When Melanie Essex studied at the New York Studio School in the early 1990s (twice receiving a Milton Avery Scholarship), first-year students were encouraged to spend their eight-hour day painting from the model in the morning and drawing from the model all afternoon. Essex discovered she did not want to be a figure painter, but she also came away with a foundation to build on: “learning how to look and focus and be open to surprises.”
Freed from this rigorous program, Essex headed outside. She started painting what she thought she knew: the landscape of eastern Long Island, where she grew up. “It was flat with beautiful skies,” she recalls, and “immediately exciting and always different.” There was “an edge” to her appreciation of that particular place, in particular, “its fragility and resilience,” which made it compelling.
When Essex moved to London in 1995, she took up cityscapes. She was fascinated by the shape of buildings and their relationship to the natural world, “vegetation, cloud formations, the colors of the sky.”
On a trip to the coast along the English Channel, the painter was “blown away” by an enormous electricity power station on the marshes. “The convex towers were so out of scale, so surprising,” she recalls, “menacing, environmentally problematic, and yet weirdly beautiful.” Her conflicted take recalls Sydney Goodman’s notes on his painting Landscape with Four Towers (1970), in Alan Gussow’s A Sense of Place: The Artist in the American Landscape (1972): “I have been interested in the way man-made structures too often violate a place or the landscape. I both recoil at this intrusion and find myself drawn to it.”
The power plant provided a way for Essex to paint the landscape without being sentimental. In several pieces in her 2012–17 series, the structures sit diminutive at the bottom of large vertical canvases, sometimes sending up smudged puffs of smoke. As Essex has done in subsequent work, the horizon is often low and straight, the sky, high. The rendering is painterly and semi-abstract—even to a degree at times romantic.
Another series from around this same time, Field/Sky/Figures, presents a similar above/below-divided format. In one piece, small flesh-colored figures are seen in various poses along the bottom, some of them fighting, while irregular cloud shapes float in a tall red sky. With the situation in Ukraine top of mind, the image conjures war.
In moving to Cushing, Maine, in 2018, Essex adjusted her landscape vision to a coastal milieu. As she watched the weather from her studio window overlooking the St. George River, imagery “started to fall into place.”
The ensuing work unabashedly celebrates the atmospheric glories of Maine skies. Working with a range of colors, including rich tones of red and blue, Essex uses the mid-coast heavens as a prompt to explore light effects and the abstract possibilities of weather. The terrain at the bottom of each canvas is mostly minimal, a narrow strip of water and land, sometimes with a house.
Essex began a new series, Inside and Outside, in the winter of 2020, at the outset of the pandemic, shifting her attention from the view out her window to what was inside. “The jumble of material in my studio,” she recalls, “became a kind of landscape.” Far from the still-lifes, she had produced in art school, these works developed organically, “if somewhat obsessively”—a reflection in some ways of the new paradigm of “washing everything from the grocery store, furiously disinfecting all surfaces and wearing latex gloves.” She took some solace from the familiar items in her studio “while outside, something else was in control.”
Often, Essex explains, she will use drawing “to start the process of looking.” Her 2021 Winter Drawings helped her connect with a new place, California, specifically the top of a ridge overlooking San Francisco Bay to the east and the Pacific to the west. She worked outside until the dense fog made the charcoal on her paper start to run.
The drawings present the landscape in graceful shadings of light and dark, with a sun shape sometimes showing through veils of mist. “Something about the scale of the landscape and the ongoing strangeness of the pandemic made a difference,” Essex recalls and led to a fruitful engagement. Some of these drawings recall the charcoal landscapes Emily Nelligan (1924–2018) made on Great Cranberry Island.
Essex’s most recent series, started while in residence at Monson Arts in the fall of 2020, deals with night. For the first time, she felt productive working after hours, responding to elements of light in the dark, the shapes sometimes ghostly. She wants to take this idea further. “There is a streetlight on our property that I’ve always found pretty annoying,” she relates, but “suddenly,” she finds herself intrigued. So are we.
Essex followed a somewhat circuitous route to becoming a painter, starting with film in her teen years. Her parents, Nancy Wissemann-Widrig and John Wissemann, were painters “and film seemed more modern” to her adolescent self.
Essex received a fellowship to study film editing at INSAS (Institut national supérieur des arts du spectacle et des techniques de diffusion) in Brussels, after which she moved to New York City to work in commercial production, which took her around the world. While some of her commercials ended up in MoMA’s collection, she never felt her personal work received the attention it deserved.
Essex recently took up film again, starting with a short piece about the Bernard Langlais Sculpture Preserve in Cushing. Hannah Blunt, the original curator of the Colby College Langlais bequest, had seen a film she had made as a teenager about Langlais, who was a family friend, and commissioned a companion piece for an exhibition about the preservation of the sculpture preserve.
Essex is currently working on a film about the painter Lois Dodd whom she has known all her life. “She is great on screen, very relaxed, and has an amazing perspective about an important period in New York City when abstract expressionism and figurative painting were establishing their respective territories.”
Image at top: Melanie Essex, Winter Drawing.