Text: Susie Kahlich Images: Céline Cruz
«Don’t freak out when you see the shabby staircase. The flat is nicer than the exterior suggests,» insists Melissa Unger. But her warning is unnecessary. Like most things in Paris, you can’t judge a book by its cover because nothing is ever as it seems. Just like Melissa herself.
Tall and slim and elegant, she looks like the type of icy blonde who swans around galleries balancing a glass of Champagne and her coolly curated opinion. The type of woman who would never enthuse, never say things like wow, or oh my god, or it’s great!.
«Wow, oh my god, it’s great!» Melissa enthuses warmly. She’s talking about her life in Paris. She came, originally, for three months; that was eight years ago. Relocating from New York City, for the first three years she did the expat dance, dividing her time between between the US and France, unable to decide where she felt most at home. At one point she just got tired of the back and forth, and moved briefly back to the US but found it lacking. She finally embraced her Paris life and her French citizenship (which she received through her mother), and came back to stay. «I feel like life in the U.S. is so formatted: sprint, ring a bell; sprint, ring a bell…»
The lady knows whereof she speaks. Starting out as a production manager for music videos, Melissa worked her way up to film production, first working on crews and then holding posts at some of the larger production companies, until she reinvented herself as personal assistant to Daniel Day Lewis on the set of Age of Innocence and, eventually, becoming personal assistant to Robert DeNiro. She reinvented herself yet again to become vice president of Media Outreach for the Advertising Council (Ad Council), responsible for managing outreach and partnership efforts across all media for the Ad Council and its more than 40 PSA campaigns, as well as representing the Council at trade shows and conferences. That’s a lot of bells Melissa has rung after each sprint. But you don’t get these positions by sitting on the sidelines, by being a wallflower. And Melissa, if you haven’t figured it out by now, is no wallflower.
Thoughts, ideas, inspiration spill out Melissa’s head and into her speech and her work, so much so that she has crafted her work around her proclivity for reinvention, change, and growth. «[In Paris], you can morph and evolve and create and it’s perfectly acceptable.» She began her life in Paris as manager of Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, one of the city’s leading contemporary art galleries, before taking the leap into freelance writing and consulting. But these days her main focus is Seymour, an international arts initiative created to nurture the artistic self-expression that comes of self-exploration. A growing, morphing, constantly changing project, Seymour helps artists and creative minds tap into the ever-elusive creative flow. «I believe in the collective consciousness; maybe it’s a new kind of physics,» she offers. Not exactly the conventional business theory of her professional background, but «I’m attracted to marginal thinkers,» she explains. Well, it takes one to know one.
Born and raised in New York City, Melissa is the product of a French mother, an Upper Eastside upbringing, and a rebellious nature. She was a straight-edge punk as a teen, sneaking her way down to the Lower East Side, catching shows at CBGB’s, poring over books at The Strand, and basically turning her back on everything north of 14th Street. Patti Smith is an unsurprising touchstone. But surprisingly, so is her favorite painting, Les raboteurs de parquet, by Gustave Caillebotte. All straight lines and sharp angles, it is at first glance, at odds with Melissa, who is all winding paths, hairpin turns, internal labyrinths and, occasionally, Moebius strips.
But like all labyrinths, there is order here. The thoughts and ideas and inspirations that don’t fit into Seymour wind up on Melissa’s walls, on her shelves, in the nooks and crannies throughout her home. Her couloir acts as a giant pinboard, as though her head periodically erupts onto the walls. Little notes warning that «everything is possible» or encouraging to «get ready» are tucked onto shelves. Art is everywhere, made out of everything.
A sunny and open 2-pièce in Canal St Martin, the apartment is itself more than what it first appears. The long couloir passes by the bathroom, the bedroom and feeds directly into the salon and open kitchen, an airy and bright room where Melissa does most of her work. Not surprisingly for Melissa, she found the apartment in 48 hours, and when she walked in, she knew she was home. Equipped with an open kitchen, a view onto the Canal and a full-size tub in the salle d’eau, she found the furnished apartment through a friend of a friend, and the two make a perfect fit. The furniture belongs to the proprietaire, and the art is all Melissa’s. «Every piece has a story,» she explains. She speaks about the art with reverence and pride, recounting the history of each like a parent in awe of its child prodigy. She stops to admire a pen and ink drawing by Dwight Mackintosh, with the telling rubric Go to home. «That one is my favorite,» she breathes.
Having always been dedicated to the area around République, Melissa was resistant to moving north. But a far-sighted friend pushed her towards the Canal, long before the 10ème was trendy. She reluctantly rented a flat near the quai de Valmy. I thought, «Oh my god, I’m north of République – I’ll never go out again!» But she wound up falling in love with the quartier, so when it was time to move again she wasn’t about to abandon her neighborhood. Now she’s a regular at Hotel du Nord, knows the names of her butcher, the boulangère, all the artisans in the quartier. It’s a little commune, and she loves it. And it’s that commune—that sense of community—that she thrives on and is steadily building with SEYMOUR.
One of SEYMOUR’s ongoing and more interesting invitations is with the Surf Your Mind project. A free and open participatory project, everyone is invited to become a Mindsurfer, a non-guided subconscious creativity project that often results in surprising outcomes, both for the participant as well for staff at SEYMOUR. The purpose is to find the flow and unlock doors to the innate artistic nature Melissa believes resides in everyone. «I find that the younger generations have creativity problems, a kind of performance anxiety, because they know that the world is watching, judging, and it affects their work. But I believe in order to make some progress we have to look inward, to explore ourselves and our subconscious minds, to open our eyes to our creative selves. To see more.»
But this is not hippie-dippy crystal-rubbing nonsense. The Surf Your Mind project is based on the practices of some pretty heavy-hitters, like Patrick Mondiano and Salvador Dalí. It’s a guided un-guided meditation, a journey to ignite the creative spark, reach authenticity. Anyway, Melissa is too New York to ever be a hippie. Although fluent in French, she doesn’t even make a good Parisienne: she’s enthusiastic, funny, animated; she hugs, she walks and talks quickly, she laughs loudly and easily. Integrated into her commune, able to swan around galeries as easily as she might catch a show at Point Ephemère, she remains at root a New Yorker. Paris is slower, more languissant than New York, but it’s still an urban center. And as Melissa continues her adventures into the creative subconscious, she keeps one foot solidly on the ground, pragmatic and un-romantic about the necessities of surviving life in the Capital: art, a sense of humour, and a good tub.
« If I didn’t have a bathtub, I’d be an alcoholic.»