Melody Jean Moulton is the owner of Trash Lamb Gallery, an unconventionally curated gallery and giftshop located in San Diego, CA.
Interview by Wendy Lee Gadzuk
Can you give us a brief introduction to your gallery- where is it, how long has it been around, and are you the sole proprietor?
Trash Lamb Gallery is a small, artist-run art gallery and unconventionally curated gift shop in San Diego, California. I opened in October of 2020 after having the opportunity to take over the lease of a building in my neighborhood. The landlord of the building was also the longtime landlord of my apartment, so the space was mine if I wanted it, as far as he was concerned (I’ve always been a good tenant).
At the time, I had zero experience working in a gallery setting, curating art shows or managing a small business, but it was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. I wasn’t sure if I’d even be able to get the finances together to do it, but once I was able to jump that hurdle, it felt like a sign that I had to give it a shot. Walking past the building everyday and wondering, “what if I pursued that thing?” seemed like a worse fate than giving it a shot and failing at it.
I’m a little over two years into it now, and am still not 100% sure that I made the right choice... But it’s too late now! I’m in too deep to give up at this point, and while I am constantly on the verge of going out of business, I’ve somehow managed to keep it going this far.
Although it took some financial help to get the doors open, I have done everything on my own (website, bookkeeping, marketing, social media, working the counter, hosting receptions, etc.), as well as curating all the shows myself. I can’t say that I excel at any of these particular things, but the fact that I manage to do all of them simultaneously, to a somewhat functional extent, does feel like an accomplishment. I have so much more to learn and many more mistakes to make! My business card says, “Owner / Lead Janitor,” which is meant to be humorous but is also an accurate description. Sometimes I feel like I’m constantly cleaning up messes- both my own and other people's.
When did you first realize your passion for the arts?
It was a slow build for me. I think there were a lot of contributing factors. I grew up outside of a smaller city, Eureka, California and while there was an arts scene of sorts there, it was never something I got super involved in. I do remember once in high school, putting up fliers all over Old Town during the monthly Arts Alive event. We went DIY and made my older friend’s apartment into one of the (unofficial) destinations, hung some really bad art on the walls, and offered people plastic cups of malt liquor (which we poured from a bucket of 40’s that were on ice). It was on the second floor, a few blocks off the beaten path in a part of town known for junkies and sex workers, so not a ton of people dared to venture up the stairs. I do remember at least a handful of different strangers coming by though, and us all being entertained by all the different reactions.
In the late 90’s, before I dropped out of college and moved to San Diego, I co-facilitated a support group for children who were survivors of domestic violence for a couple of years. That experience was also a big piece of the puzzle, in terms of my appreciation for how powerful art can be- both the creator and spectator of it. Some people aren’t able to use their words to get things out, and that job was really eye-opening as to how art could be an alternative avenue for processing trauma.
In the early 00’s, after moving to San Diego, I dated someone for a few years whose mother was an artist. At that point I had made a few pieces, but because I'd had no schooling, I never dared to call myself an artist. She was really adamant about my being an artist too- she always raved about my art and made me feel like I was special. It still took me years to start any sort of semi-consistent creative practice, and even longer to begin applying to gallery shows. But I’d definitely say that she was instrumental in my getting there and having the confidence to do it.
So, I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when art became a true passion for me, but all of these things combined were big contributing factors.
What was the catalyst for establishing Trash Lamb Gallery?
It was kind of a fluke to be honest. It was something I had always dreamed of doing but never really saw it in my cards as actually happening. Because of that, I never researched or took the steps to learn what it would take to get going.
While also being an artist, prior to March of 2020, I had tended bar to pay my bills. For almost 20 years, that job had allowed me the flexibility to be able to take time to create, and to seek out creativity further by travelling for more insight and revelation. There are lots of things to enjoy about San Diego. However, after spending half my life here, I don’t find it to be exceptionally motivating or inspiring when it comes to my own creative practice. No offense, San Diego, I still love you, I just gotta get out sometimes!
About a year or so prior to the pandemic, I had made a commitment to myself to begin putting more energy into my artwork, and to slowly wean myself off the dependence of the bar to pay my bills. That plan was slowly starting to pay off for me, as I found myself accepted into some juried group shows within galleries I really respected, and was getting a commission here and there. In turn, these things made it so that I was able to go from needing to work 4 shifts a week to only 2 - 3 shifts a week, to get by.
When the pandemic hit in March of 2020 I lost my job at the bar overnight. It felt like that just ripped the band-aid off for me, all at once. No more the one-hair-at-a-time approach like I had been doing before.
Fast forward to May of 2020, I heard of the building being available. Like I mentioned before, it was mine if I wanted it but I had to find some investors to get the place off the ground- honestly I didn’t think that I would be able to. When the finances did come together, it truly felt like a big, bright green light to go for it. I also didn’t have much time to think it over. From getting the funding together, to having to sign the lease, I only had a few weeks to decide. I often compare making that decision to jumping off a cliff without knowing how deep the water is below it… and then finding it’s not as deep as you had hoped, yet not so shallow that you break your neck and die. Now, I’m just doing my best to keep afloat. A lot of the time I’m frantically treading water, but sometimes I’m able to calmly float on my back, or someone throws a life preserver so that I don’t give up and go under.
Is there a particular theme or aesthetic that you feel reflects what Trash Lamb Gallery is about?
Art that is not boring. I’m hesitant to say that I represent any specific style of art or medium. I think a lot of people place me in the outsider or lowbrow art realms, but I personally think I’m more than both of those very broad categories. I’m fine with being labeled as such, but don’t want to set any limits as to what this place already is or is set to become.
I’m a collage artist and think that’s been key to my curation of the place. While I didn’t have any curating experience before, in my own art practice I’ve been taking things from a wide variety of sources and piecing them together to make a cohesive vision for years. There’s a bit of skill involved in having an eye for something, mixed with a lot of intuition and a dash of damage control. At this moment in time, I think the way I curate directly relates to the way I make art.
You are a working artist as well as a gallerist. How do you balance your role as an artist with your role as a gallerist?
Ha! I don’t. It is way off balance. A goal for this year is to schedule set time for my own art practice, that is sacred and untouched by other obligations, otherwise I will never get to it. If there’s no deadline or set time, it won’t happen.
It’s been a constant struggle to make my own work. I have also had to learn to not resent artists when they don’t submit work on time, etc. I have felt bitter at times because I feel I'm sacrificing my own art (and money, sanity, and free time in general), so that I can promote theirs. When an artist seems careless with deadlines, etc. it can feel really disrespectful to me. I have to remind myself to not take it personally. Patience has (and always will be) something I have to circle back to.
What do you find most rewarding about the curation process?
Getting to know the artists. I love hearing about where people came from, and the how and why- how they came into making art, and the background stories about how they came to be where they are today. The story-telling aspect is hands-down my favorite element.
What are some of the other challenges that you face running a gallery, especially in regards to the recent uncertainties that Covid has brought?
I find all of it challenging! As someone who just dove right in without experience, it’s all a learning curve- the expected often arrives as unexpected. I’ve never dealt with certain things before and simply have to figure them out as they come up.
As I didn’t exist before COVID, I suppose I was lucky in the sense of not having to suddenly adapt, after learning how to operate pre-pandemic. It really was a blessing to open during a time in which we were all operating at a slower pace.
Sadly, and surprisingly, the first year was the easiest. I was really banking on it getting easier over time, and that hasn't been the case. When I first opened, people were stuck at home- no traveling, no concerts. They had lost the extracurricular activities that they normally spent their disposable income on. Lots of people were buying things like art to upgrade their homes since they were stuck in them. They were also watching lots of small businesses go under, and it was really apparent that you had better spend money at the little places if you wanted them to stick around. It felt like people were really making an effort to support small business back then. Yet as things began to open up, I saw less art purchases and a return to the convenience and cheap prices of ordering crap from Amazon, rather than buying something special from, say, my gift shop. It’s depressing to think about. Next question...
How do you discover the artists that you showcase- do you seek them out or do they come to you?
It is a bit of both. A note to any interested artists reading this: Please don’t stop by the gallery with your art unless you were personally invited to do so (coming in and asking me to look at photos on a phone also falls under this category, please don’t do it). Emailing and/or submitting to an open call is the best and most appropriate way to get the ball rolling. There is a section on the gallery’s website for submission info.
In addition to being an "unconventionally curated" gallery, some of your promotional methods are slightly unconventional. You have a Patreon where you post short interviews with the exhibiting artists, using the same set of amusing questions. How has that type of engagement been valuable to you in the work that you do?
While I do struggle to keep up with it at times, I do think that Patreon is valuable. The interviews are always interesting, even though it’s the same questions for each artist every time. Some of the questions are serious and some are very silly. I love reading each artist’s different responses. One of the last questions was “If I was doing this interview in person and there was a cake sitting on the table in between us and I politely asked you to smash your face into it, would you do it?” I always get a kick out of people’s responses to that one.
Do you have future plans for the gallery beyond what it is today?
Right now, my immediate goal is to not go out of business (Ha ha ha, but also, no joke). Finding more ways to boost income for a smidge of financial stability is the current focus. I know this will always be a chaotic ride, but I hope to get it feeling less desperate in the bill paying realm someday soon.
I would also love to have a podcast. I’ve just begun to look into going about it and hope that I’ll be able to pull it off this year. I know I would really love doing it, as I said before, the story-telling aspect of art and the artists that create it are one of my favorite things about my role as gallerist. I’ve always been a sucker for a good story and seem to have a knack for getting people comfortable enough to tell them. A podcast seems like a good way to help get the word out about the gallery and the artists I get to work with, while thoroughly enjoying myself at the same time. A win win.