Philadelphia artist Melinda Steffy re-interprets music as color patterns, exploring ideas of translation, information/data, and how music weaves throughout human experience. Her “Ruination Day” project based on folk and blues music as oral history was recently exhibited at Tiger Strikes Asteroid Philadelphia and the Woodmere Art Museum. In 2017, she was commissioned by Eastern Mennonite University (VA) to create 100 paintings based on a Mennonite hymn in honor of their Centennial, and by Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church (PA) to create a series of works based on J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Melinda’s work was selected for Tiger Strikes Asteroid NY’s 2017-2018 Flat File program, and her artwork has been exhibited at InLiquid (Philadelphia), The Art Gallery at City Hall (Philadelphia), 20*20 House (PA), Rowan University (NJ), and the Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival (VA), among many others. She is an artist member of InLiquid and a LEADERSHIP Philadelphia fellow, and she was a prize-winner in the 29th annual Faber Birren Color Award Show (CT). Melinda previously taught art for young children at Woodland Montessori School (VA) and has been a guest lecturer and visiting artist at Tyler School of Art (PA), Arcadia University (PA), Friends Central School (PA) and Finlandia University (MI). Also an accomplished musician, she currently serves as executive director for music education nonprofit LiveConnections and sings with the Chestnut Street Singers. Melinda received a Master of Fine Arts degree in painting from The University of the Arts and a bachelor’s degree from Eastern Mennonite University.
April 14: Lincoln was shot. The Titanic hit the iceberg. The Black Sunday dust storm devastated the Midwest. Three major events in American history occurred on the same date, and each are documented in folk and blues songs.
My RUINATION DAY series is based on four of these songs: “Booth Killed Lincoln,” a 19th-century folk ballad; “God Moves on the Water” by Blind Willie Johnson; “The Great Dust Storm” by Woody Guthrie; and “Ruination Day, Part II” by Gillian Welch.
In abstract geometric paintings and drawings, I deconstruct the time-based structure of music and rebuild it as simultaneous pattern. The past and the present and the future all in one space.
RUINATION DAY is the architecture of information. The mechanics of story-telling. Muscle memory in your fingers. The echo of a tune you heard once that still rings in your ears. Fragments. It is music as a vessel we use to carry along what matters.
RUINATION DAY is repetition, nuance, catastrophe.
The maxim “the score is not the music” suggests that music notation printed on a page is a poor substitute for the sound of the music itself. Printed notes are sterile, an alphabet that allows a musician to produce the right pitches, but which must be interpreted and expanded to be meaningful. If the score—a visual tool—lacks some necessary quality of the music, how else might music be visually conveyed that might better capture its essence?
As both a visual artist and musician, I have long been fascinated by this question and have been seeking ways to connect visual and musical languages. In my “Bach Project” series, I have matched the 12 notes of the chromatic scale with 12 hues on a color wheel. Using mathematical constructs like grids and pie charts, I translate masterworks by composers J.S. Bach and Béla Bartók into vibrant color patterns. The music, usually time-based and heard in sequence, becomes spatial, able to be seen all at once. Unexpected patterns emerge, revealing the complexity inherent in the music.
In the way that live performance has richness that recorded or computer-generated sound does not—with variations of tone, dynamics and energy—I have chosen to work with deliberate, often tedious hand processes. The inevitable imperfections contribute to the feeling that this is music, rather than merely a printed score.
In reflecting on how the artwork developed, I offer three points of inspiration. Three “movements,” if you will.
I. A number of years ago, I saw a series of stunning hand-drawn “Haiku” scores by John Cage at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Although obviously music notation, with the usual symbols to provide a blueprint for producing sounds, the scores themselves were masterfully created—elegant composition, gorgeous mark-making, slight exaggeration of line and contour. I could barely take my eyes off of them, and I was struck by the sense that the scores “look” like what music sounds like.
II. In 2012, I was invited to sing with the Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival in a performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor. As I worked my way through the score in the months leading up to the Festival, I was astonished (and sometimes overwhelmed!) by the complexity of the music. In the alto part, there were almost no measures that repeated elsewhere. Even one note to the next felt new and unpredictable. And yet, over time the bigger picture started to emerge. I understood how my seemingly random assortment of notes created a line and how that line interwove with other lines to create a powerful whole. Around the same time, I was beginning to develop my visual language for music, and I figured if I could make my system work with music as complex as Bach’s, I could make it work with anything.
III. I come from a long line of Mennonite quilters, so I suppose it’s only natural that I would inherit a love of colorful geometric patterns. I remember learning how traditional quilters would deliberately make an “error” in a quilt—such as inserting the wrong color or disrupting the stitching—as a way to resist pride or vanity. Perfection was reserved for the divine, not for human beings. I love the idea that imperfection or variation is what makes human creativity so exciting. A live music performance has richness that recorded or computer-generated sound does not, precisely because of “imperfections” of tone, dynamics and energy.
- MFA, The University of the Arts, Philadelphia, PA
- BA, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA
- 2019, Ruination Day, Tiger Strikes Asteroid, Philadelphia, PA
- 2017, Graphic Notation: Visualizing the Music of J.S. Bach, Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, Bryn Mawr, PA
- 2017, The Score Is Not the Music, InLiquid @ Crane Arts, The Hall, Philadelphia, PA
- 2015, The Score Is Not the Music, Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival, Harrisonburg, VA
- 2015, Chromography: Writing in Color, two-person show with Gerard Brown, Rowan University Art Gallery, Glassboro, NJ
- 2012, Rudimentary, The Music School of Delaware, Wilmington, DE
- 2011, Myth/Memory, InLiquid @ Crane Arts, The Hall, Philadelphia, PA
- 2010, Collecting Stones: Minerals and Material Memory, The Grantham Church Art Gallery, Grantham, PA
- 2010, Remnants and Residual Memories, Finlandia University, Hancock, MI
- 2009, Remnants and Residual Memories, Villanova University, Radnor Township, PA
- 2009, Vegetable/Mineral, The Music School of Delaware, Wilmington, DE
- 2008, Particular Memories (Amid the Vast Emptiness of Forgetting), Sam Quinn Gallery, Philadelphia, PA
- 2006, MFA Thesis Exhibition, Remnant, The University of the Arts, Philadelphia, PA
- 2005, Halfway, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA
- 2003, Mural, In Remembrance, Tshwane Leadership Foundation, South Africa
Selected Group Exhibitions
- 2019, The Woodmere Annual, juried by Eileen Neff, Woodmere Art Museum, Philadelphia, PA
- 2019, Pattern Burst, InLiquid @ The Yard, Philadelphia, PA
- 2018, Creative Women of Lansdowne, 20*20 House, Lansdowne, PA
- 2017, Flat File 2017-2018, Tiger Strikes Asteroid, Brooklyn, NY
- 2017, 10x10x100, curated by Ashley Sauder Miller, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA
- 2016, POST Featured Exhibition, curated by the Center for Emerging Visual Artists, the Art Gallery at City Hall, Philadelphia, PA
- 2016, Beyond Cold Polished Stones, curated by Anthony Campuzano, 20*20 House, Lansdowne, PA
- 2016, Benefit v.16, InLiquid @ Crane Arts, The Ice Box, Philadelphia, PA
- 2015, Benefit v.15, InLiquid @ Crane Arts, The Ice Box, Philadelphia, PA
- 2014, Benefit Exhibition for BalletX, Bridgette Mayer Gallery, Philadelphia, PA
- 2014, Benefit v.14, InLiquid @ Crane Arts, The Ice Box, Philadelphia, PA
- 2013, Member Show, InLiquid @ Crane Arts, The Ice Box, Philadelphia, PA
- 2013, Benefit v.13, InLiquid @ Crane Arts, The Ice Box, Philadelphia, PA
- 2012, Outside/Inside the Box, FiberPhiladelphia, the Ice Box at Crane Arts, Philadelphia, PA
- 2011, RSVP, New Wilmington Art Association, 605 North Market Street, Wilmington, DE
- 2011, New Wilmington Painting, New Wilmington Art Association, Tower Hill School, Wilmington, DE
- 2010, Making It, The University of the Arts, Philadelphia, PA
- 2010, Visual Fringe, Fringe Wilmington, Wilmington, DE
- 2009, Eyes on the Earth: Sustainability Through the Eyes of Artists, George School, Newtown, PA
- 2009, Faber Birren Color Award Show, third prize winner, Stamford Art Association, Stamford, CT
- 2009, Alumni Invitational, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA
- 2008, Grand Small Works, F.U.E.L. Collection, Philadelphia, PA
- 2008, Metaphoric Sunrise/Sunset, MicroMuseum, Brooklyn, NY
- 2008, Currents, Studio Montclair, Montclair, NJ
- 2007, Fiber National, Lancaster Art Museum, Lancaster, PA
- 2007, Annual Members Juried Exhibition, Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts, Wilmington, DE
- 2004, Selected MFA Works, The University of the Arts, Philadelphia, PA
Commissions & Awards
- 2017, selected for Tiger Strikes Asteroid NY’s 2017-2018 Flat File program
- 2017, Jauchzet, frohlocket!, commissioned by Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, based on J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio
- 2016, six-oh-six, commissioned by Eastern Mennonite University in honor of their Centennial, based on hymn #606 in the old Mennonite hymnal
- 2009, prize-winner, 29th annual Faber Birren Color Award Show
- InLiquid artist member
- LEADERSHIP Philadelphia fellow, class of 2013
“Imparting the patterns of history and disaster repeating on Ruination Day” by Peter Crimmins for WHYY, April 12, 2019.
“10x10x100 Centennial artists offer 500 new perspectives on EMU” by Clymer Kurtz for EMU News, October 16, 2017.
“Artists use varied media to reflect on EMU past, present and future for Centennial installation” by Lauren Jefferson for EMU News, February 7, 2017.
“The Sounds of Color” by Edith Newhall for the Philadelphia Inquirer, May 10, 2015.
“Rowan University Art Gallery” by Michael O’Reilly for WHYY’s Friday Arts Live, May 6, 2015.
“The Text for Translation” by Jane Irish for “Chromography: Writing in Color” brochure published by Rowan University Art Gallery, April 2015.
- 2009, “Levels of Reality, Unreality”—Eileen Neff at Locks Gallery, The Bulletin, March 5, 2009
- 2009, “Ten Tactile (But Not Touchable) Things to See at ICA”—Anthony Campuzano, Joshua Mosley and “Dirt on Delight” at the Institute of Contemporary Art, The Bulletin, March 4, 2009
- 2008, “The Architecture of a Community”—Gees Bend quilts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Bulletin, September 17, 2008
- 2008, “Beauty from a Bygone Era”—Kimono at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Bulletin, April 29, 2008
- 2008, “Puppets, in All Their Glory”—“The Puppet Show” at the Institute of Contemporary Art, The Bulletin, March 5, 2008
- 2008, “Tibetan Buddhist Mandala in Process at Cathedral”—The Bulletin, January 29, 2008
- 2007, “Viewer’s Guide to Contemporary Art”—various exhibits in Old City, Philadelphia, The Bulletin, November 30, 2007
- 2007, “Eye Catching Exhibits Draw Viewers Inside”—“Storefront” at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, The Bulletin, November 20, 2007
- 2007, “Pencil-and-Gouache Exhibit at Pentimenti Contrasts the Natural with the Constructed”—Rebecca Rothfus at Pentimenti, The Bulletin, November 8, 2007
- 2007, “Textbook Perfect: ‘Anatomy of the Book’ at Fleischer Art Memorial”—book arts group show at Fleischer Art Memorial, The Bulletin, October 16, 2007
- 2007, “’Big Love’ at Locks Gallery”—Polly Apfelbaum at Locks Gallery, The Bulletin, October 9, 2007
- 2007, “Revel in Renoir”—Renoir at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Bulletin, October 2, 2007
- 2007, “A New Place to Worship Art”—opening of the Perelman Building at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Bulletin, September 28, 2007
- 2007, “Daring, Deafening and Different: ICA’s New Exhibit an Interactive Romp Through Artistic Imagination”—Eileen Neff, Jay Heikes and “Ensemble” at the Institute of Contemporary Art, The Bulletin, September 13, 2007
- 2007, “‘Flights into Fantasy’ Captures Imagination Through Illustration”—“Flights into Fantasy” at the Brandywine River Museum, The Bulletin, September 11, 2007
Teaching / Community Engagement
- 2011-present, executive director, LiveConnections
- 2018 & 2016, guest lecturer, Friends Central School
- 2017 & 2010, guest lecturer, Tyler School of Art
- 2015-2017, guest lecturer, Arcadia University
- 2010, visiting artist, Finlandia University
- 2008, faculty, Summer Institute for the Gifted, Bryn Mawr College
- 2004-2006, faculty, Woodland Montessori School
- 2003, volunteer, Tshwane Leadership Foundation, South Africa
“Writing and music have much in common, but the similarities that emerge when the two forms of communication are translated into graphic systems of color, as seen in the pairing of paintings by Gerard Brown and Melinda Steffy in ‘Chromography: Writing in Color’ at Rowan University Art Gallery, are remarkable.”
—Edith Newhall for The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 2015
“…there’s a luxury of sensation and touch combined with intricate adjustments of single shapes or separate smaller objects … in [Melinda Steffy’s] seemingly casual reveries with dyed cloth, I sense what might be the rare giftedness of a phenomenal quilt maker.”
—Victoria Donahoe for The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 2009
“…the poetry of Melinda Steffy’s work lies in her ability to translate philosophical concepts into visually complex and abstract compositions. The materials she chooses to use in her art-making are an integral part of the finished piece.”
—Carrie Flaspohler, gallery director at Finlandia University, January 2010