An Oxford storefront showcases exciting new art
● By J. Chambless
Susan Melrath, with a work in progress, has opened a working studio space in Oxford, the town where she grew up.
By John Chambless
For the past month, Susan Melrath has been working in a storefront in downtown Oxford, and she's gotten used to people peering through the front window, wondering what she's up to.
During an interview last week, Melrath explained how life has led her back to Oxford after she had grown up and moved away, and how finding a place for her intricate, lush paintings fits into her vision of a bustling arts community.
"Oxford feels like it has promise," she said. "There are people here who have vision and energy and excitement about the future. And I'd like to count myself as one of them."
Melrath attended Oxford area schools, and went to the Hussian School of Art in Philadelphia from 1978 to 1981. She left the area in 1985 to move to Florida, where she had a successful career as an illustrator for several publishers. She found steady work illustrating for newspapers in Florida, and enjoyed the creative freedom. "It was a great time to be an illustrator," she said. "People were throwing money around. I had jobs left and right."
After a later move to Baltimore, she kept working for three years on producing 150 watercolor illustrations for an edition of the "Anne of Green Gables" book series, but gradually found that the demands of freelance illustration work -- and the constraints placed on her work by art directors -- were making the job a lot less satisfying.
In 1996, she had a son. Eleven months later, she moved to Seattle, Wash., when her husband's job took him there. The world of publishing and newspapers suddenly shrank, and jobs trailed off. She found herself in a West Coast community that warmly embraced the arts, "but I knew no one in Seattle, so my focus was raising my kid, and when I had the time, trying to figure out, without having a deadline and client, what I would paint," she said. "I really didn't know. I started painting the things that were around me -- my kid, and my dog."
The work that began to evolve was largely non-representational, made up of overlapping shapes, paint, scraping, and more paint, with the deeper meaning suddenly revealing itself to Melrath as she worked.
On her website, where she keeps up a lively blog with far-flung friends, Melrath writes, "In my abstract work, the forms I use are often found in nature, or sometimes in unexpected places, like the scrollwork on an old cast iron wood stove. Each painting begins with layers of pure color and grows through a process of glazing, sanding, and patterning. Where colors overlap, a new hue is created, and this often shifts the direction of the painting. My painting process, as well as each component in the painting, is a metaphor for the complex and beautiful relationships in our lives, and a sense of the spiritual in all things."
Melrath sighed and tried to sum up what brought her back to Oxford. Her 91-year-old mother still lives in town, and she has two brothers, "and a bunch of cousins and friends" in the region.
"My mom still lives in the house I grew up in, and my dad was a borough manager," she said. "It's funny -- I called the borough about zoning recently, and it's the same phone number that I used to call and ask him, 'Can I go to Cindy's after school?'
"But things in my life changed," she said, including her marital status. Now she has found a storefront on Third Street with plenty of blank wall space where she can work on her large panels. In the back of the room, she plans to offer classes in what she calls "Courageous Painting."
Melrath has met with the Oxford Arts Alliance, OMI, Sally Wilson from Wilson Winery and Gallery, and others. "There are some empty stores, but I'd love to see Oxford become a destination," she said. "I love the community connections here."
The $700 per month rent for her new space is a steal compared to what it would cost in Seattle -- more than $2,000 a month, Melrath said. The new place has good lighting, and a huge basement that would make a great small performance space. She's not sure how it will be used yet. She has found a house in Hopewell and will move in soon.
The front window of her studio space is decorated with paint brushes, but gives no clear indication of what's going on inside. That hasn't stopped people from stopping by and asking her what she's up to. "People expect that it's a retail space. They'll ask, 'When are you going to open?' 'What do you sell?'" Melrath said, smiling.
While she is open to selling her paintings in the storefront, she realizes that artists are all internationally linked by the internet, and her work space could really be anywhere. She has two galleries which sell her work -- Costello Childs Contemporary Fine Art in Arizona, and Simon Mace Gallery in Washington -- and she is mulling how to work her way into the Chester County art world.
While her figurative work has a warm, accessible look, her abstract pieces are the sort of things that would be at home in chic Los Angeles or New York lofts. But Melrath is not deterred. Referring to the area's tradition of representational art, she said, "I see a lot of landscapes here, and I love a good barn-in-the-snow painting," she said, laughing. "But there are good ones and there are not-so-good ones. Just because you have painted every little detail with a tiny brush doesn't mean you have made a successful painting. The elements that create a successful painting are the same, whether it's realistic or abstract art. That's what excites me -- to get people to see that. I got to the point where I could render something proficiently, but that doesn't mean that the art was going to move someone."
Melrath is in her studio every day -- a habit she picked up when working on deadlines for a variety of clients. "There are artists all over the world working in basements and barns and back rooms, and I happen to be here. This is what it looks like," she said, gesturing to her paint-spattered clothing. "I like sharing a sneak peek of what it looks like to make art. I wanted to be able to not just play, but make it viable and make a living."
What Melrath is doing with her open studio is the kind of thing that turns towns into arts destinations. "The more artists and studios, the more people come to town," she said. "That could happen here in Oxford. I'm hoping I'm in on it early."
She said living in the town she grew up in "is familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, because it's changed so much. My life has been changing, too. My son is 18 and will be starting college. I'm being fearless and taking some risks. I missed the East Coast. Seattle is awesome -- very liberal, progressive, great coffee. But here, people tell you what they think, and you're more likely to make deeper connections."
Melrath is considering a new series of works based on her life journey. "I'm thinking about trying to put in visual form what it felt like to come back here," she said. "I feel blessed. I love what I do. And I am wide open to possibilities."
As an outreach to the community, Melrath will be offering classes in her studio space. "I'm so excited about teaching. I have so much to share," she said. "I figure I've been around the block in my work. I've been at every stage and I can help others navigate some of them."
A free demonstration and introduction to "Courageous Painting" will be held July 14 and again on July 21 from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Regular classes will be held on Tuesdays from 6:30 to 9 p.m. on Aug. 4, 11, 18 and 25. Melrath's studio is at 19 S. Third St. For more information, visit www.susanmelrath.com and look under "Classes," or call 425-999-9615.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.