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Studio of painter Susan Melrath one of three Oxford Borough stops on Chester County Studio Tour

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STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
bbingaman@21st-centurymedia.com
@brianbingaman on Twitter

Oxford native Susan Melrath used to live in Seattle, where folks found her open-to-interpretation paintings accessible.
A year since returning to her hometown — in the middle of what she referred to as “Wyeth country” — Melrath hopes to build momentum for an emerging downtown artists hub.

EDITOR’S NOTE
The Chester County Studio Tour takes place May 21 and May 22. Brian Bingaman visited the studios of two of the many participating local artists.

“I have visibility, and can teach,” she said of her roomy Third Street art studio, which features a pastoral morning scene of cows in a pasture (She tentatively titled it “Drive-By”) hung across from large, complex, form-filled abstracts painted on framed wood.
One class Melrath offers at her studio is “Courageous Painting,” which has a beginner and an advanced group. In both, students are guided to approach the creative process through the lens of six key principles: design, value, color, texture, risk and soul.

IF YOU GO

What: The Chester County Studio Tour
When: May 21 and May 22
Where: Some 127 artists will be showing and selling their artwork at 53 art studios in Chester County
Info.: For a complete schedule, tour planning tips, maps and more information, check www.countystudiotour.com. Call 610-942-9629.

An artist’s soul, Melrath explained, can be spotted in something as simple as the way they sign their name. “It’s your sensibilities; it’s what inspires you — what lights you up,” she said. “It’s cultivating uniqueness and translating it into a visual vocabulary.”
For her own paintings, Melrath said her inspiration comes from nature and unusual shapes, like the curves of a wood stove or old calligraphy fonts. That’s why in the midst of her abstracts, you’ll catch some precise patterns that look like they’re from a stencil.
Grabbing a drywall joint knife and putting several gashes in what looked like a finished painting, she pointed out how it changes the texture of the work, and said: “That’s one of the reasons why wood is great — I beat the hell out of it.”
Later she took a power sander to another painting to demonstrate how it alters the texture. “The reason I like the wood and the tools … something happens that’s unexpected,” said Melrath, who used to work as an illustrator for publishers and advertising agencies before striking out on her own as an artist/educator.
When asked why most of the people in her figurative paintings don’t have faces, she told the story of a Japanese-commissioned job of 150 illustrations for a multi-volume, English language learning series of “Anne of Green Gables” books. “They love her character because she’s such a rebel,” Melrath said, describing the title character’s icon status in Japanese culture.

Artist Susan Melrath in her studio in Oxford. Submitted photo

Artist Susan Melrath in her studio in Oxford.
Submitted photo

The artist got out a binder full of her work on the labor-intensive project, and said that consistently reproducing the facial features of the “Anne of Green Gables” characters was so challenging that “by the time I was done, I wanted to take a big brush and mess it all up and just get it out of my way.”
The last figurative commission she took was a work to prominently hang in a new cardiology wing at a medical center. Very specific requirements for the painting were to include dogs and a multicultural, multigenerational group of people in a park-like setting enjoying light activities. Red was to be used only as an accent color.
Now that those jobs are long since completed, Melrath can cut loose by painting non-distinct faces and expressively dripping bright shades of red.

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