Artist Melissa Vogley Woods reclaims the past to change the future

Through the rediscovery of a rare, ancient art form, along with the work of painters from the Spanish Flu era, the Columbus artist looks back to move forward

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Sculpture and paintings from the Melissa Vogley Woods exhibition “Well seen becomes sight and song itself" at Hammond Harkins Galleries.

Ten years ago, Melissa Vogley Woods found an online video that sent her on a years-long scavenger hunt, crossing oceans to track down a forgotten art form.

In the poorly lit video, a man in a red hat kneels in a corner and applies a gray, putty-like substance to a wall to create a marbling effect. The person doesn’t describe what he’s doing, and the only voice to appear in the minute-long video speaks a different language. The description didn’t provide any helpful clues, either.

But Vogley Woods couldn’t let it go. She eventually found another video titled “Stucco marble -Scagliola -Artificial Marble,” which featured the same craftsman and some others (but no audio) and revealed even more of the process as the artisans added water to a powdery substance to make the putty, then formed it into spheres and slabs while adding various colors along the way. After cutting it, applying it to the wall, scraping it, wetting it and coating it, the glossy, composite substance looked just like marble. 

The technique, Vogley Woods discovered, is known as scagliola (pronounced “scal-yo-lah”), which originated around 1600 during the Baroque era as a substitute for costly marble. In time, scagliola became its own decorative art form, adorning countless churches, particularly in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, where visitors today likely assume they’re looking at marble inlays. Over the centuries, the art form began to fade, and by the time Vogley Woods tried to track down practitioners of scagliola to learn the plaster technique (none of it was written down), she could hardly find any.  

About six years ago, Vogley Woods finally found someone in Rome who knew how to do it, so she visited him and learned more, but he wasn’t able to fully teach her the technique, so she sought out one of his apprentices, who agreed to show her the process. Vogley Woods also used a grant from the Greater Columbus Arts Council to study scagliola in Rima, near the northern border of Italy and Switzerland.

“Rima is one of the homes where it began, way, way back. The whole town used to do it. Everyone did scagliola,” she said. “There was one craftsman left doing it.” 

Vogley Woods documented churches with ornate scagliola inlays and giant scagliola columns. In all, she found three people still using the technique, and for the past three years or so, she has been tweaking the process to suit her own artwork as she mixes black and white with bright, vibrant colors to make eye-popping abstract sculptures, some of which take the geometric form of smooth, square tiles (about a foot square) and others forming irregular shapes.

"Unshadowed Pulses Blaze" (pigmented plaster, scagliola inlay; 12 ¼ x 12 ¼ inches) by Melissa Vogley Woods

Vogley Woods’ scagliola work from the past two months, along with several abstract paintings, will be on display at Hammond Harkins Galleries beginning with an opening reception from 5 to 8 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 3. The exhibition, titled “Well seen becomes sight and song itself,” isn’t merely the revelation of a local artist resurrecting an ancient technique in groundbreaking, fascinating ways (though it is that). It’s also a collaboration with artists from the more recent past and an optimistic commentary on what the near future could hold.

When the pandemic hit, Vogley Woods began researching artists who were creating during the Spanish Flu of 1918, which led to an art installation at her home, and another at the Columbus Museum of Art. All of the work on display at Hammond Harkins is inspired by two painters, Morton Schamberg and Charles Sheeler, who were close friends and shared a studio in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, when the Spanish Flu hit.  

“I'm trying to reference back to a time when we had overcome a crisis like this, but I was also interested in Sheeler and Schamberg and the fact that they were Precisionists,” Vogley Woods said, referring to a movement of early Modernism, similar to an American take on Cubism. “They would paint factories and machines and industrial imagery in a very clean, stark way.” 

Schamberg, though, was a pacifist, and by 1917 he grew uncomfortable with the way he and Sheeler were portraying industrialism. “He was realizing, ‘I don't want to continue to glorify these images of industry.’ He felt bad for not showing the human toll and the human cost of this kind of production. So he had an existential crisis and stopped making the work,” Vogley Woods said. “That [era] was kind of the start of the problems we have now with the environment, class disparities and workers not having enough rights.”

Sheeler, though, continued on with his industrial still-life paintings. While their work diverged, the two remained close friends until Schamberg died from the flu in October of 1918. 

Vogley Woods studied the two artists’ still-life watercolor paintings and began incorporating shapes from their work into her own. “The work is about reusing history. … It's a collaboration across gender, but also a collaboration across time, and trying to show that we are unified and we can work together,” Vogley Woods said. “What really pulled me to the stilllife [watercolors] was that they had done the same thing but had totally conflicting views on it. … These two artists most likely had a conversation where they were both in conflict over imagery.”

“Well seen becomes sight and song itself" by Melissa Vogley Woods at Hammond Harkins.

The shapes of leaves and flowers, along with Schamberg’s pastel palette and Sheeler’s textile designs, show up in Vogley Woods’ sculptures and paintings, which are displayed at Hammond Harkins along a colorful gradient mural on the wall — an idea that came to Vogley Woods just last week. She envisions the mural as a timeline, with the paintings and sculptures breaking the timeline while also remaining in unison with it, creating a lifelike sense of both beauty and confusion. 

“When things happen in the moment, they can be very confusing: How did we get here? How did this happen?” she said. “You can see it if you're looking at the timeline from a distance, but in the moment, it just freezes you.”

"Two Leaves Series: Tolerance Invoking Vivid Waves" (pigmented plaster, scagliola) by Melissa Vogley Woods

While the historical jumping-off points for Vogley Woods’ work are more academic, the creative act is one of surprise, joy and excitement, which carries over to the viewer, regardless of one’s familiarity with the history and techniques. “When I get into making the work, it's somewhat abstract, but it becomes emotive. The emotion of what I'm thinking about comes out of the work,” she said. “Every choice, every color was such an adventure.” 

Many of the pieces seem to vibrate as radiant colors jump out from behind black arches and cut across sloping lines and sharp edges. It all lends a sense of optimism to “Well seen becomes sight and song itself,” which mirrors Vogley Woods’ own hopeful belief that renewal can lead to reunion, even in our present circumstances. 

“How do we bridge differences? How do we rewrite ourselves?” Vogley Woods said. “I want to keep pushing this idea of re-establishing a new modernism. ... I'm trying to say that we should listen, and we should question what we're doing. It's an important moment to think about that. I'm pulling out of [Sheeler and Schamberg’s] imagery, and then I go into the fantasy of a new optimism, and then I put it all into these abstracted shapes and forms and these monikers of time. It’s reclaiming our own history to change the future.”