been waiting to be let out. He wants to earn his freedom by helping us bring our wildest creative dream into reality.
The Bad News About the Magic Suitcase
But the sad thing is, most of us will never have the nerve to disturb that genie. Most of us, even most of us artists and writers, won’t go ahead and access the peak creativity in that suitcase.
Why do we sabotage ourselves as creatives and not make hay out of the most twinkly aspects of our brains in this lifetime?
What the hell stops us from opening it?!
Well, I think we don’t open our Magic Suitcase because opening it requires facing our own personal Fear-O-Rama/hall of mirrors.
This Fear-O-Rama is also known as The Jonah Complex, which I’ve written about overcoming in another post here.
The Good News About Our Magic Suitcase
But our suitcase opening fear can be overcome.
And late blooming is the way.
Melissa Zink was in her forties before she barely started cracking her suitcase open.
And you know what?
Every day on this planet some ceramist in her fifties or potter in his seventies is leaping about their living room like a gazelle because they’ve finally busted that baby wide open.
How can we become living room leapers ourselves?
Why not follow Zink’s example?
Melissa Zink hit the second half of life and decided to give up on ever doing the kind of art she was supposed to do (abstract expressionism).
Instead, she got crazy-brave, threw off the approval of others, and consulted the treasure map inside her suitcase. Only then did she begin creating eccentric assemblage art powered by the magic of reading.
What Was in Zinc’s Magic Suitcase?
“The center I have been circling around and around is a private aesthetic formed from books and by books […]. That aesthetic developed from the act of reading, the memories of reading, the literal companionship of books, the enchantments of photography, typography, graphic design, paper, leather, etc. Everything I find most beautiful and moving is in some way connected to books.”
And creatively, she lived happily ever after.
(If you love books and reading, and want to be inspired, grab a copy of my favorite, Zink:The Language of Enchantment.)
My Zink-Inspired Questions For You For the Road
If so, what weird thing do you secretly long to do instead?
What do you think? Have you opened your suitcase? Opened and closed it? Let me know in the COMMENTS below!
P. S. It’s difficult to get permission to reproduce Melissa Zink’s work online. But you can see some wonderful works from the former Parks Gallery on the Art Matters blog here.Subscribe
Maybe your genie wants you to write something? If so, come on ovah’ and check out my writing coaching for heart-centered artists page.Writing Coaching
You may also like these Charmed Studio Posts:
5 Best Books to Give the Aspiring or Accomplished Writer on Your List
How To Get an Artist’s Residency? Don’t Apply For One, Do This Instead
Bye Bye Facebook: How Artists Can Succeed Without Social Media
Daily Writing Ritual to Banish Fear and Open Your Heart (Also Works for Painting)
Improve Your Art Writing Overnight by Forbidding Yourself To Do 2 Things
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Deborah Wais says
I appreciate your writing about Melissa. I began as an admirer of her art (at that time more surreal than in her later years) and eventually able to purchase a few pieces. When I wrote to her about how much she had impacted my life, she invited me to her house in Embudo and from then on we became good friends from afar. We shared taste in books, dogs and a goofy ability to see the wonder in even the little things around us. As she began to incorporate things from old books, letters and deguerrotypes I became the book lady searching in the san diego and LA areas at various flea markets and swap meets and was touched at her memorial to see how many of them were right there before me woven into her art.
I had made a career change at 50, going back to school and beginning from the junior college level to start anew. From her example it did not occur to me that there was anything out of the ordinary about making such a move,nor did it occur to me that the art projects that I had pursued had to be as wonderful as hers. I still miss her more than words can say and, as I read about her influence from someone who had not personally known her, realize what a gift I have had. Thank you.
Thanks so much for taking the time to share your story of your friendship with Melissa Zink. I am proud to have your comment on this blog, what a gift. And I am also just so happy for you that you could throw off any thought of the approval or disapproval of others and start a new, creative journey in the second half of life. Brava to you!!! I would like to interview you someday.
I love the idea of a creative suitcase. After a lifetime of creating, I am finally in a gallery and have even sold some art. My problem (which is not a problem to me) is that I don’t have a definite style, hence the reluctance of previous gallery owners that I have talked to carry my art. I create in many different mediums and styles, because certain subjects deserve a particular treatment. My art is evolving all the time. Thank you for your podcast on Zink. She is marvelous, and we are of an age, so I can understand her history.
Michael, first off thanks so much for commenting. It is interesting that you and Zink may have both had to confront the Abstract Expressionism Only wave. Oh and what a good problem to have that you mentioned about love of different styles 🙂 Perhaps Zink faced that same problem too. Let me think on it and maybe talk to some galleries and artist friends and see if there are other solutions….
Isn’t that what creativity and art are anyhow. To go and create unique art from what inspires you. Discover the magic and bringing it forth for the world to see. Sometimes the feeling can be sensational. I will need to check out her book. It sounds remarkable.
Yes art in general pulls from a suitcase within. But I also think for professional artists or regularly practicing art makers….there is a suitcase in the suitcase. A suitcase where our best ideas wait for us, and unlike Melissa Gilbert (Big Magic)- I think they lovingly stick around until we get to them. Because only you can do you.
Cristina Dalla Valentina says
How wonderful this post is, Thea! And how close it speaks to my heart!
You don’t know (but maybe you can imagine) how many times I too repeat to myself “screw all y ‘all, I’m going to make the art I want to make, instead of the art I” should “make.” And every day this must be repeated, to continue to be authentic with myself!
Because the outside world expects from artists success, performances, achievement of objectives… and instead art thinks exactly the opposite. And sometimes it’s hard to stay true to this art, true to yourself.
But this is the only path that is actually worth taking, the only real life we can and must live: to continue trying to become more and more authentic.
And I feel really close to the path that Melissa has made: I too have relegated art to a minimal activity in my life until I was almost 40. And luckily then someone helped me understand how my identity was instead linked to making art, how I had to give space to that genius who was inside the suitcase, to use your metaphor.
And yes, “there haven’t been enough hours in the day since.”
It is so true and insightful what you say here Cristina, you always pierce the veil with your thinking. The dictates of the outer art world are at direct cross purposes to the inner art world. It’s so easy to get stranded on an island in between the inner and the outer. And yes, the inner is the only path worth taking, thank you for that reminder. And I am so glad “there hasn’t been enough hours in the day since” for you and your art. Your work is sensational and ever-evolving. So proud you read my work and I’m grateful for your wisdom.
Denise McCanles says
The timing of this couldn’t have been more perfect! Thank you so much. I’ve been struggling with being creative and how much I need it in my life. I’ve been making excuses about why I can’t do this or that. In the meantime I’m empty because I know creativity is the biggest part of me. This is not like me but it seems the older I get the less self-confidence I have. I need to open that magical suitcase.
Denise, you will open that suitcase, sooner than you think. Take your time and know it will all still be in place in there until you get to it, all still functioning and ready to lift you up on new, shiny wings. xo Thea
Denise McCanles says
Sylvia Larkin says
Thea, thank you for introducing me to this amazing artist! her journey is so inspiring! I never heard of her ! Can’t wait to read your book about the enchanted suit case!
Thanks, Dear Sylvia, you introduce me to so many creatives, I appreciate that.
Sylvia Larkin says
You are welcome, Thea! Likewise! I shared your blog on my FB page and many artists loved the message and inspiring blog! Way to go,Thea!
Next I was thinking of doing a post on photographer Vivian Maier….http://www.vivianmaier.com/. But if you or your Facebook friends ever have suggestions I would love to hear them.
zoe kowalchuk says
thea…i was introduced to melissa zinks work many years ago and have always loved it…thank-you for filling in some of the blanks about her life. am looking forward to opening the suitcase again..seems that i open just a bit, take a peek and then close and forget it’s there for me.
Zoe, that is so cool that you have heard of her and that you love it like I do. And your comment really made me think and revise my suitcase theory. It’s not just an open and shut case (pardon the pun.) You’re right, we do crack it open and wander off, or in my case-crack it open and slam it shut!:) Thanks so much for leaving a comment and sharing your thoughts about the piece, I appreciate you.
Absolutely brilliant and inspiring. I love your choices of finding such incredible humans to share. 🙏🏼🙏🏼🥰☀️💖✨🌼🌞
Thanks so much Gale, I love researching people and I never understand who gets famous and who doesn’t.