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Artist Melissa Joseph’s Felt Works Highlight Inclusivity and the Importance of Human Connection

By Julie Smith SchneiderFeb 8 2024
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Snapshots of daily life, rendered in soft and airy wisps of needle-felted wool, populate artist Melissa Joseph’s new campus-wide installation at Rockefeller Center. A woman carefully applies henna to the hand of an unseen companion. Pajama-clad kids donning superhero masks lounge on a sofa beside a yawning baby. Three women linger in a bedroom, one with hair pinned in pink curlers. Joseph based these slice-of-life scenes on family photos, portraying her parents, siblings, and members of her large, extended family. Born in St. Marys, Pennsylvania to a mother from Pittsburgh with Irish roots and a father from Kerala, India, Joseph says she aims to “express the lived experience of being biracial and part of an immigrant, diasporic family.”

Photo by Daniel Greer; courtesy of Art Production Fund
Photo by Daniel Greer; courtesy of Art Production Fund
Photo by Daniel Greer; courtesy of Art Production Fund

The exhibition, on view through April 19, marks Joseph’s first foray into public art and kicks off the sixth year of Art in Focus, a series of public art presentations produced by Rockefeller Center in partnership with Art Production Fund. Displayed throughout the campus (at 10 Rockefeller Plaza, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, 50 Rockefeller Plaza, and Radio Park), Joseph’s works explore themes of representation and inclusion, memory, love, and community. As a viewer, coming upon each work throughout the storied Art Deco buildings feels like a delightful treasure hunt, like finding deconstructed photo album pages and connecting the threads of personal stories through time and place.

Before pursuing a career in visual art, Joseph initially set her sights on becoming a doctor, like her father. But, after a year on the pre-med track at university, it was clear: She was way too squeamish for that line of work. She moved to New York City in 1999 to study textile surface design at the Fashion Institute of Technology and worked as a textile designer for several years, before embarking on a teaching career. For about a decade, she worked as an art teacher in elementary, middle, and high schools across the United States and abroad. Then, her dad passed away shortly after receiving a lung cancer diagnosis. Joseph started re-evaluating her own life. “It reminded me that I have a finite amount of time,” she says. “And if I had things I wanted to do, I should probably get started. So that's what sort of spurred me to get an MFA and think more seriously about what it is I was trying to do as an artist.”

So, she got extra focused on her artmaking practice.

After finishing a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, Joseph landed a spot in a nine-month residency program at the Textile Arts Center in Brooklyn and moved back to New York in 2019. The director of the residency program gave her supplies and encouraged her to try needle felting — a process of binding wool fibers together using a sharp, barbed needle.

"I'm very interested in feminist conversations, and I think it also aligns with everything I want to do as an artist.”
— Melissa Joseph

“That really changed my life,” Joseph says. “Now I mostly needle felt. [...] It's definitely my thing, what I'm supposed to do. It's like a combination of painting and felt and sculpture at the same time. It’s a craft-based way of working. I'm very interested in feminist conversations, and I think it also aligns with everything I want to do as an artist.”

Exploring the possibilities of needle felting has led Joseph to create new bodies of work, and, in turn, her art career has accelerated. Her fiber art has caught the eye of press (with coverage in Vogue, Artnet, Hyperallergic, WNYC, and elsewhere), and she’s landed shows and gallery representation by Regular Normal. Museum collections at Brooklyn Museum, ICA Miami, and Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts contain her work.

Photo by Daniel Greer; courtesy of Art Production Fund

Needle felting is a free-form process. Joseph has invented her own spin on the technique, taking her painting and sculpture training in fresh and tactile directions. Working on a foam-topped, 4-foot-by-6-foot table of her own design in her Midtown Manhattan art studio, Joseph turns puffs of colorful American wool into painterly artworks by working the fiber into a backing of recycled wool felt (called “shoddy”), with repetitive and meditative jabs. “It’s a really cathartic process,” she notes. The results? Distinctive portraits and depictions of private moments that feel warm and inviting, tender, and endearingly human. “Everybody sees the work and they're like, ‘Oh, it's so soft!’” she says. “But there's an underlying violence to the making of these pieces because they're created by this sharp stabbing [motion].“

About 55 murals printed on vinyl and displayed on light boxes, as well as a 125-foot mural on Rink Level, showcase Joseph’s felted, figurative works. Each mural is shown at a larger-than-life scale “that will let people engage with the texture and the materiality in a different way than they can in real life,” the artist notes. Inside a trio of window-like glass display cases, located in the lobby of 10 Rockefeller Plaza, visitors can also see a selection of Joseph’s original felted works, which are framed and accompanied by hunks of rusty scrap metal, colossal chains, and hefty anchors.

Photo by Daniel Greer; courtesy of Art Production Fund
Photo by Daniel Greer; courtesy of Art Production Fund

“I'm really excited to be able to let those images have a second chance for a much broader audience to see, experience, and interact with them,” Joseph says. “My hope is that people can see themselves somehow in the work, that they can recognize something in it that's familiar, comforting, or meaningful. When we can do that, then we can recognize humanity. [...] We can start to see each other in a more human way.”

Photo by Mary Kang; courtesy of Melissa Joseph

While reflecting on what it means to her to have her artwork installed at Rockefeller Center, a cultural cornerstone of New York City that draws millions of visitors each year, the artist teared up. “It's a very emotional thing because New York is my home now,” she says. “So, to be able to be part of the fabric of this place? I'm really, really grateful and honored and excited.”

Melissa Joseph’s artwork will be on view around the Rockefeller Center campus through April 19, 2024. This installation is part of Art in Focus, a series of art exhibitions produced in partnership with Art Production Fund.

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