Melissa Burgess has been painting for more than 30 years. She primarily paints streetscapes and architecture of Richmond, capturing and preserving our local environment as it fades from old to modern. She is from Richmond.
How long have you lived in the Richmond region?
I was born, and grew up, in Richmond. I've moved away twice and returned twice – I lived in Boston and spent just a few years in Vermont. I didn't expect to stay here as long as I have, yet I'm still here. Richmond’s affordability and architecture were an attraction to me. Buying and settling into a home has kept me here.
Where do you live now, and what drew you there?
I live in one of the original streetcar suburbs of Richmond. Wonderful, old, solid housing stock and room for gardens was part of the attraction, as well as the affordability when I returned to Richmond.
Why did you choose your profession or avocation?
I can't say I chose my profession; I just did what felt natural and kept painting. I have always been artistic – I drew and painted as a child. When I was a teenager, an artist gave me some of his old tubes of oil paint, a mason jar of turpentine and a couple of old brushes with the instruction of "use these." I have never looked back and have been painting in oil ever since.
I am self-taught, having never been to art school or received any formal training. Early on, I realized the importance of learning from older artists and enjoyed their conversation and company, which I consider part of my education, along with the countless hours of studio time I have put in.
There have been plenty of hard times – living in substandard conditions, without heat or enough money – but my drive to paint outweighed much of the inconveniences. I never expected things to come to me easily and knew it would take decades of dedicated work. Following the path that felt natural has been rewarding in its own way. I see my work evolve and see the appreciation of others, through support and consistent sales. Living conditions from my younger years have certainly improved. My art has taken me across the world.
I feel I am doing a service of documenting our landscape and am happy and fortunate to be able to share my art with others. It has been a lot of hard work, complete with sacrifice, but I couldn’t imagine doing things differently.
What five words would describe you?
Thoughtful, sincere, observant, intuitive, creative.
If a visitor asked you for three things to do while in town, what would you recommend?
Visit Hollywood Cemetery for the rolling, parklike layout and great view of the river. Go to James River Park for the expanse of wildlife and nature. And visit Caravati's, a virtual museum of this region’s architectural remains. These are distinctively Richmond things not found elsewhere.
What’s something you haven't done locally that's on your to-do list?
Visit the McGlothlin Collection of American Art at the VMFA.
What’s an ideal weekend for you?
Exploring new places for antiques and architecture, a bike ride in the country or just working in the studio.
What’s at the top of your bucket list?
Expand my knowledge and skill of the frame drum. It’s a beautiful instrument with much the same resonance and soul as the upright bass, which I used to play. Music has been a part of my life, though I stopped playing when I began to paint. I’ve been playing the frame drum now for five years.
What skill would you like to master?
I have always been interested in fine art conservation and restoration. I have been fortunate to have worked as an assistant conservator alongside some of the most skilled in the field. I love the combination of art, history and science that is involved in restoring a work of art. Also, the practice of being in the moment and being keenly aware of every movement has carried through not just in painting but in other aspects of my life as well. I hope to continue with working in conservation someday, learning all that I possibly can.
What’s the best present you ever received, and what made it meaningful?
A trip to Venice from a friend whom I was working for. The fact that it was such a thoughtful gift and that the friend was so knowledgeable about Venice, and a great travel companion, made for a magical package. The morning we arrived, it was snowing. The beautiful jade of the water immediately struck me. As Venice came into view through the snow and fog, it was like a dream, the most beautiful sight ever – the glowing ochres of the buildings against the flat gray sky, giant snowflakes and the green glassiness of the water. I was too in awe to even photograph that moment.
What is the craziest thing you’ve ever done, and would you do it again?
Not necessarily crazy, just bold – I was a bicycle messenger for Richmond Riders Delivery Service. I loved riding and seemed to be built for speed, but there was always an element of danger. The messenger job, and riding a motorcycle on the streets of the Boston area, are both things I don't need to do again.
Pick a year or an event to go back to. What would it be?
I try to concentrate on the present, moving forward to the future. Though if I had to go back, I’d return to my visits with my photographer grandfather – hearing his stories of scavenging bits and pieces of steamships while documenting the lost art of maritime life with his camera along the way. Those were nice times, sitting in his cool, dark living room surrounded by multitudes of artifacts on a summer day.
Tell us about something you own that has great sentimental value to you.
I can’t pick just one thing. I love the art, ceramics and furniture that I surround myself with. I love the way these things are made and how they fit together as a whole, complementing each other with their form and aesthetic. I love the quality of wood of an old cabinet, kerf marks and wavy glass, or finger ridges in a piece of turned pottery. I love the visible aspects of construction and the solidity of an antique. Arts and Crafts is my preferred style for its honest simplicity, though I have a soft spot for functional one-of-a-kind pieces like the 19th-century desk in my studio, which was put together with pegs and painted barn red.
If you could spend a day with a fictional or historical figure, who would it be?
John Singer Sargent, so I could watch over his shoulder as he paints "El Jaleo." The size of that painting makes you feel as if you could walk right into the scene. It’s not fussy, and it's full of movement. Oh, to be a fly on that wall.
What’s your fondest childhood memory?
I remember my excitement while seeing the Paul Klee exhibit at the VMFA. Most children would beg their parents to go to an amusement park or something of that nature, but I pleaded to go see the Klee exhibit. I even recall the smell of the galleries. I decided that was the smell of museums – later to realize it was just the smell of drywall mud used before install.
Of your five senses, what's your favorite?
Sight. Even on a nonpainting day, I like to watch the play of light on surfaces and study different colors. In painting, aside from the visuals, I also try to include the feeling of ambient smell and temperature of the atmosphere into my painting, plus any other encompassing details – condensing a sense of place into two dimensions.
What habit would you like to change?
I'd like to be able to free up some time and not pack so much into a day. There is always so much to do, whether it’s painting, prep, promotion or scheduling side jobs. I know I won’t be able to paint all the paintings that I’d like to in my lifetime.
What’s your “desert island” book, CD, TV program and/or movie?
Perhaps on a desert island, I could sit still long enough to finish reading John Berger's "Portraits" or Eric Kandel's "The Age of Insight."
How has your impression of the Richmond region changed in your time here?
I have seen a lot of change in Richmond over the decades. Most notably, Richmond has become more tolerant. The population has shifted to a large, young, diverse crowd, which in turn has tilted the food landscape toward a fresh, global palette. Art and music continue to thrive. Decades ago, artists remained here because Richmond was so cheap. Now, Richmond seems to be a destination for its newfound hip-ness. Close proximity to East Coast cities has helped, as well as the internet, opening channels to what was once old and stagnant. There seems to be more interest in local politics, which will buoy us higher. I hope that with gentrification, the less noticed and poor don’t continue to get overlooked or displaced. Though we still have a ways to go, it seems we are off to a good start.
Tell us a story – about anything at all – that makes you think about your time in the Richmond region.
I first began noticing Richmond’s architecture and neighborhoods as a child growing up in the city. My father, who was an architect, would take me along on his visits to downtown and Shockoe.
I remember the trips to the old graphic supply stores, with their expanse of glass markers, pastels and pencils. Worn wood floors, the smell of eraser dust.
I remember Richmond’s thick, green paint caked on to tongue-and-groove warehouse doors along Cary Street, brick row houses spanning the length of a block with a small corner store as an anchor. Dusty backyards spilling into mysterious alleys. The turquoise green of faded back doors and abandoned garages with shafts of light streaming through the tattered metal roof. The crunch of magnolia leaves and the sweet smell of their pods that had fallen to the ground in late summer.
Not much has changed visually. On the other hand, everything has changed. I try to capture as much as I can in my paintings, sharing little segments of our town.