For artist and designer Melanie Cryar, middle age was just the perfect time to get started
By Tilly Dillehay
Photos by Morgan Cryar
Melanie Cryar was 51 the year she painted her first painting.
After all, four years ago, she’d never picked up a brush.
Several of her children had been interested in visual art, with some of them ending up in creative fields like music or writing. But Melanie herself, though she’s been a lifelong visitor of galleries and fawner over impressionist art exhibits, had never had the gall to imagine herself artistic.
“I’ve always felt drawn to it,” she says. “When I was in college, my favorite classes were interior design and architecture classes where we were exposed to those ideas. The way a house looked, and shapes and colors. I took textile courses, and we worked with fabric. What I don’t understand is why it never occurred to me as a young person to pursue that or explore it. And I think it’s because I had no mentors. I never had a conversation about what I might do or be. Without that, as a young person, you don’t necessarily think ‘Oh, this is possible for me.’
“My art education kind of started back then, and it was just me going to museums. And I wanted my kids to pursue that, because I thought ‘Maybe they can do this. I’m too old; I can’t, but maybe they can.’”
So she never stood in front of a blank canvas herself… until three years ago.
I just had that kind of panic,” she says. “Over a period of seven months, we had three daughters get married and a son enter the navy. Honestly, my heart was just broken. I was in a really dark place. I felt lost and fearful. My children have been my life. ‘What am I gonna do?’ What could I do? So I decided to take an oil class at Cheekwood. I went out and got some paints, and some brushes, and that was what started it.
“It was fun; it was a bunch of mostly older women like me, so I felt really comfortable. The first thing we did was a pumpkin I think. Nothing really memorable. It was just about, ‘Here, figure out where the light is hitting this.’ And he taught us how to mix color, which is really big. That began the study of color for me, which is so important. The big thing was the teacher just really encouraged me—that I could do it. He encouraged me to keep painting, and even offered for me to come paint with him. And that was really the beginning.”
She continued to paint, eventually joining the Chestnut Group, a Nashville ‘plein air’ painting community. Plein air is the outdoor painting of landscapes. The Chestnut Group paints together, puts on art shows that benefit local charities, and provides workshops and support. Melanie spent more time painting outside, and also put together a space in her own home for painting.
But in the midst of all the still life painting she was doing indoors, she credits the outdoor work as being a gateway into abstract art.
“[Plein air] is a lot more fluid, and it’s a lot more subjective,” she says. “It’s really a looser subject for painting. I started learning color and learning light.”
From there, she started to feel freer to experiment, after a few years of painting a lot of flowers, dishes, and vegetables. She started to notice and admire some of the abstract work other people were doing.
“I thought, ‘I need to try that,” she says. “I need to explore every form and style, and see what sticks.’”
The first piece she did was specifically for her living room. It was a huge piece, about 50 inches by 60 inches, done on a canvas soundproofing panel that her husband had made and used in his recording studio. It has a seam running across it where the canvas sheets were sewn together.
“It ate up paint like crazy,” says Melanie, “because it wasn’t finished the way a normal canvas is.”
She’d wanted to do the piece using a specific yellow and aqua color palette that was in her living room pillows. From there, she ended up using a little bit of multimedia, including small shards of broken glass.
The finished piece was so striking that she kept getting comments and requests about it. Could you do that again? Could you do something like that for my master bedroom?
So she started down a new road—the road of abstract art.
Then, last year, her children banded together to send her on a trip to Paris with a friend. It was a life-long dream fulfilled, and Melanie says it was also a seminal moment for her art journey. Not only did she do some fundraising to prepare for the trip by selling dozens of paintings online, but the trip itself was a foray into an art world she’d never seen before.
“It was a huge eye-opener in that way,” says Melanie. “I was so moved by the art that I saw and the realization that for this culture, art cannot be separated from their lives. It’s all woven together. The things they chose to paint—scenes of war, and love, and life. The way that history and life and art is all one thing in Paris. And just seeing the sheer genius of their talent and hard work. And how some of them were just completely self-taught.”
Around the time she returned from this trip, she began to dig deeper into her on-again-off-again work in interior design. Now she’s working with maybe two or three clients at a time, overseeing renovations and redecorating as needed, and often providing original art pieces or commissions as well.
She and her husband had purchased and renovated various homes through the years: “I realized during those projects that [design] makes a big difference in a buyer—people were really drawn to beautiful, well-appointed spaces. And I understand that. For me, being in a room that’s beautiful… it’s magic.”
“I want to keep learning and growing and to one day be able to inspire others; maybe teach some classes, and encourage my grandkids to pursue their passions early. At the end of the day, children and grandchildren are my calling and my biggest ‘why’ in life.”
To find out more about Melanie’s art, visit her website: www.thequietcanvas.com. To contact her about interior design needs, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.