Artist Mel Winning transforms vintage
curiosities into unique lights
WORDS AMY BRATLEY
Most artists think outside the box, but artist Mel Winning thinks outside all the boxes. Who else would see a vintage pregnant woman mannequin and reimagine its womb as a light, or find a deer skull and know instinctively that it would made a fantastic desk lamp? Repurposing items into striking lights and works of art, Mel’s creations provoke a range of emotions.
Some pieces are intriguing and playful while others are dark and sensuous, yet each have unique character and story, adding another dimension to a home. Here Reclaim talks to Mel, to dig a little deeper into her creative mind.
How would you describe your work?
A lot of what I do is quite experimental. I enjoy a challenge and I like to go against the clichéd way of doing things. My aim is strange but beautiful – an imperfect,
sometimes savage beauty. I’m inspired by artists like Salvador Dali, Alexander McQueen, and Belgian artist duo Mothmeister who I follow on Instagram. I love theatrical darkness. My work has been described as otherworldly and that’s where I go to escape reality when I’m working.
What’s your background?
As a child I found school difficult. Part of my problem was with mathematics, which has now been diagnosed as dyscalculia – a difficulty in understanding numbers, sometimes known as number blindness. I was very good at singing and dancing though, so my parents took me to join the Italia Conti Stage School when I was seven. I worked as a child actor then spent eight years in the West End in various plays and musicals. I was privileged to be in the first West End cast of The Rocky Horror Show.
Did you continue in the theatre? Eventually I became a make-up artist working in TV, film and theatre. I worked with lots of photographers and art directors, including Storm Thorgerson who was art director for Pink Floyd. I still work for the V&A as a creative, teaching youngsters the art of make-up. After a while I had enough qualifications to apply for art school, and in 2010 I took a masters degree at Camberwell College of Arts and graduated with distinction in 2012. After the degree show I was invited to exhibit my work at the Medici Gallery in Cork Street, London.
Why do you use reclaimed materials?
I hate seeing beautiful things with history not being valued. I see potential in things like a rusty old spray can covered in verdigris, and sometimes I get saddened and inspired by what’s happening in the world – like in my piece ‘Burning Buildings’ which was about Grenfell Tower and the Glasgow School of Art – that loss of community and heritage.
My masters was in illustration. I love storytelling: I enjoy the way I can transform things from an idea, and how it could be viewed in the future. I also got interested in artists throughout history who over-painted their canvases to save money, or as just a continuation of the process. I collect old worthless chocolate-box paintings, some with lovely old frames, that I paint over. This creates a strangeness and texture to the work as the old layer shows beneath. It’s the same with the lighting: they include layers from past and present.
Where do you source your pieces?
I moved from London to Manningtree in Essex on the river Stour – a beautiful medieval market town with a grisly history of witch-hunting in the 17th century. I joined the Manningtree Business Chamber to support our local shops and businesses in these tough times, and started a new market – the Manningtree Vintage & Collectables Brocante. It’s now in its fourth year, and through that I got to build up a fantastic network of market traders and dealers from whom I source everything from vintage mannequins to petrol cans. I also won the community engagement award and the market was mentioned in The Times. I’m very proud of that achievement.
At art school I had to do a self-portrait and because my work was based around photography and digital art, I used an old wig block and described myself through that by pinning stuff on to it. I remember laughing as I photographed it! I called it ‘a split personality with a tendency to talk too much’, hence me stuffing a sock in its mouth. After that I bought a one-legged mannequin from Ebay and started cutting it up and making things. I use all my creative skills on mannequins: the make-up, the styling, the storytelling, and the scope of what I can do with the light by cutting out pieces, really thrills me. I love working on them and I sell more mannequins than anything else.
Where do you find them?
A lot of people give them to me as a kind of rescue service. My piece ‘Colonial Babies’ was one of those – I couldn’t resist a pregnant mannequin. There are companies who sell used ones and you find them at car-boot sales, antique fairs and on Ebay. I do have some that are rare from the 1960s, but these are getting harder to find. For me it’s not the rarity or value of the items but what I can do with them – the potential they have.
‘my work has been described as otherworldly and
that’s where l go to escape reality’
Tell us about your studio.
I live in a Georgian building that used to be a pub called The Cock Inn. It has a very large attic with old beams running across the ceiling and is restricted in height. I’m very happy there and as I’m short I don’t have to duck under the beams. It’s pretty messy because I’m not very well organised, but I do have lots of storage space. One corner is reserved for things-in-waiting. Another is my mini photo studio. I must admit there are things-in-waiting all over the house! I’m very lucky to have such a patient husband who is very supportive and loves what I do.
What sort of interiors do your pieces work best in?
I think they work especially well in very modern interiors that need something that stands out as a statement piece in contrast. I love that mix of old and new. But also they work in arty interiors and businesses that have a reclamation theme. I’ve sold work to bars, cafés and even AirBnbs.
What projects are you working on now?
I have my online shop, where I can ship worldwide, and I’ve recently sold a full-sized mannequin, ‘Key Light’, to real-estate photographer Christopher Hope in New Zealand. I’ve also just finished a piece of work inspired by Frida Kahlo called ‘Frida’s Corset’, which I’ll soon be uploading to the store too. I have a project coming up in 2020 to design some artworks and lighting in the offices of a London company, and I’m also planning to be part of an art exhibition at the newly renovated Chelsea Old Town Hall at the end of May. It’s all very exciting!