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Melissa Gilbert an exemplar in socially engaging art

Melissa Gilbert an exemplar in socially engaging art


Melissa Gilbert, whose artist name is OFFERINGS, reigned in their first Melbourne Design Week with the exhibition of the furniture series ‘Sentients’ and the interactive program ‘Design Your Own Universe.’

Gilbert is a Eora-based multi-disciplinary artist and educator who possesses an infectious artistic passion – constantly striving to facilitate togetherness and connection through socially engaging art.

And while design is intrinsic to Gilbert’s soul, they don’t necessarily identify as a designer. They boast a vast background in experimental art and creative industries such as music performance and production, and hosting immersive large-scale events. 

Melissa Gilbert photographed with Sentient #1 Human by Sian Fay Kerr.  

However, studying neuroscience altered the way they view art as it galvanised their understanding into relational rhythms. 

“I learned through neuroscience how to build a relationship between a person and a person, or an object and a person – it sounds really weird but that’s what tied particularly my sentient series together!” they say.

This year’s Melbourne Design Week saw Gibert exhibit the furniture series ‘Sentient #1 Human’ – transforming functional furniture into a communication and healing tool – and host the interactive workshop ‘Design Your Own Universe’, presented by the artist’s experimental play system ‘Unite Play Perform.’

Gilbert was thrilled to be a part of this year’s community of designers and expresses gratitude towards the support and warmth from the National Gallery of Victoria. 

“It was inspiring to see no safety edge at the fair – designers were pushing the edge of the envelope in design, concept and materiality,” they say.

Gilbert explains how ‘Sentient #1 Human’  – their first furniture series – derived from an organic process, and spoke to the artist’s penchant for using tactility and texture, alongside their unique methodology of creation. 

When approaching the initial design, Gilbert – who is completely self-taught –  harkened back to time spent working with paper for installation art, where you start with a simplistic form and progress from there. 

Sentient #1 Human by Sian Fay Kerr.  

The artist’s distinctive methodology is heavily influenced by ritualism and metaphysical studies, and involves breaking a process down to the purest form and avoiding over-complication.

Gilbert believes clearing the vessel  – their body – before creation makes embodying the traits of the archetype they are designing easier, in the case of the sentient furniture range, this archetype is the human. 

They folded a piece of paper in half, breathed out and then cut the fold of the paper, which enabled them to ascertain peace moving forward. 

“It was one breath, one cut – it was an exciting process as it took me away from overthinking things, and I channelled everything I ever learned through cutting the paper,” they say. 

“It’s about stepping aside and letting the information flow through.”

From the initial cut of paper, the idea transformed into the 3D furniture piece, and Gilbert was still able to see the initial cut they made with the paper, and reflect on the ritual. 

“I intended for ‘sentient’ to be a healing tool and act as a conduit for passing energy and language through the object,” they say.

Sentient #1 Human by Sian Fay Kerr.  

Gilbert founded the arts-health initiative and experimental play system UnitePlayPerform (UPP) in response to the debilitating social isolation they experienced during lockdowns. UPP workshops are governed by the aim of allowing healing and creativity to occupy the forefront of our everyday lives. 

Participants in UPP workshops – often referred to as “unprecedented wellbeing experiences” – interact with ‘playkits’ which are designed to be touched, worn, and heard, such as inflatable art, sound tools and wearable art. These immersive experiences occur within a space where art, design and culture intersect. 

Gilbert also borrowed inspiration from the counter-culture movements that reacted against the oppression of communities in the 1960s and used art as an outlet in which to air grievances. 

“The same thing was happening in the pandemic,” says Gilbert.

Sentient #1 Human by Sian Fay Kerr.  

The artist’s morning routine during lockdown involved sketching whatever came to mind, and they soon realised the sketches were united by a common craving for connection.

“I saw a sense of community in my sketches,” they say. 

Gilbert decided to transform their art into a socially engaging entity, and that’s how UPP initially developed. 

UPP reflects Gilbert’s appreciation for titans in the performance art field such as Ernesto Neto and Marina Abramovic. Abramovic is renowned for the performance ‘The Artist is Present’ which premiered at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010. 

Melissa Gilbert photographed by Sian Fay Kerr.  

This exhibition involved Abramovic sitting in a chair across from a stranger and holding their gaze, which moved many of the participants to tears. 

Gilbert is empowered by the current intersection between art, design and culture, and maintains there is still immense potential to be harnessed in experimental art.

“A lot of creatives are stepping back and asking themselves, am I the artist or the designer? This crossover space is really exciting,” they say. 

The societal upheaval during the pandemic produced wonders in art and demonstrated that when crisis strikes, creatives mobilise – rolling up their sleeves and testing boundaries.

Gilbert strongly welcomes a pushing of boundaries in the art and design world, and celebrates the proliferation of self-taught artists who are hungry to take risks – and the design world is equally excited to lap them up. 

“I’m really excited to see people enter the design world who haven’t had any formal training, as they usually provide a fresh perspective,” they say. 

Gilbert is still running off the success of their first design week – the Sentient #1 Human artist proof has sold, and there are 15 limited edition pieces available upon request. 

Featured Image by Micaela Mandorff.

Check out other designers who had their first Melbourne Design Week appearance, such as the self-taught artist Olana Janfa.


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