Artist Spotlight Series: Melanie Parke

I am smitten with the work of my latest Artist Spotlight Series feature whom I discovered through Sozo Gallery in Charlotte.  

Her work is lively and bright with a nod to classicism.

Enjoy getting to know the very talented

Melanie Parke 

Traverse City, Michigan

What is your training? 

Art school was an absolute dream! I aimed to explore everything. The college night guards had to kick me out of the studios at closing hours. I studied the figure, conceptual art, performance and philosophy at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, a four year program, getting my BFA there in 1989. Instead of following it up with graduate school I decided to move up to Michigan. I committed to a Cezanne-like study of the landscape, working on location, with close observation of the natural  light. I waited tables, painted, was really happy and ended up staying in Michigan.  More recently I have done independent study at the American Academy in Rome. 

What inspires you and your designs?

Ok, I am obsessed with ancient frescoed wall paintings, in particular the Imperial style homes of the second century BC, like the ruins seen in Pompeii and Herculaneum with courtyard gardens, fountains and frescoed interiors. The ancient painted walls narrate mythic stories populated by bodies, birds, animals, flora and fauna. What fascinates me is that as splendid as these paintings are, they were completely buried over for thousands of years, and it’s a small miracle they were recovered in the 1800’s. Because the Christian era perceived imagery of nature to be  pagan, we would hardly see birds, trees, animals, skies or human emotion for 1300 years until Giotto. That is a long time! I believe images of nature and bodies still have the political power to evoke unease and pleasure at the same time, which is why I am drawn to them from ancient to modern times.

This is my favorite painting of all time, Livia’s Villa at Prima Porta, Rome, 2nd Century BC. Believed to belong to Livia Drusilla, wife of Augustus, this is an entirely preserved  room depicted as a garden. As you stand in it, you see the bushes are bearing fruit and blossoming at the same time and you can almost hear the birdsong and feel a cool breeze on your skin.   

What is your favorite piece? 

An artists favorite work is almost always their most recent. This is Midnight Garden, 13.5 x 15 gouache on paper, now at Sozo Gallery. Part of my Domus Series, exploring safe spaces for women, pleasure and wilder things. 

How has the your area influenced your work? 

Ahhh Michigan. My happiest childhood memories were summering on North Manitou Island which is situated in Lake Michigan, now part of Sleeping Bear Dunes. Ever since I was young I knew I wanted to live here. I think the landscape inspires in me a sense of wildness and expansiveness. Possibility and curiosity. Just steps to open fields, trails and exploration. Room to dream. The air is pine scented and the lake is so inviting. Every summer the crisp northern light reignites a childhood wonder, and at night when I sleep on my porch I can roll over and see the aura borealis.  

What is your favorite restaurant in Traverse City?

Raduno is a restaurant dreamed up by two female friends Janene Silverman, baker and chef, and Andrea Deibler, butcher and chef, in Traverse City. Inspired by years living in Italy and supporting local farms, their handmade pastas, meats and pastries, and chocolate torts blow our minds. Before Covid my husband and I had a ritual of going there nearly every Tuesday for lunch and playing a game of chess. 

What is your favorite cocktail?

Tequila with fresh lemon juice on ice, it’s  kind of like a health tonic, don’t you think ?

How do you balance personal life and work?

Oh wow, this is a hard one! I took a helpful course called Feminist Business School. Conceived by Jennifer Armbrust of Sister, it asks us to identify the needs of our own body as separate from our businesses as one of the 12  vital principles.

With my studio connected to my house and making a living as an artist, I find it really challenging to enforce boundaries. Recently my husband and I have been in an evening habit of logging off our gadgets, taking long nature walks, birdwatching and reading, and that has been so rejuvenating.

 Dream trip?

I always long to return to Rome with my husband, Richard Kooyman, who is also a painter. 

Dream commission?

A wall size exotic night garden teaming with nightingales and scented roses.

Your favorite host / hostess gift to give?

A small ball jar of wild flowers.

Who is your style icon? 

My nieces Carly Bly Farber and Ariel Faye Hendrickson, both in their 20’s, are such an inspiration. Carly is a trapeze instructor finishing up her studies in New Orleans before returning to Spain. Ariel loves cats, plants and art and manages the Gallery Pastry Shop in Indianapolis.  I love the way they uniquely convey enormous vitality, humor and confidence in their personal styles. I’m smitten with their curiosity, creativity and unexpected joie de vivre. Their love of fun and flair makes them just too alive to miss.

Your favorite up and coming artist?

Omgosh I can not limit to just one. Frankie Gardiner is an artist to keep your eyes on. Soulful, dreamy and brave, she makes visible a spirit of inquisitiveness into the unconscious. 

And Amanda Acker. Amanda takes her keen visual research into a kind of observational activism. It’s precise, it’s deep and it’s a marvel.

What is your most treasured possession?

My health and my new house ! Our architect friends Peter and Charlotte Smith of The Design Smiths in Traverse City helped us with a dream of building on 27 acres of open fields and woodland. Envisioning dark beautiful objects in a grassy meadow, they designed a building trio in black timber for a petite house, garage and studio. Set on a dirt road in a rural setting we are calling the place Field Study to encourage a creative sanctuary for research and exploration. We hope to move in this fall.

What are you reading?

After the 2016 election I committed to women writers. More recently, the Black Lives Matter uprising has inspired me to center non-white voices in my reading life. This summer I have been reading every night and I find non-fiction especially restorative to a mind overwhelmed by daily politics and tragedy.

Americana by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

Grand Union, Stories by Zadie Smith

Pleasure Activism by adrienne maree brown

What are you listening to?

I’ve been listening to Black voices. In particular, Abolitionist theory dialogues, which go way beyond ideas of defunding the police into abolishing the penal system and upending the educational system. Bringing critical attention to any institutional system that denies all people the ability to thrive in healthy communities. Haymarket Books youtube channel has been a great source for teach ins. 

What are your favorite blogs / publications?

Pure pleasure comes from my interior design hard copy subscriptions. Confession of an addict: I have about 12 subscriptions ! But my #1 fave is the Spanish edition of Architectural Digest. While so much international design quickly becomes homogenous and ubiquitous, Spanish style centers wildly creative geniuses, supporting originality, outrageous color and surprising forms. I can’t wait to paint when I flip through these pages.

I also frequently check a digital design magazine out of Australia. They have a curatorial eye for warm minimalist interiors and very refined architecture.  These are my go to’s for fantasy mind travel.


Follow Melanie Parke on Instagram and her website with her full gallery list.