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Exchanging Pleasantrees

Seeing the forest in a new way

Melissa Graves' series of watercolors called Pleasantrees has garnered her clients coast to coast who appreciate the comforting images.

Melissa Graves' series of watercolors called Pleasantrees has garnered her clients coast to coast who appreciate the comforting images.

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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. >>>