Melissa Wyman Mines Art from Martial Arts

From Melissa Wyman's Spring Play, a Fight Therapy performance in Seoul, 2009

Where others see awkwardness, CCA alumna Melissa Wyman (MFA 2008) sees art. Like, those clumsy moments when one guy puts his hand out to shake just as the other guy reaches for a hug. "You can make a big deal out of it, or it can just pass, but you both know it's there," she says. Through her Fight Therapy videos, photographs, and watercolors, Wyman sharpens her eye for "fleeting, candid, unscripted" seconds of embarrassment, anger, or humor.

Fight Therapy involves people -- partners, friends, and family members -- wrestling, then talking about their experiences. The series emerged out of Wyman's 15-year interest in jiu-jitsu, which began during her years as a UC Santa Cruz undergraduate, and through which she met her husband, a New Zealand diplomat. She developed her skills in the realms of both fighting and creativity during the three years they spent in Japan, then another four years in New Zealand, before they returned to San Francisco in 2006 and she came to CCA for graduate school, choosing fine art with an emphasis in social practice.

CCA faculty member Lynn Kirby helped shape her interest in martial arts into fodder for fine art: "Lynn was amazing at listening, and helping my project take visual shape. I was new to video, which became an important part of Fight Therapy." Wyman was also inspired by mentor Ted Purves, thesis advisor Maria Porges, and teacher Nathan Lynch, for whom she served as a teaching assistant. Then there was Jordan Kantor's Death Class: "Eleven of us CCA students along with Jordan and visiting artist Kai Althoff spent a week practically living in PLAySPACE Gallery individually and collaboratively exploring our relationship to death. For the class, I asked my father to direct my death scene."

Since her 2010 move to Santiago, Chile, Wyman has branched out from video into other media. Last year her book Fight Therapy: A Discussion About Art, Agency, and the Reverse Triangle Choke was published, and she has been working more and more with watercolors, reshaping wrestlers' faces into the features of animals. She appreciates what watercolors bring to the physicality, and the vulnerability, of wrestling. "I like how temperamental they are. Also, they're easy to lug around." And she has taken on some gigs as a professional illustrator. She's attracted, she says, "to the immediacy of pencil. There's no lying with pencil."

She has connected with the local Santiago art scene thanks to contacts originally forged at CCA: the designer Mariana Tocornal (2008) and the Los Angeles-based artist Pablo Cristi (2009). She advises current students: "Keep in contact with your fellow CCA artists. If you end up in different countries, a network of people is important for keeping your work alive. It's awesome to hook into the local art scene. But sometimes it takes a while to get involved."

Living overseas is second nature to Wyman. Her current South American stint means she's lived across five continents in 15 years, including time in Italy (part of her BFA), Japan (teaching English), and South Korea (work related). In New Zealand, she taught in a women's prison art program. "It was very, very challenging," she says. "It was unknown territory -- a pilot program for eight students, five of them convicted for gang-related crimes." Seven years later, the program is still going strong. New Zealand left its mark on Wyman, who named her daughter Aramaia, drawn from the Maori words for "pathway" and "courageous."

Aramaia's heritage illustrates another theme central to Wyman's work, namely the fluidity of the idea of home. The artist was born in 1976 into an intentional community called the Farm, a Tennessee commune whose roots lay in the counterculture of 1960s San Francisco. Although she and her mom left within a year, she says those ideas about community became ingrained: "I think something might've been in the soil," she laughs. But her notions of home were tested in 2006 when she returned to the United States after seven years overseas.

She was shocked by the security officials' invasive questions, and the "Either you're with us or you're against us" insinuations that she attributes to the policies of George W. Bush's administration. "My accent had changed. They were asking where I was from. I felt like an outsider." In response, she made an artwork based on teaching people to speak while wearing a mouth guard, an object that both protects and constrains.

This year, after creating a new series of animal-headed wrestlers for Galeria Espora in Santiago, Melissa Wyman is coming home. Her stay in Chile is coming to an end, and she's already putting together a curriculum in preparation for a potential teaching position in the Bay Area. "I love teaching, and I love teaching art." Her next chapter might not yet be written, but what's guaranteed is that she will continue to mine creativity from conflict. After all, who else would witness an awkward embrace and think, "Hm, that reminds me of a triangle choke."

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