Arts July 22, 2008
Exchanging Pleasantrees
Seeing the forest in a new way

To catch up with Melissa Graves, you either have to gesso or go to a party. I’ve already gessoed—prepared a raw canvas for painting—so today I am at a party. Several guests run naked along the bank of the Big Wood River, a hot sun gleaming off their wet bellies. Graves is a painter who cites as her biggest influence the forerunner of American pop art, Robert Rauschenberg. Notorious for a social life that blew a raspberry at the buttoned-up 1950s, Rauschenberg would approve of Graves’ party, until he discovered that half the guests are between two and five years old and the other half are fully-dressed mothers. Graves carries the guest of honor, son Rylee, to a balloon-festooned picnic table. An indigo tattoo undulates under the strap of her tank top as she distributes bubble bath favors and rounds up missing shoes.

“Being the birthday fairy is a role I enjoy,” the mother of two writes two weeks later, at four in the morning, on the eve of daughter Olivia’s fifth birthday.

At thirty-eight, Graves is a veteran of late nights. This summer marked the first in 12 years that she hasn’t waited tables to help support herself, husband Christopher, and their family. Instead, she’s painted. A lot. She has learned to paint faster, but she can’t paint fast enough. Commissions are rolling in: St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center expects a large triptych by next week, and Wild Hands gallery in Jackson, Wyoming, can’t keep her canvases on the walls. MJ Schaer Gallery in Napa signed her on in May, and she’s got six weeks to complete a body of work for the Sun Valley Arts and Crafts Festival, one of the nation’s most prestigious juried art fairs. 

The distinctive scenes of aspen groves that comprise Graves’ recent work have captured the interest of collectors whose walls bear Waddells and Picassos. Her energetic technique—she brushes, rubs, splatters, scrubs, and dabs with jewel-toned acrylic glazes—results in strangely calming landscapes. Elisa Coleolo at Wild Hands seems flustered trying to think of where to start when describing what she likes about Graves’ fast-selling work. “When you stand back and look at them, it’s almost as though you can walk into the trees,” she finally says. “They’re peaceful.”

In art-speak, this energetic, olive-skinned woman with curly brown hair and concerned brown eyes would be described as an early career artist. She decided she wanted to be a painter during her undergraduate days at Auburn University, but has only recently received recognition beyond that of friends, co-workers, and a small but faithful group of collectors. Phoebe Pilaro, who commissioned a canvas to hang over the mantle of her new home after visiting Graves’ booth at the Ketchum Arts and Crafts Festival several years ago, knew back then about the woman who has probably served you lamb shank at the Ketchum Grill: “She’s going to be big.”

Graves was born the youngest of four in Fort Myers, Florida, in 1969, to a physician father and a mother who taught high school health. Her father, who traveled to New York to attend the opera, and mother, who “was always dragging us to some performance or another,” fanned her love of the arts in Fort Myers, which Graves says at the time was a great beach town, but “underdeveloped and conservative.” Despite his passion for the arts, Melissa’s father did warn that her chosen course wouldn’t be easy. “He told me, ‘There are so many paths to take, and you’re definitely taking the hard one,’” Graves recalls. >>>



But it was Rauschenberg who fired her imagination. Rauschenberg (who in 1998 would be the subject of the Guggenheim Museum’s largest single-artist retrospective) had a home and studio on Captiva Island, near Fort Myers. “I’d get to sneak into his studio as a kid,” reminisces Graves. “My friends were studio assistants. We’d go to these amazing abstract exhibits he’d put on locally.” Rauschenberg was famous for his “combines,” bizarre groupings of disparate elements such as a tire, a tennis ball, and a taxidermied goat, that compelled viewers to consider the items in a new way.

Graves admits she “never considered art a sincere way to make a living.” But when she discovered that painting was the most difficult thing she had ever attempted, she became determined to pursue it. At Auburn, working in the school’s open studio in front of other students, terrified her at first.

Between her sophomore and junior years, she traveled to Paris through a program with the Parsons School of Design. She absorbed the history of art and then, returning stateside, she hung out at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), the nation’s largest contemporary visual and performing arts museum, and the Contemporary Artists Center (CAC), both in North Adams, Massachusetts, near where her father had retired. Witnessing people her own age, in addition to older artists, who’d already accomplished so much, encouraged her to pursue her own art. In 1993, she applied and was accepted to the University of Pennsylvania’s Master of Fine Arts program.

That summer, she met Christopher Brown, a native of upstate New York eight years her senior who’d come to Captiva Island for the windsurfing. He was also an artist—a printmaker as quiet and self-contained as she was gregarious. He drove her to Pennsylvania that fall and returned to Florida with a long-distance relationship. 

Nine o’clock on a Monday in June finds Graves in her studio unscrewing about 30 tubs of paint. Her studio is easy to spot among the shops of woodworkers, furniture finishers, and insulation contractors in Hailey’s light industrial district: it’s the one with the picket fence that encloses a sandbox, a plastic swimming pool, and a wooden contraption, all ladders, steps, and slides, that Christopher built for the kids. She’s pushed the oversized garage door up and light floods the high, inviting space. Folksy carved and painted furniture welcomes friends and visitors (Graves’ studio has since moved to 311 Main Street in Hailey). Roughhewn cabinets boldly painted with floral or nature motifs exemplify her work of just a few years ago. Christopher, a self-taught woodworker, built and carved the furniture, while his wife added the color.

Graves’ work has progressed through many stages in the past decade and a half. Her graduate thesis consisted of a series of large canvases exploring color theory and the idealism of the circle. A binder of preliminary drawings hides captivating oil crayon images, each 6-by-8-inch gems, subtly layered and etched with graphite compass-drawn circles. “I enjoy a circle because it’s a mathematically perfect shape,” she explains. “It’s a form of idealism. It’s the egg, the sun, the moon, the pothole. I could go on and on.” Her mother was diagnosed with stomach cancer during this time, which inspired the thinking behind much of her graduate work. Graves graduated in 1995 with an Achievement in Color award. She returned to Florida, moved in with Christopher, a landscape designer who created a personal art studio everywhere he settled. Graves took a job waiting tables.

She had taught art during college and discovered that $2 an hour plus tips was more lucrative. Graves, who speaks of her mother often, admits that, in a strange way, her mother’s death removed some pressure. “I didn’t have her saying, ‘Oh honey, I can’t believe you’re waiting tables.’”

In 1998, she and Christopher, both nature lovers and athletes, drove to Idaho and settled in Hailey. She took a job at the Ketchum Grill and he built up a clientele for landscape design. They both continued drawing and painting, marketing their work by word-of-mouth, exposure in local restaurants, and at the Ketchum Arts and Crafts Festival each summer.

Paint-splattered tables hold works in progress; a wide partition hides Christopher’s woodworking equipment in the back. Christopher’s graphite drawings of trees and Melissa’s colorful canvases make a brilliant patchwork of the high white cinderblock walls. Paintings by Olivia and Rylee hang alongside their parents’ work, and a miniature easel stands beside Graves’ long work table. A sofa rests against the partition, and this morning, Rylee rests on the sofa, wearing a Snow White costume and watching Pocahontas.

Another day—a hot one—Olivia helps load a cabinet with newly arrived tubs of paint, wearing nothing but red sticker earrings and sparkly pink underpants. “We’re very European around here,” laughs her mother. Olivia sets a raw canvas on a low table beside an open jar of gesso and a coffee tin of water.

White-blond hair frames the little girl’s face as she spreads the preparatory layer with a wide brush. Like her mom, she talks as she works. The dentist wasn’t so bad, and she likes doggies.

Graves leans over a 4-by-5-foot canvas, putting the finishing touches on an enormous triptych that will hang in St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center. She regards the panel critically and shakes her head. “It’s just not alive.” She loads a long brush with orange paint and moves around the canvas’s perimeter flinging speckles into the trees. She selects a longer brush with stiffer bristles and scrubs the foreground with sienna. The surface begins to glow. She chases the sienna with pale yellow.

“Now I’m cleaning up all my dots and pushing back my horizon,” she explains, brush in constant motion. The horizontals become more dynamic. She smudges the sienna with her finger, then brushes bright yellow between the tree trunks. “I love the nuances and subtleties,” she muses. “You can get right up to them and see so much more.” She splatters again, pushes the paint roughly. “I push ’em, I pull ’em,” she says about the colors. “I push ’em back.” She steps away. Acrylics dry fast, which allows her to add layer upon translucent layer of rich pigment. “I love the yummy textures,” she adds. A lot of the words she uses to describe paint are food words. There is a “scrumptious” yellow and a “delicious” purple. She seems to sense color with more than her eyes.

“Now I really like this middle purple area.” She indicates a wonderful area of rich, varying indigo, and stands with brush cocked like a conductor’s wand, remembering a professor’s warning: if you’re reluctant to rework something because it seems perfect, be wary, because it may not be right in the context of the whole. “This is the part where you destroy it and then bring it back again,” she says. She lowers her brush and goes in. “When it takes on a life of its own, you know a piece is getting done.”

The studio walls hold both paintings and drawings of trees, although Graves claims she can’t draw. The drawings are Christopher’s. “He’s drawn trees all his life,” says Graves, who names her husband’s work, along with the landscape of Idaho, as a strong influence on her current series, “PleasanTrees.” Graves paints mostly from her mind’s eye. “Color is my subject,” she states, “only pushed into the shape of a landscape.” Anyone who has strolled to the bank of the Big Wood has walked through this countryside. Yet hers is more haunting than reality in the steady, even rhythm of vertical elements—the aspen trunks—and the heightened drama of horizontals, ground simplified to underscore each tree. The scenes invite a viewer forward but offer no visible goal. They are lively and patient, these woods. “(At CAC), artist Eric Rudd barraged me with all these concepts,” recalls Graves. “I told him that, you know, I’m not really cutting edge. My paintings are really quite nice. And that’s okay.” >>>



It is thought-provoking that they are the vision of the woman who, in a moment of frustration one morning, found she was yelling, “Don’t yell!” to her kids and coined the term “Mommybomb.” She’d lost patience, and her perspective along with it. That’s when her husband encouraged her to quit her restaurant job—in spite of the financial implications—and dedicate herself to her family and her art. “I’m sincerely living the dream,” she repeats as though she herself can hardly believe it. “Every morning I wake up thinking I need to get everything done by my four o’clock shift.”

Graves recently returned from a visit to the Contemporary Artists Center in Massachusetts, where she was able to thank Rudd, who influenced and encouraged her early on. The act is typical Graves: one of her strongest characteristics is gratitude. “How lucky am I,” is a favorite catchphrase. But she has worked hard and long for her luck. “You have to be driven and passionate about what you want. And never, never, never give up.”

Christopher has been an integral part of her struggle and success. Although it’s not always easy to watch his wife’s career surge while his grows steadily but slowly, he’s her biggest champion and strongest ally. “Clearly, I couldn’t do this on my own,” asserts Graves. “He has always been supportive and enabled us to have wonderful spaces to be creative in.” Several years ago Christopher started building his wife’s canvases—an exacting, respected craft, especially on the large scale that Graves’ work demands, and they’ve drawn interest from other painters.

On a 90-degree Thursday afternoon, the couple swigs water and fixes price tags to benches, mirrors, and paintings under their tent at the Hailey Farmer’s and Artist’s Market. Graves had admitted that the weekly market is not a productive venue for them. But they enjoy supporting the community by participating and offering their work to locals at wholesale prices. They’re cheerfully greeted by what seems like nine out of 10 passersby. Then a tall man in cowboy boots strolls up. “Stop it!” exclaims Graves, jumping up and giving Steve Champion a hug. He beams. He and his partner John Chapman have recently acquired a painting, and want to bring guests by the studio on Sunday. Will that work?

“How flattered am I!” exclaims Graves. “Sunday is family day. We’ll all be there. I’ll try to have the kids dressed.”

Chapman, former chairman of the Idaho Arts Commission, saw a Graves triptych in early 2007 on the wall of Fresshies restaurant in Hailey. He tracked down the artist and purchased a scene that reminded him of the site on his ranch where his parents are buried. “I am quite excited about her future,” says Chapman in a typically understated way. “I think she’s an up-and-coming artist. I can’t say enough.” Champion is less modest. “Melissa and Christopher?” he says, grinning. “I love ’em!”

Two weeks later, July 15th dawned clear and hot, and three hours of sleep didn’t keep her from pulling off Olivia’s fifth birthday party with a bang. Bags of ladybugs were let loose in the park and raspberry-filled cake was reduced to crumbs. In the ’50s, Rauschenberg showed a skeptical world that art could emphasize excitement and playfulness over ambition, and still retain meaning. Viewers might say that Graves has pulled a Rauschenberg with her own “combine” of work, wifedom, motherhood, and art.

This article appears in the Winter 2008 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.