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Interview with Melynda Van Zee:

"I was scrapbooking when
scrapbooking wasn't cool..."

Melynda Van Zee photoMelynda Van Zee remembers visiting her grandmother as a child, and hearing the family stories she spun as she leafed through her scrapbooks. As Melynda grew older and began to accumulate memories of her own, it felt natural to gather them into scrapbooks and journals. Her passion for scrapbooking grew, and by the time her third child was born, she noticed she wasn't alone: "Suddenly, I discovered what I had been doing all those years had become a trend!"

Melynda's passions for art and teaching run just as deep. For 14 years, after earning her BA from Dordt College in Iowa, she taught art to children from Kindergarten through high school, in private schools, summer art camps, and community education programs. She has also conducted adult classes in stores and community centers in painting, scrapbooking, rubber stamping, calligraphy and decorative painting. Extending her creative reach, she began writing and designing for magazines like Scrapbooking and Beyond, Legacy, Memory Makers, Creating Keepsakes, and Rubber Stamper. Her paintings and collage artwork have been displayed at galleries and shows in Iowa and nationally.

During one particularly creative week a few years ago, two of her loves, scrapbooking and decorative painting, came together in a crash of inspiration. She began toying with painting techniques on some scrapbook pages. As she became more inspired, her experiments led to a new style of scrapbook storytelling that was among "the most satisfying pieces of art I have ever created." She continued to explore her new-found medium, and in 2006, she launched her unique line of scrapbook papers through Sugar Tree Scrapbooks. But, like the art teacher she is, she took her creation to a broader audience and fully shared her techniques in her first book for Lark Books, Painted Scrapbook Pages. In it, Melynda offers almost 40 painting techniques for creating distinctive, individualized page backgrounds, from faux surfaces (sponging, marbling, crackling) to brushing, stamping, and lettering.

Melynda's creative intensity comes through in her art, her writing and in her motivational speaking. You can feel it in Melynda's blog. And it fills every page of her website, Scrapbook with Passion. Even her company, formed in 2005, is aptly named Melynda's Passion.

Melynda took time from her teaching and writing to talk with us in May 2009. We started out intending to ask mostly about her book - but Melynda's passion embraces so much more and we went with it:

VIC: Throughout your writing and teaching - your career even - you've drawn on your inner passion for communicating through art. How do you find that passion and tap into it every day?

© Melynda Van Zee
Melynda Van Zee scrapbook page
"Wow... this isn't the easiest place to start. I think I find it hard to create when I’m not excited about a project; when I feel it is something I 'have to' do; when I feel there is a really high standard to reach. All that will shut me down and stand in the way. So I try to focus on allowing myself to paint and create things that are really true to me; things that are important to me and I want to share with others; allowing my inner thoughts and emotions to come to light. This is the hardest and simultaneously the easiest way for me to create. It is hard because I have to put aside my worries about what someone else might think about my creation. I have to put away my fear of actually using up my paint and beautiful papers. I have to allow myself permission to use my precious time to create. More importantly, I must allow who I really am to show up on the page or canvas in front of me. I think the other huge key is that I deeply believe in the power of art to communicate... that is what makes art art."

VIC: You asked your son, Drew, at the age of four, if he wanted to be an artist when he grew up. His answer was perfect: "Mom, I'm already an artist - I don't have to wait until I'm grown up!" As a teacher (and mother), what creative lessons were you trying to instill in your students - and what did you learn?

"The greatest benefit of teaching is that it forces you to learn your own lessons well. Adult artists often have the most difficult time creating, but 4 and 5 year olds have very little inhibition. You hand them supplies and they 'make stuff.' As adults we have had years of training and experiences that stand in the way creating with abandon. We might be worried how things will look or what people will say about us spending our time doing such things. I must admit that for years I maneuvered through life carrying a heavy load of expectation. I am a first-born overachiever with a need for approval. Mix that with living in the rural Midwest and it has been a hard road for me to actually have the courage to live a vibrant, creative life.

© Melynda Van Zee
Melynda Van Zee scrapbook page
"A child knows she is an artist. Nothing stands in the way of her creating. She doesn't have to be told... it's part of her DNA. My students and my own children have taught me that again and again. Many of the projects in my book were done with my kids by my side. My kids remind me to play and they keep my work fresh and alive. I've also enjoyed hearing my oldest begin to intellectually reflect and comment on my work. He is often a better interpreter of my work than even I am. When I shared this question with him, he said, 'Mom, tell them to just paint.' Eleven year-olds are so wise."

VIC: You talk about the "keys to unlocking creativity" in adults as well as children. Tell us about the process and how we might liberate our urge to create.

"Well, don’t get me started…this is one of my favorite things to talk about! There are many paths toward unlocking our inborn creativity, but one of my personal hurdles was my own fear. I've had to intentionally lay aside my need to do what others like and concentrate on what fulfills me creatively. Through reading, practice, giving myself permission to just plain 'make stuff,' and more practice, I've been able to chip through some of my blocks of perfectionism, comparison and critical voices. I've learned to slow down, which is something that is counter-cultural, but artists have to take time to really see what is around them and to experience life. We also have to take the time to create a life that is interesting and worth reflecting on. I've had to learn to really feel as well... actively concentrating on what is going on internally creates new bursts of creativity for me."

VIC: On your website, you have a fascinating list of the 'Top 10 Secrets on How to Become a Scrapbooking Artist.' Which do you think are the most important to get right?

©Melynda Van Zee
Melynda Van Zee scrapbook page
"I think one of the biggest hang-ups for scrapbookers is this driving need to "get it all done." Scrapbooking is NOT a race to the finish line. Today, with the ease of digital photos, there is no way I could have the time or energy to scrapbook all the pictures I take. Pick the photos that speak to you; the photos that make you go deeper; that reflect a phase, a growth, a significant experience. Then... play. Have a place you can play and get messy, with your supplies within easy reach, and give yourself time to be in this space. I make a lot of really simple pages... just paper, a dash of paint, photos and words. And, when I’m in the mood, I might take the time to make a really complex, over-the-top type of page. Doing that type of work calms me and allows me to focus on what is beautiful in my life. And find some friends who think like you and hang out together…it makes everything more fun."

VIC: You are one of the "in demand" teachers of personal creativity as well as scrapbooking today. What do you really enjoy about teaching and what does your curriculum look like?

© Melynda Van Zee
Melynda Van Zee teaching
"I really love to teach people how to transform their lives. For years I've taught a seminar called 'Who ME? Creative!?!' Allowing your creativity to blossom is one of the best pathways to creating more joy and light in your life. Creating helps us to process our life, and there is simply pure joy in creating something new, something beautiful, something uniquely you. And, for those of us with extra doses of creative gifts, if we don’t use them our lives begin to lack fullness... and guilt and depression often take over. I love to see the 'aha' moment, when people look at me and say 'You must be in my head! How did you know that?'"

VIC: When you were blogging about your book, Painted Scrapbook Pages, you commented, "I think motherhood has definitely been a great preparation for this process." So, tell us about the process and how you collaborated with so many great designers.

© Melynda Van Zee
Painted Scrapbook Pages cover photo
"Writing my book was about a two-year endeavor. The editors at Lark were marvelous because they broke the process down into doable phases. They asked for one chapter and then we worked together so that I understood what they needed each step of the way. Writing a book is like a birthing process... you have the contract stage, the negotiations, the 'firsts' (first chapter, first 30 projects, first table of contents, first 'how to' steps), heavy periods of creating under deadline, photography and eventually final edits. It is a lesson in cooperation, perseverance, endurance and love... definitely a mirror of mothering! I worked with many great designers, especially one of my best friends who not only designed the beautiful layouts for the book but also helped me along the way. Even my book club got in on the process! One night I brought a stack of painted pages to our meeting laid them all out on the floor and had them give me feedback. This book truly was a cooperative effort."

VIC: We see ourselves as do-it-yourself crafters and scrapbookers, so Painted Scrapbook Pages really resonated. What would you say to encourage the scrapbook artist to break away from the pre-printed background?

"Who doesn't love to walk down a huge paper aisle in a scrapbook store? It is a feast for the eyes. I still buy the most beautiful papers, but I've found it so much more affordable and fulfilling to create my own. Make it easy on yourself... take some simple painting supplies and cardstock and whip up a pile of painted pages all in one setting. Once they are dry, you have your own stock ready to go whenever the urge to scrapbook hits. They are beautiful, unique one-of-a kind creations."

VIC: You thanked the new magazine, Where Women Create, for inspiring you to take your studio to a new space. Since you had the luxury of starting over, how did you design your studio and how is it working for you?

© Melynda Van Zee - living room studio
Melynda Van Zee studio photo
"I hadn't really looked at it as a 'luxury' of starting over, but you are right, it is a luxury to have a real studio space. But it can be obtained much easier than many of us think. My old studio was in a small guest bedroom, which was great five years ago when I needed a room with a door to protect my computer and art supplies from my toddler. One day I realized my toddler was now a first grader, my oldest was in Junior High, and I needed to move my computer out of my studio and into our open living space. It was all 'down hill' from there. I envisioned one wall for my books, albums and a paper rack, and another wall where I could hang multiple canvases in process. I wanted a large space for my easel. And I yearned for more natural light. So,with my family's blessing, I cleaned out my living room. I repurposed, recycled and rearranged. I tore out the old carpet and painted the plywood underneath with a mixture of several old paint colors I had left over from earlier projects. I love it! The heart of the studio is my large center table. I can stand and work on all four sides, and it is large enough for four or five friends to gather around when we get together and create. I now have room to move, natural light, and the only new thing I really bought was a roller to paint the floor."

VIC: You share so many photos of your personal artwork on your blog, and it seems clear you have a real passion for painting. How has painting remained a part of your creative life - and how are you finding the time for it all?

© Melynda Van Zee
Melynda Van Zee tulip painting
"Painting has always been one of my first loves. It was my secret desire to become a fine artist... I just hadn't 'allowed' myself to do it. I took painting classes in college and loved them, but after graduation came my new workload of full time teaching and then motherhood, and I simply stopped painting for myself. I still had all these sketches of paintings I would do 'someday when.' I kept reading painting books and doing a lot of decorative painting and scrapbook paper, but I was still not painting my own canvases.

"And then came the process of writing my book. To be honest, after it was finished I needed to do something very different. I began dreaming of painting tulips! I live in a Dutch town with a tulip festival, and one day I told an artist friend 'I think I want to paint tulips.' Two weeks later she called me and said a new gallery was opening in town and she had told the owner about my painted tulips... and he wanted to see them! Well, I hadn't even painted one tulip yet, but I got to work. Step by step my painting developed... I started taking classes again, and found a friend to build my canvases. Soon, I was painting larger works... less decorative and much more a reflection of what is going on internally in my life. I've started to paint not only the beautiful, but to paint the real... the good, the bad, the ugly... and my journey through it all. I’m painting my life in addition to scrapbooking it. I have finally realized that I've lived many identities, but that being an artist is at the heart of what I am to do with my life. It has been a head and heart journey, and as I've grown it seems that there have always been emotions that I could simply express best in paint.

VIC: On your website, you prominently display your credo: 'Proud to be a scrapbook artist.' What has been your proudest accomplishment as an artist so far - and what do you hope might be your next?

"I was thrilled to have my first solo art show this past summer at The Galerie of Pella in my hometown.. that really meant something in my life as a painter. For the future, I hope that I am able to have the freedom to continue to create and the flexibility to continue to do the things that bring me joy and purpose. I love to spend time with my friends and family and I love to help people transform their lives. For me, it is more about how I live and who I am than what I might someday accomplish."

Melynda Van Zee website logoVisit Melynda Van Zee's Blog at www.scrapbookwithpassion.blogspot.com and her website at www.scrapbookwithpassion.com. Melynda's book, Painted Scrapbook Pages, is available at bookstores, craft stores, and at Amazon.com and other online retailers.

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