Melissa Carroll,  another Friday night” watercolor, 11″x15″, 2013Image courtesy of the artist

Melissa Carroll is a young artist who for much of her art career has focused on portraiture. Before being diagnosed with cancer, she made oil paintings of others, mostly friends. Since her diagnosis she has turned the lens and attention towards herself and making very personal work that allows the viewer a stark view of a young woman in the thick of medical treatment, capturing a moment that is both infinite and fleeting. We recently had an exchange discussing her work, her illness and where she finds joy.

KATY DIAMOND HAMER: Recently you had a one night only exhibition at Andrea Rosen Gallery 2 in Chelsea of your artwork from the recent series “Recurrence”. Rumor has it the show was completely sold out! Can you talk a little bit about the exhibition and how it came about?

MELISSA CARROLL: After my cancer came back I felt a sense of urgency to tell my story and accomplish my life’s goal as soon as possible.  As a portrait painter I switched the focus from other subjects to myself and started painting my trials and tribulations with cancer.  After being so isolated I felt the need to express what living with this horrible disease is like.  My good friend Ricardo got really excited about my work and bought a bunch of them from me.  His enthusiasm about them helped me realize that I had a story to tell and to keep painting even when I felt horrible.  He  ended up showing the pieces he bought to Andrea Rosen and she contacted me about doing the show!  After so much sadness and pain I finally had something really positive to focus on.  A life long dream actually!

Melissa Carroll,  “Storm” watercolor, 15″x20″, 2013Image courtesy of the artist

KDH:  You’ve worked with artist Francesco Clemente as a painting assistant. What was that like? Was your own painterly approach similar to his or do you feel that working closely influenced your vision?

MC: I worked for Francesco Clemente as his painting assistant up until I got sick and just couldn’t work anymore.  Working for him was a great experience.  I was his only assistant so we worked closely and I learned a lot about mixing colors, symbolism, India.  I don’t think are styles are that similar but I was lucky to work for a master that did portraits.  I have always loved painting eyes and believe they are the window to the soul.   If you look at Francesco’s paintings of eyes he truly understands this.  They are deeply expressive and I learned a lot from this.  It was amazing to just be around someone that I grew up learning about at school. When I started getting treatment in Boston at Mass General Hospital and couldn’t work anymore, Francesco payed my rent in New York during chemo.  This allowed me a place to come back to, when my counts were up, with all my things and my friends and life.  I don’t know if he’ll ever know how much that helped me get through those grueling days of chemo but I am blown away by his kindness.

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Melissa Carroll, “self portrait with mask”
watercolor, “11x”15, 2013
Image courtesy of the artist

KDH: An important part of your practice has been your blog ( that you’ve kept since being diagnosed with cancer. The blog is an honest reportage on the treatments you’ve undergone and the subsequent artwork that has evolved. Were you ever afraid to release this amount of rawness within the public sphere?

MC: I started the blog because I was stuck at my parents house going through utter hell, alone, and needed to vent but also just wanted to reach out to others that might be going through something similar.  Cancer came into my life like a hurricane and seriously changed everything!  I’ve always been a very private person so I felt very vulnerable being so honest about such personal topics.  I remember the first time I wrote a post I felt like I made a huge mistake but my friends, family, and even strangers would write to me telling me how much my words helped/inspired them.   This meant so much to me.  I usually only write in it when I need to get things off my chest so it usually comes across as very passionate.  When I feel good and happy I’m usually busy, off living my life as best as I can.

KDH: How are you doing now? The last I read, you were still in treatment and feeling frustrated. Has anything changed? What do you think is next regarding the paintings you make?

MC: Having cancer is like riding a roller coaster. There are so many ups and downs. Things never go as planned.  This is why I try not to get my hopes up about anything anymore. I am actually in the hospital right now. I have been getting Colitis from one of the chemo drugs.  Unfortunately, my doctors have no choice but to stop treating me with this type of chemo or my stomach will be destroyed.  We are going to talk about other options.  I just spent my birthday in the hospital. My party was canceled but my good friends came and we celebrated as best as we could in the Sloan Kettering cafeteria.  I am very fortunate to have amazing friends and family in my life that really love me.  I am finally allowed to eat again and actually just got back from Puerto Rico where I celebrated my best friend’s birthday!  I’ve learned to live more in the moment than I thought possible and enjoy myself when I’m allowed to have some fun.  People always tell me that I’m so brave and that they couldn’t get through all of this.   When you don’t have a choice, you just do it. I’m just dealing with all of this like anyone else would.  I do lie in bed and cry but then I get up and try and live a little.  Its boring and miserable being sick all the time so when you can, you take advantage of the time you have.  In regards to painting plans.  i want to continue with my work and obviously the focus will still be on cancer as it continues to consume my life.  I would like to do a book with all the paintings and write about what each piece means.  Everything did sell so i have to continue to do all new ones and hope another show will come along!  

Melissa Carroll, “barf bucket”, watercolor, 11″x15″, 2013
Image courtesy of the artist

KDH: Have you ever looked at the work on Hannah Wilke. Her life was cut short by cancer and she documented her story in photographs. She was older but the honesty spills through her eyes and has always been important to me. The eyes in your work also have this immenseness that is special.

MC: Yes, someone else has mentioned Hannah Wilke to me as well, very expressive eyes. I have checked out her work but only after I painted this series.  Someone else referred me.  Very powerful but I’m glad I didn’t get too influenced. An old favorite but since I became ill, someone who I have a lot more respect for now is Frida Kahlo because she painted from bed as well due to her severe back problems and she had a bad leg also.*  Her ability to tell her struggles through her self portraits in such a direct but beautiful way has been very influential. “Storm” is heavily influenced by her.

*[Authors note: Kahlo was born with spina bifida, had polio at six years old and then later was in a car crash which resulted in debilitating injuries that plagued her the rest of her life, yet continued to make art].

KDH: Lastly, do you work from mirror, photographs or the imagination/memory of yourself?

MC: When making these works I’ve been really sick so some of them are from taking a picture and some are from a mirror. I usually paint in bed and have literally woke up with the realization that I have slept on a paintbrush or two! I just have all my paints on a tray and my water on a little bedside table.  Working with watercolor allows me to paint while traveling or when I’m trapped in the hospital.  When I used to paint in oil I had a studio but its too toxic for me now.  

All the paintings came from a need to tell my story of what living with cancer is like.  To express the hell that so many suffer but no one likes to think about.  I kind of wanted to show people what they don’t normally see unless u live with a cancer patient.  It has been therapeutic but also very exhausting.  After my cancer metastasized to my lungs I was hit in the face with the fact that I might die from this and pretty soon.  I felt a sense of urgency to get it all out and truly do something with my art work which has always been a dream to me.  I think the best compliment I got from people at my show was that it literally brought them to tears.  Not my intention, but to be able to move someone to that point is amazing.

KDH: Since I was trained as a painter myself, I know how intimate and personal self portraits are. They function as both a mirror and a device or a way of marking time. This is why your process interests me, some people (or most) wouldn’t be able to face fear, pain etc and that is admirable. Thanks for chatting and sharing your work with us. All the best in health and painting, I’m glad we met through Ricardo [Kugelmas]. 

Melissa Carroll, “hanging by a thread” watercolor,  30″x20″, 2013

*UPDATE* Melissa Carroll passed away from Ewings Sarcoma on March 31st, 2014. We send our thoughts and love to her family and friends. She was a brave artist who took the chance of showing the world her soul. Rest in Peace Melissa. xo