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Meet Melissa Rocklen of Rocklen Designs in Jamaica Plain

Today we’d like to introduce you to Melissa Rocklen.

Melissa, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I come from a line of women artists– my grandmother was a sculptor and my mother is a printmaker/enamelist. By the time I was born, the general family wisdom dictated that I do something more sensible with my career. As my mom said, making a living as an artist isn’t easy– it’s filled with rejection, but short on money. So, instead, I became a social worker (not a career brimming with money, but at least it’s not filled with rejection).

While working as a social worker, I always had a side-business of art, selling my pieces at local markets and galleries. (I had studied art during and after college.) It was only about five years ago that I switched things up, moving art to the center of my career and continuing with social work “on the side.” (I love the social work that I currently do. I consult with art institutions around their youth development programs.)

Making mobiles feels like a fantastic combination of art and psychology (social work). I began making them when I was working as a therapist for children and teens. And, I found that they were a great addition to the therapeutic setting (both for me and for clients). Mobiles are all about balance and movement. Each piece depends upon every other piece in the mobile, and when you remove any one element, the whole thing functions differently. (Great analogy for so many things in life, right?) Also, watching mobiles is incredibly calming. You can blow on the mobile to make it move, but you never quite know what the movement will be. It’s random and mesmerizing to watch. In the therapy setting, I’ve had folks tell me that the mobiles are really soothing. In the festival setting (where I often sell the mobiles), I’ve had people lie down in my booth so that they could watch the mobiles for a while. It’s pretty great.

Has it been a smooth road?
That thing my mom said about no money and lots of rejection? She wasn’t kidding. Making your way as an artist (or artisan) means opening yourself up to frequent critique and rejection. Those things can be hard to handle! But, they can also make you strong. Rejection doesn’t bother me as much as it used to. I found it really helpful to read an article that reframed rejection as a positive: if you aren’t getting rejections, you probably aren’t stretching far enough outside your comfort zone.

The money part is interesting. Something I’ve learned from my mother and father (who owned a small auto parts store) is that, to survive as an artist, you have to pay equal attention to both the art and the business. I’m always thinking about the products I make and how they will be received by my customer base. Some folks might see this as selling out, but I see this as being able to live. At times, I miss the freedom of being able to create whatever I’d like (no restrictions on time, budget, etc), but I also really like the challenge of making pieces that people will enjoy.

This road is definitely not smooth, but it’s interesting and I love traveling down it.

We’d love to hear more about your business.
My company is called Rocklen Designs. It consists of me and a small workspace in Jamaica Plain. I make mobiles ranging from small ornaments (3″ by 5″) to large mobile installations (14 ft. by 40 ft.). Mobiles are kinetic sculptures that move with the breeze and cast beautiful shadows. When most people think of mobiles, they think of one of two things: 1) Alexander Calder (how I wish I could have met that man) or 2) mobiles hanging over babies’ cribs.

Rocklen Designs mobiles are unique in a number of ways. Like all current mobiles, they are inspired by Calder. From there, they branch off. Each mobile features designs reminiscent of nature. I pull from my background in metalsmithing and painting to create pieces that are delicate, full of vibrant colors, and interact with light. Each piece, I make by hand, using a mix of metals, polymer clay, paper, and glass beads.

The mobiles I make are great for over babies’ cribs, but they’re even better for adult spaces. They are super popular for hanging over beds and reading chairs, as well as in kitchen nooks and over dining room tables. You may find them in doctors’ offices, therapists’ offices, and massage therapy rooms throughout Boston. You can also see those decorating local restaurants and stores.

One of the things I’m most proud of, as a company, is the large installation that I recently completed for Lincoln-Sudbury High School. It spans 40 feet of space in the school’s math department and its measurements are based on the Fibonacci Series. Both students and staff say that it brings a sense of calm to the space. I love working on big installations. They are incredibly challenging, but the final pieces area accessible to so many people. And, they help transform the feeling of a space.

Is our city a good place to do what you do?
It’s all a balance, right? Boston is a great city for inspiration. There is so much creativity here, and it’s easy to be inspired in Boston. Also, there’s a great arts community here. I love having other artists and artisans in the area that I can brainstorm and collaborate with.

At the same time, this city is expensive! It is not easy to cover the cost of living and working as an artist. Also, the number of artist spaces seems to be diminishing. Close to where I live and work, several buildings of artists’ studios are in the process of being torn down to make way for luxury condos… I am incredibly lucky to have a studio that is affordable. I wish there were more spaces zoned for affordable artist studio spaces.

Contact Info:


Image Credit:
Bruno Giust and Mark Wylie

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