STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
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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.
“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.
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.
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.