Clay Warrior: Interview with Melissa Ciccocioppo

For our final January spotlight, I’m pleased to introduce artist Melissa Ciccocioppo. Melissa and I met a few years back at–you guessed it–a coffee shop (AKA my natural habitat and the only place I manage any socializing at all). Soon after meeting Melissa, I noticed all her rad jewelry and, of course, inquired about the artist. Turns out she designs it all herself. From a cache of Krampuses to Nightmare Before Christmas goodies, this is one designer who knows her way around polymer.

Recently, she and I discussed her evolution as an artist and where she plans to go from here.

A couple icebreakers to start: when did you first decide to become an artist, and who are some of your favorite artists?

Melissa CiccocioppoI never really “decided” to become an artist. I’ve been drawing since I could lift a pencil, though I wouldn’t really consider myself a fantastic illustrator. Art was the only subject in school I liked and excelled in. My older brother has always been my biggest influence. He’s an amazing artist, one of those people where everything he touches, whatever the medium, is instant gold. He’s 12 years older than me so I grew up watching him and wanting my skills to be just as good as his. He’s also part of the reason I decided to pursue a degree in graphic design (he’s been in the graphic design business for years). I do have an Associate’s Degree from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, but unfortunately it’s not a career path that I see myself embracing. Computer work bores the crap out of me and is, at times, incredibly frustrating. Since I started sculpting, I’ve discovered some really amazing artists. Two of my favorites are Emily Coleman and Ellen Jewett. Emily sculpts incredibly lifelike animals and fantasy creatures. Ellen sculpts the same, though her style is more surreal and whimsical and she works in ridiculously tiny detail. Through Instagram, I’ve also discovered that Russians in general have it in their blood to be polymer clay wizards. I follow way too many to name them all, but Evgeny Hontor is probably my favorite. She too creates ultra stylized animals and fantasy creatures. I highly recommend checking out all of their work!

My husband is an artist, and he comments over and over about how difficult polymer is to manipulate. What inspired you to get involved with such an unusual (and at times temperamental) medium?

As I said before, I’ve got this graphic design degree but I don’t use it. After graduation I was freaking out because I didn’t know where my career was headed and had lost my motivation to create art. I thought, “man, if I have to sit at a desk and do art on the computer for 40 plus hours a week and have to quit my job at the coffee shop I might as well just kill myself now.” Then one day (sometime in September, 2009), a customer came in wearing these really wild gauged earrings. I asked her where she got them, and she said she made them out of polymer clay. I had never heard of the stuff, and remembered the one time I sculpted anything, it was in 7th grade and it was a pink and black dragon and I LOVED making it. Unfortunately, it didn’t survive for more than a week because one of my idiot classmates knocked over the display table it was sitting on and it shattered into a million pieces. Anyways, I needed a fun new way to fuel my creativity and also liked the idea of having customized gauged earrings for myself, so I went out and bought a sample pack with like, 12 colors. I was instantly hooked. I certainly didn’t have the skills and techniques then as I do today, but I loved doing it, and that’s all that really mattered.

Many of your designs lean toward the fantastical side of life. Have you always been a fan of fantasy and horror, and what was your earliest experience with these genres?

KrampusAlways! Oh man, I remember loving the show Are You Afraid of the Dark? on Nickelodeon when I was like 7 until I started having nightmares; then my parents banned me from watching it. In fact, they did a pretty good job at hiding the horror genre from me (they’re ultra Catholic and conservative). When I was 10, they went on vacation for a couple weeks and I stayed at my cousin’s house down the street who was 3 years older than me and allowed to watch all the horror she wanted. That was when I watched my first R-rated movie, Halloween H20. Oh my god I had nightmares all week! Every time I looked at the doorway, I saw Michael Myers standing there. He’s still my favorite slasher, and I still have this weird phobia of like, looking out a window or something and seeing a stranger in a mask staring at me from afar. I’ve always loved Halloween, and while I did go through a goth phase in my teens, I still hold the same interests; I just don’t dress in all black anymore. My jewelry designs wouldn’t be as fun if they weren’t so colorful. As far as my interest in fantasy, that has also always been a huge part of my life. My older sisters have always been my inspiration for all things geekery, the older of the two being more heavily involved in fantasy stuff than the other. She still plays D+D, was involved in larping for a few years, and introduced me to anime when I was 10. My earliest documented record of my love for fantasy creatures has to be this homework assignment from like, 1st grade. I had to draw what I wanted to be when I grew up and I had a ridiculously hard time deciding between my two favorite things so I drew them both: a McDonald’s employee and a dragon. I loved me some chicken McNuggets!

You were selected as a featured Pittsburgh artist for the RAW showcase in 2013. How did you get involved with RAW, and what was the experience like?

I can’t actually remember who it was that asked me to join the RAW community. At the time, RAW was fairly new to the Pittsburgh area and it was getting a lot of hype. The rules were simple: sell 20 tickets for $10 each to the event you’re featured in and get the table for free. Any tickets I didn’t sell I had to pay as my entry fee. I think it was March 2013 that I had my showcase at CAVO. That place is the swankiest venue I’ve ever sold my stuff at. So swanky, I felt a bit silly selling my creations there since my work is cute, colorful, low-priced, and… I dunno… generally, unswank? And all the people filling the place seemed like upper class snobbery. It took a few hours for people to really notice me. I definitely blame the fact that I was next to a bar for the hoards of drunk ladies swooning over my jewelry by the end of the night. It turned out to be my most successful event to date! And then I went on to win the Accessories Designer of the Year award at the end of the year, which was a huge shock.

Out of your creations, do you have a favorite piece?

My squid design is probably my favorite single piece because that’s the design that got me selling my work. About a month into my new sculpting hobby, I started having a series of random wacky ass nightmares about giant squids eating me or my family members. It made no sense. I’m an animal nerd but at the time I knew nothing about squids or cephalopods in general. So then I started researching them and found them to be both terrifying and fascinating. It inspired me to branch out from gauged earrings and start making other things, like squid pendants. Pretty soon people were asking to buy them and the rest is history. My favorite series of sculptures are definitely the Spazimon. I think it was sometime in 2012 when I was looking through [my partner] Spaz’s artwork that I found this adorable bunny rabbit/bee creature drawing and asked him if I could sculpt it. It turned out really great and he suggested that we keep going with the collaboration. He drew about 150 silly looking creatures and I sculpted 23 of them. We even came up with little bios for them describing what they ate, what environment they lived in, how they mated etc. We even created a description for the world they live in, Spazciopia. We had a gallery showing at The Irma Freeman Center for Imagination in Garfield in February 2013 and people really loved it! In the beginning of February I’m actually planning to get 4 of my favorites tattooed on my leg! Currently, Spaz and I are working on a new series of creatures called the Lippy’s and hope to have another gallery show sooner than later.

Big thanks to Melissa Ciccocioppo for being part of this week’s spotlight. Find her on Etsy and on Facebook!

Happy reading!