A portrait of the artist

Melissa Fletcher, Best of Show winner of a recent Robbin Gallery photo exhibit, discusses her newfound medium

By Laci Gagliano
Sun Post Newspapers

Melissa Fletcher with her show-winning photograph, “Along the Red Road,” at Robbin Gallery in Robbinsdale. (Submitted photo)
Melissa Fletcher with her show-winning photograph, “Along the Red Road,” at Robbin Gallery in Robbinsdale. (Submitted photo)

When she walked into Robbin Gallery in Robbinsdale and saw a “best of show” ribbon tacked to the wall beside the photograph she had entered into a gallery exhibit, Melissa Fletcher didn’t believe the ribbon belonged to her.

“I thought it was the person’s next to mine,” Fletcher admitted. Self-professedly shy by nature, photography had become a hobby more recently, an additional creative outlet to her penchant for poetry and prose. She held no expectations for gaining recognition for her photography, much less winning an art show.

“I was thinking I’d be happy if I got more than one photo on the wall,” she said.

Fletcher, who lives in Eagan and works at Concordia University in St. Paul as a counselor for students with disabilities, has always harnessed her creative writing skills, only venturing into photography within the past couple of years. She’s discovered that she has a natural knack for the medium, and others have taken notice. A friend saw a few of Fletcher’s photos and encouraged her to place her work in Robbin Gallery’s community show, which ran through April 1.

Her winning piece, titled “Along the Red Road,” is meant to represent the Trail of Tears, but also stands as a symbol of the continued perseverance of First Nation people heading into the future in the face of adversity. The black and white photo depicts a woman wrapped in a blanket walking along a long, narrow road whose end disappears in the curvature of the earth. Dotting the side of the road beside her and trailing off into the horizon are a sequence of stark red splotches added to the colorless image with paint — remnants of the Trail of Tears.

“There’s a movement forward in that we’re moving toward a horizon of coming together and understanding each other,” Fletcher said.

She was partially motivated by her own roots. While she acknowledges her outward status as a white, middle-class woman, her background includes Native American heritage, a lineage she felt compelled to pay homage.

“I wanted to honor my Native American background and recognize I’m on the side of that road rather than on it. I don’t have the same experiences as first nation people,” she said. “I’m trying to honor the path and understand the struggle, being right next to it as an observer rather than somebody who is on that road right now. I think that’s something that’s big right now and we’re struggling with as a whole society.”

An interesting effect Fletcher observed from her piece was that the photograph stirred curiosity in viewers, who asked what her intentions were for certain elements or choices within the image. She said those questions challenged her to examine what she’s hoping to convey, which led to the realization that it’s the relativity of meaning that she’s drawn toward.

“Curiosity was not intentional, but it feels like what I want people to gain from this is to question or wonder, ‘what is this really?’ What I like about photography is that you allow the viewer to make the interpretation. That’s what I’m interested in, allowing the viewer to fill in gaps,” she said.

She took the photograph near Baraboo, Wisconsin, near where she grew up. She said there was a lot of work put into selecting a good location, and spent time traveling around with her partner to find just the right setting: a long, continuous road with a bit of a slope. She also said people are surprised to learn that she’s the woman in the photo, rather than a model.

Fletcher’s recent focus has been on a series called Snag, a collection of photos whose subjects are dying trees. She said she’s drawn heavily to outdoor landscapes, partly by her other longtime passion for trail running. She said that when she’s out on the trails, she sees things from a new perspective, a stark contrast from the world as seen from a car, for instance.

“Natural elements are really important to me right now. Nature elements and seeing details of things from a variety of different angles, trying to catch a new way of looking at it. I’m sure that’ll change the shape and the form,” she said, describing how that fresh angle can be translated into a photo.

She said now that she’s begun looking for new angles, she’s begun noticing small details that many people may ignore. The dead trees from her series are one example.

“What’s been really interesting is I’ll go outside and see other things that are dying, because I’m focusing on dead trees. That’s always in my periphery,” she said.

Fletcher sees a beautiful friendship between trail running and her photographic visions.

“You have this sudden awareness of things around you. I’ve been a runner for a long time, and I think that experience has trained me to do that. Now I’m even more in tune to it,” she said. She’ll often take photos on her cell phone while on a run to document any interesting angles she comes across so she can return later with her professional camera.

Fletcher is not shy to admit she’s still learning the craft, particularly the technical requirements of her camera.

“I’m still new, still learning. I’m still making a lot of mistakes. I recognize I have a ways to go here,” she said.

Future projects are on her mind, including a possible series depicting the last people to finish races, opening yet another fresh angle to look at something. She has also considered the possibility of merging poetry with photography, previously having had her writing published.

“I think it makes sense that’s where it would go. How to do that a little more thoughtfully is a process I’m still working on,” she said.

While Fletcher doesn’t plan to make a career out of either writing or art — she’s been working as a counselor to people with disabilities for the past 20 years — she intends to keep pushing herself in her new medium. She said there are a few shows she’d like to apply for, possibly including an individual show at Robbin Gallery. She’s not putting pressure on herself for any particular outcome, however.

“We’ll see what happens. If it doesn’t turn into anything, that’s okay,” she said.

Fletcher mostly wants to convey her appreciation for her award, the gallery, the people in the show with her, and those who motivated her work.

“It’s an honor to serve and respect my culture, native cultures and the art community,” she said.

Melissa’s other work can be found at www.mlfletcher.com.

Contact Laci Gagliano at [email protected]