Berlin-based artist Melissa Steckbauer explores the depths of human connection in her work as both a visual artist and reiki teacher. Across different mediums from photography to fine art, her works focus on themes of relationships, sensuality and the pleasure found in everyday moments of intimacy.
Her paintings from the series Desire, for example, are soft and tender, with erotic scenes depicted in washes of pastel pinks, browns and blues. The bodies too, are rounded and subtle, with limbs that overlap and blur the boundaries between forms. The figures are not recognisable as individual portraits, their faces depicted only in a haze of ecstatic expression. Instead, they invoke a representation of the diversity not only of our physical bodies, but our inert desires and an endless spectrum of sexual identity. It is perhaps the intensity of the experiences that most represents the diversity of human connection itself. In the artist’s own words, the works “address issues of shame about the body, the shame and fear of pleasure, and the objectification and construction of gender, race, and sex in erotic or pornographic iconography.”
Here, the artist tells WOM about the evolution of her work, her love for her adopted home of Berlin, and why it is so important to nurture intimacy and promote sex positivity in art and beyond.
Hi Melissa! First of all, where are you from and what drew you to Berlin?
I was born in the States and raised kind of all over. I moved to Berlin for the delicious freedom and the art circle. Berlin had Schwelle7 / X-plore Berlin and the fastest moving art community I had ever seen — I think I had thirty new friends in the first month; I had shows and peers and it was all affordable. And the trees! This is one of the greenest, and somehow most rural capital cities I have lived in.
How did you turn your passion for creating visual art into a career?
I spent most of my youth in motion, living all over the country. I would draw in the car or on the bus and I remember that around age 8 I discovered life drawing. Creating portraits of new people in real time was a super connective mechanism, I still find that the most enjoyable things I do involve intimate connectivity.
I think the only reason I was able to make art work as “work” is because nothing else had the breadth and scope of what I was looking for: solitude, connection, creativity, play, invention, and craftsmanship. I think to afford longevity one needs deeply rooted tissue to hold onto, the pleasure or relief that the werk offers.
I actually don’t know if what I have is a career or a job or something else. Usually the word career has to do with economics, right? A certain kind of visibility, or perhaps a reframed version of success, i.e. I can afford to do what I love, money or no. When I think of the future, all I can think is: the party is over. The ship is going down and I am quietly making art while I should be refurbishing a life raft out of the hull of the boat.
Your paintings depict highly intimate scenes in a soft and sensual way – what inspires your work?
I was always thirsty for transgressive human experience and sexually progressive communities and so I sought them out. I started with research: reading and experiential learning via community gatherings. I like to think that my work is an amalgamation of the collected data but specifically I work with photos of friends, lovers, and from found erotic content. Formative inspiration was time spent at the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality (the IASHS), a copy of Peek, and later images I collected from The Kinsey Institute’s archive.
I’ve always been intrigued by the power that humans attribute to sexuality. Especially in the States where we have a strong religious hegemony affixed to our legislature; of course one feels the shame before one can intellectualise the latitude of the statutes. I’ve just finished an Ausbildung [training course] in massage and we were warned that localised heat in the body may indicate a wound or infection, i.e., the body’s attempt to undergo a self-healing process. I recognise the same heat as the power of shame in my culture and see its potential for healing. It’s not just about sex, actually sex is just the dressing. The principle thinking is, let’s face ourselves and each other differently. Let’s take what is hidden, hardened, or hurting and place it at the center of our loving attention. The way is through.
How do you think visual art in general can make a positive impact on the conversation surrounding themes of body positivity and sexuality?
Representation is essential, but I find visual art to be a minimally effective medium. Mainstream porn as a medium — both as a first point of contact (educationally speaking) and as a means of modelling sexual behaviour — is far more powerful. If one could shift the porn game — howsoever, one could move mountains. I myself am not called to be a full time advocate, educator, or pornographer but I dork out over the change-makers.
Can you tell me more about The Sensorium Institute – how did you first become interested in reiki yourself, and what are the aims of your workshops?
I am (essentially) The Sensorium Institute. In 2001, I learned a gorgeous but bare bones approach to haptic learning and loving called “The Sensorium” at the IASHS. I deepened the ritual into a method and it’s become a means for folks to learn about consensual, non-sexual touch, haptic creativity, intuition, the giving and receiving of positive attention, and radical play.
I see the humans in my circle as touch starved, exhausted, and lonesome; most of us are missing out on transplendent, ritualised togetherness and within The Sensorium we can have it. My mother is a mystic and a love kween and it was through her that I learned about Reiki as an adolescent. When I was sixteen I met a staff of a woman and fell in love with her and the tools in her medicine bag; in 2017 I received a Master Teacher Reiki attunement from her. She and my mother are among a small clutch of powerful women in Wisconsin whom I consider to be my matrilineal spiritual line, my gravitational center.