Ingenue Interview: Melissa Unger


Image courtesy of Melissa Unger

The Ingénue Interview features select artists and scene-makers from around the world who are actively defining the next wave of cultural innovation. This week, Paris-based creative consultant and founder of Seymour Projects Melissa Unger talks life lessons from Hollywood heavyweights, imagination as 'religion,' and her greatest pleasure living Paris (it's not what you'd guess!).

Melissa Unger's résumé reads like an aspirational art student's list of dream jobs: production manager to music video wiz Ralph Ziman, personal assistant to Robert De Niro and Daniel Day-Lewis, advertising exec, blue chip gallery manager, underground party impresario, art journalist, novelist. Her varied career has taken her all over the world, and indeed across the fields of music, film, television, media, art, fashion, and more. Trading her native New York City for sojourns in London, Paris, and Los Angeles, all the while befriending the brightest minds and quickest pulses on the creative scene, Melissa has become something of a contemporary Apollinaire, championing new frontiers and sharing her discoveries with a devoted following of readers and clients alike. Her latest venture, Seymour Projects -- named in honor of her father -- espouses the exploration of the creative subconscious, and encourages participants -- artists or otherwise -- to 'surf your mind.'

Melissa generously invited me to pick her brain -- an inexhaustible reservoir, I found. The exchange proceeded thus:

You've worked with so many of the film industry's greatest talents, including Ralph Ziman, Robert De Niro, and Daniel Day-Lewis. What lessons did you learn from working with them?
So many invaluable lessons! Where to begin? I've been so incredibly lucky to work for many wonderful, creative people from a variety of disciplines. I worked for the three you name above a lifetime ago. It was back in the late '80s/early '90s; I was really young, in my early 20s.

Working for Ralph was my very first job out of college, and then assisting the other two came soon after. They are all fascinating and complex human beings, and I learned a lot from each one, not just about creativity, but also a lot about life. Here are a few lessons that have stayed with me over the years and spring to my mind today:

The importance of being yourself and trusting your instincts. It may seem obvious advice, yet I think we all run the risk of succumbing to the pull of the pack. Following one's gut can be daunting, but to me, those who create the most memorable work have done so largely because they embraced their true selves. No matter how at odds or incongruous to their initial backgrounds or how out of step with current trends their personalities, their views, or visions might have been, they had the passion and the audacity to push past the norm, chose their own paths, follow their individual visions, and express themselves in their own unique ways.

The value of doing what you love and working hard at it. Ralph Ziman, Robert De Niro, and Daniel Day-Lewis are all passionate, meticulous, and curious about so many things. When I worked for them, though each was already at the "top," they worked tirelessly. They could have slowed down, but they didn't. Their energy and enthusiasm for new projects was endless and very inspiring. I think the only way one can retain that kind of unwavering dedication is to work at doing something you love, and it is in doing what you love, that you obtain your best "successes." Looking back now, I think working for them taught me early on to have the courage to explore all of my interests and to not to settle for anything less; no matter how challenging it might be to juggle it all.

The importance of camaraderie in the workplace. I have been lucky to work for individuals and on teams and crews that fostered a close-knit, family atmosphere. It inspires communication and fosters unparalleled dedication to the project at hand. When I feel connected and valued, I work harder and better. As a result, I have always entered new team situations with an authentic desire to really get to know the people who I am working with. It has made each work experience all the more enriching. Also: there is never, ever any need to hurt or sabotage someone else to get ahead. Be inclusive and generous, always.

And last but not least, the great beauty and importance of humility. No matter how successful you get, never let it go to your head. Never allow yourself, whether in life or in work, to ever feel superior to anyone else. One of my favorite maxims that sort of sums up all this is: no matter where you are on your journey, there is always someone you can learn from and someone you can teach.

Following illustrious careers in film production, advertising, and art, what led to starting your own consulting business and eventually Seymour Projects?
These past few years have been an important period of change for me. At around 40, I started to lose focus and began to notice a fading of the typically endless enthusiasm that I usually felt for my work. I realized it was time to ask myself some tough questions. It seemed that what had fulfilled me from 25 to 40, suddenly didn't feel right anymore, so I began to think about the next chapter of my life, about what might be interesting and enriching for me to do in the coming years between 45 and 65.

I have always been very much of a polymath, so it took quite some doing to pull everything apart and weave it back together in a manner that would make sense to me going forward. To afford me the freedom and diversity that I craved, I soon realized that starting my own projects was likely the best way to go. "Giving back," sharing, and educating were a top priority for me -- Seymour grew out of that desire. It enables me to "teach," to share my philosophy, and also to research and exchange ideas about creativity, imagination, the role of subconscious mind in creativity, and some of my other more esoteric interests. (I also had a surprising personal experience with regards to my own creativity/subconscious that contributed to this project. I explain it further on Seymour's website). My consulting practice enables me to directly share the professional experience I've gained over the years with a wide variety of clients, rather than limiting myself to one specific job or industry. This type of variety in my work is a huge "motor" for me, and something that has become indispensible to my happiness.

But I've got to tell you, after 20 years of working for others, it isn't easy to go out on your own. Despite all of my experience working for top companies and high level creatives, I had to learn to find my own voice, constantly remind myself to trust my own instincts, and also to honestly assess what I might have to offer. It was an exhausting and emotional process, but it has proved to be very enriching. I learned a lot about myself, my skills, and also, and perhaps even most importantly, about my limitations. But I enjoy challenges and new beginnings, so despite the hurdles, I wouldn't trade the journey I'm on for anything.

How do your previous career roles inform your current situation of running your own business and provoking creativity?
Well, to start, I'd say my very varied career path has certainly taught me how to multi-task. Sometimes I feel as if I were born juggling! Every day of my life has been a three-ring circus. Over the years, I have learned how to efficiently handle a number of projects at once. I am also very used to deadlines and working under pressure. I was very lucky to work with the "best" right from the start, so there was no room for slacking, ever. I had to learn how to complete projects quickly and correctly or someone else would take my job in a heartbeat. All these things are very useful to starting/running one's own business and have been crucial in helping me to create Seymour and pursue freelance consulting at the same time.

With regards to 'provoking creativity,' all that I can tell you is that I have been surrounded by wildly creative people for as long as I can remember. Imagination is my "religion." I have observed the myriad ways in which actors, directors, producers, writers, musicians, etc... employ it to create the most astounding results. I have had the opportunity to work in a wide range of creative disciplines for a number of pioneering organizations and amazing individuals. I do my very best to share what I have learned through years with my clients and with those who participate in Seymour's projects.


Image courtesy of Melissa Unger

Surf Your Mind is Seymour's latest project. Is this a reaction against art that is largely results-driven, formulaic, paint-by-number? Is this a push for new art... art that isn't backward-looking, interpretive, recycled? People say we are living in the age of the curator, the aggregator, when consuming is the new creating, selling is the new art. Does Seymour seek to address these issues with Surf Your Mind and other projects? Is it meant as a personal experience of discovery, or a sharing of enlightenment?
Yes. Yes. Yes, and yes... indeed, all of the above.

That said, Seymour is a very personal project, and I am not looking to condemn other types of art. I simply hope to support, promote, and encourage the type of art that I find to be the most exciting and enriching.

I find much of today's art (in all creative disciples) to be increasingly rushed and derivative. This is a sweeping generalization of course, but I just worry that we're not heading in the right direction. I'd like to see creatives return to a more introspective method of creating. I find the most powerful work is made when the chosen creative outlet (music, writing, sculpture, cooking, etc.) is employed as a true means of self-expression, of communicating what's "inside." As a result, I find this type of "output" distinctly unique and authentic. Art Brut, for example, is one of my favorite types of art. I am interested in what the Surrealists did, and the Dada movement, too -- art that explores limits, pushes boundaries. I am also intrigued by the notion of the artist as "Shaman" -- straddling the boundary between the known and unknown.

Seymour is very multifaceted and at the very early stages of its development. Currently its primary mission is to help individuals cultivate authentic creative self-expression by encouraging them to nurture their imagination and explore their subconscious mind.

These days we are perpetually bombarded with information, we're constantly connected, scanning, buzzing, we look everywhere except inside ourselves. As a result, our minds are always locked in "active" thought and I think this stifles the natural flow of imagination. Through Seymour and its associated projects I hope to encourage people to "unplug" regularly and also to give them the enthusiasm and, hopefully, the tools to make time for quiet introspection. I think the "muse," "inspiration," "individual creativity," "your inner-voice" (whatever term you like best) reveals itself in these quiet moments. And then sets off the chain reaction you described above... from finding your own authentic creative voice you then experience a deeper sense of identity and self-discovery and yes, by extension, perhaps even head down the road toward some sort of enlightenment... though I find that particular word a bit too loaded.

I could go on and on, it's a layered and deeply interesting question... I express my thoughts more fully on Seymour's website for those who are interested.

Before moving to Paris eight years ago, you had lived in New York, London, and Los Angeles. Have certain sensibilities from each of these cities found their way into your current lifestyle?
Absolutely. I love all of those cities and carry a bit of the soul of each into my daily life. I was born and raised in Manhattan, and as a result no matter where in the world I live, I will always be a New Yorker at heart. The energy and fast pace of NYC is in my blood. In Paris, no matter how hard I try to slow it down and be more relaxed and just enjoy the "joie de vivre," I have trouble doing so. I like to call myself "dynamic," but I think a frank assessment would be closer to "impatient." On the flip side, NYC's "can do" spirit has served me well -- when I embark on a project I tend to be fast and efficient.

I lived in London right after college in the '80s. It was a wild time and its eccentric sensibility is what I love the most about the city. The British creative community celebrates individuality and embraces eccentricities in a way that I truly admire. When I get nervous about being too "out there," my time in London reminds me that it is okay to be myself and to let my freak flag fly.

I have visited Los Angeles often over the past 20 years, but have only lived there for short stints. It's a wonderland to me -- always warm, sunny, fun, and many of my dearest friends live there so it's full of unconditional love. When things get overwhelming, I often think of L.A. I imagine myself on the beach looking out at the waves, or hiking in the hills; it calms me. My L.A. trips also remind me how much I love nature and encourage me, all year long, to spend as much time outdoors as possible.

Do you keep to a regular daily schedule?
Well each day is quite different because uniformity makes me anxious, but there is still generally a similar rhythm to each. I get up every day around 8 or 8:30 a.m. That said, I never get an uninterrupted night's sleep... I am terrible sleeper, always have been. I frequently dream vivid dreams (which I usually remember -- it feels like I'm watching a free movie!). I also battle much random nighttime restlessness... it's challenging because I am often tired during the day, but it also has its advantages as I get some of my best ideas from dreams and during that nebulous zone between asleep and awake.

Once out of bed, I do my best and most efficient work of outputting information (writing, conceiving ideas, etc.) in the mornings and until about 3pm. The late afternoon is for usually left for taking in information (business meetings, reading, research, discussion, etc.). Evenings I usually got to an art opening, or meet friends for dinner or drinks.

But despite appearances, I am rather solitary by nature. I need alone time to recharge each and every day, or I quickly go off the rails.

What would be your perfect day in Paris?
I live on the Canal St. Martin, which is like living in a lovely village within the city. I would wake up, go for a coffee at Le Carillon (one of the last, beat up, old-school style cafés in this increasingly hip 'hood), wander along the Canal, have a delicious treat from Du pain et des idées -- a perfect boulangerie down the road, then I'd cross Paris on foot, passing by all the majestic sights on my way go see an art exhibit at the Grand Palais (built for 1900 World's Fair -- its soaring glass and steel architecture never ceases to astound me). Then I'd hop on a Vélib and go bike around a distant neighborhood I haven't yet explored (despite my intrepid spirit and eight years of wanderings, Paris still has new places to reveal). I'd have dinner at a friend's house; I love eating dinner in someone's home. I really enjoy discovering and experiencing each host's individual style, tastes, and rituals. I'd end the day with drinks at Zelda, my favorite neighborhood "hole in the wall" bar.

I'd just like to add that it's the intimacy of each daily interaction that keeps me living in Paris. I have come to know the boisterous gang at the restaurant downstairs, the shy grocer, the charming neighborhood bartenders, the artisanal shop owners, the genius woman who runs the pharmacy and has saved my life and also kindly humored my hypochondria countless times. The beauty of the city, its ethereal evening light, plethora of culture and its endless winding streets are the cherry on top of the cake, but the simple pleasure of waking up every day anchored to a community that I am proud to be part of is my greatest pleasure.