By Sallie W. Boyles | Photography courtesy of Melissa Payne Baker
“People come up to me at shows and say, ‘I see the sailboat,’” reveals abstract artist Melissa Payne Baker, “and I say, ‘That’s great!’ The beauty of an abstract work is that it allows each person to see and feel different things.”
Whatever one perceives from Baker’s oil and acrylic paints on canvas, her intention is for the individual “to find comfort and be drawn in.” While working, her mood is calm. “It’s a relaxing feel when I start to paint,” she says.
Baker’s distinctive style—dreamy compositions of rich hues and subtle textures—originated with a palette knife. Growing up in Mississippi, Baker always loved the process and effect of working with a palette knife, a technique she acquired while accompanying her grandfather, an oil painter, to art classes at Memphis State University in Tennessee. More recently, she has been painting with big brushes, sometimes in concert with a palette knife.
“My mom is an artist, a retired muralist,” Baker says, revealing the many sources from which her talent and inspiration stem. “I used to sit on the floor and watch her paint.” In a similar vein, Baker’s brother and father fabricate metals for vintage cars, and her grandmother was a national flower judge.
Baker’s passion for interior design emerged while hanging wallpaper with her mother’s best friend in many of Memphis’s grand homes. Even so, Baker is a practical woman who studied business and graduated with a marketing degree from the University of Mississippi. “Everything’s a business,” she proclaims, “even art!” Pursuing her love of design after college, Baker went to work for a firm in Columbia, South Carolina. Later, she moved to Atlanta and landed a job with Glyn Weakley Interiors. Baker also met her husband, Rick, in Atlanta, where they now reside with their three-year-old son, Payne.
While busy with interior design, Baker continued to experiment with her palette knife, regularly getting together with her best friend, Michelle, for “art night,” a time of painting, talking, and sipping wine. “You’ve got to start selling your work,” Michelle would say. Tragically, Michelle was killed in a car accident, but her seeds of encouragement helped Baker blossom. When Glyn Weakley Interiors was asked to donate an auction item for a prominent church’s fund-raiser, Baker offered one of her paintings: an abstract image of an angel. The outcome confirmed that her work had merit. “A bidding war broke out,” explains Baker. “The one who lost called me the next day to commission a new painting.” Anne Irwin, owner of Anne Irwin Fine Art in Atlanta, was the first gallerist to feature Baker’s work after she found it at another local fund-raiser.
While some artists may never ponder the decor that will accompany their creations, Baker’s inclination is to paint something beautiful that complements a design scheme.
Another personal milestone for Baker—the one that ultimately let her identify herself as an artist—involved her participation in Spotlight on Art, an annual event hosted by Atlanta’s Trinity School that showcases fine works by the Southeast’s emerging and established artists. “My painting was next to Steve Penley’s,” says Baker, who still feels blessed and proud because of the association. “Two weeks later, Ann Huff (of Huff Harrington Fine Art in Atlanta) called and asked me to come by.” Since that meeting eight years ago, Huff Harrington has represented Baker. Today, an array of galleries and design firms throughout the Southeast carry her work.
“I found Melissa on a design blog,” says Melissa Skowlund, owner of Summer House Lifestyle, a company that retails artwork, home furnishings, and gifts and offers full interior design services to shoppers in Grayton Beach, Florida. “When I opened the store in 2012, I called her right away to see if she’d want to be our featured artist. I admire her because she can take her palette knife and produce a masterpiece right on the spot—in no time at all—using her surroundings.”
Skowlund, who has a background in graphic design and spent years in advertising and marketing before relocating from Wisconsin to Northwest Florida, describes her aesthetic as “sophisticated beach.” Glorifying the comfortable, casual lifestyle, she incorporates custom fabrics, original artwork, and other refinements. Initially concentrating on children’s rooms, Skowlund has responded to her customers’ demands, implementing three expansions over the past three years to provide “all things beautiful” for furnishings and decor throughout the home, including outdoor living spaces.
While some artists may never ponder the decor that will accompany their creations, Baker’s inclination is to paint something beautiful that complements a design scheme. Her approach is especially valuable to interior design resources like Summer House that cater to a certain look. Skowlund, for instance, gravitates to navy as a staple color and adds bright shades like turquoise for pop. Baker also loves working with blues and is collaborating with Skowlund to produce a custom series using “coastal colors” for Summer House.
To choose a color palette for any painting, Baker frequently seeks inspiration from the latest fabrics, rooms, and other concepts featured on the pages she has torn from magazines; these pages fill a large wicker basket in her home studio. “I study interior magazines for designs and the next big colors,” she says. “When I paint, I’m often pretending that I’m doing a commission for the room on display.” As a result, for commissioned paintings, Baker loves working with clients’ fabric samples and room photos, but she suggests that customers should simply trust her with the implementation and “let it all come out rather than giving too much direction. I come in with colors in mind and the painting takes me where it’s supposed to go. I like the flow of color to be vivid,” she adds, “but also soft with white space.”
Images from her trip to Paris in 2014 have also materialized in Baker’s work. “Even the gray buildings there are rich in color,” she muses. Based on her numerous photos, Baker has so far interpreted Parisian colors and compositions on about a dozen canvases.
No matter what stimulates the creative process, Baker insists, “I don’t let it leave the studio unless I would hang it on my wall. That’s why I’ll say you never know how many paintings any final piece you see has been through from my reworking it.” Painting over the original, she points out, is just a stage in the process, and it enriches the painting’s texture.
Along with her paintings, Baker also produces usable art: silk scarves and glassware. Printed from photographs Baker takes of her paintings, the scarves are available to order from preselected designs, or clients may request a custom creation based on another of her paintings. Either way, she personally signs each one, as she also does with every hand-painted piece of glass. “I wanted them to look free and loose,” says Baker, referring to her signature brushstroke design. Beginning with a jeweled-tone base color, she adds a touch of gold for an elegant, festive flair. She’ll also produce custom glass sets to complement clients’ napkins and other accessories.
The enterprising artist is also branching out with a line of prints called Sasha, exclusively developed for Ballard Designs. “My niece calls me Sasha,” Baker says of the name. Debuting in August, the new brand demonstrates a major marketer’s faith in Baker’s broad appeal, but Baker remains humble and grateful to God for her ability to earn a living through her art.
When asked how other aspiring artists might attain success, Baker’s primary advice is to work hard. Beyond that, she says, “Study and research and always practice. Try different techniques and media. You have to take your passion and live it. I’m always practicing and daydreaming about what I want to do next.”
From rising during the predawn hours to networking and supporting other artists by attending their shows, Baker not only lives the life of an artist but also loves every aspect. Art night, by the way, remains a highlight on her schedule, with up to twenty girlfriends taking part. Baker is also considering the idea of one-on-one consultations for artists who feel stuck and want new perspectives on their paintings. Most importantly, with Payne just beginning to show an interest in art, Baker is eager to supply him with the materials and lots of encouragement!
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Readers can learn more about Melissa Payne Baker’s work from Summer House Lifestyle or from melissapaynebaker.com.
Summer House Lifestyle
Summer Hours: Monday—Friday 9:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.
Saturday 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. and by appointment
Off-Season Hours: Tuesday—Friday 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
Saturday 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. and by appointment