A rickety old porch warmed by sunlight on a humid summer morning might not seem like a scene worthy of an oil painting, but it’s exactly the sort of visual that makes Melissa Burgess stop, pull out her camera and, ultimately, paint.
Burgess brings Richmond’s iconic neighborhoods to life through her oil paintings. Her work is on display in an exhibit she calls “The Nature of a Neighborhood” at Nest Antiques Gallery, 3404 Semmes Ave. The exhibit runs through Feb. 5.
For the 46-year-old Richmond native, it’s not just the city’s older homes that attract her, though architecture is something she’s always loved.
Rather it’s the mundane details that most people wouldn’t stop to notice: an aging fence overrun with vegetation or the juxtaposition of an old house, with its sagging roofline and chipped paint, sitting next to a modern building with stark, clean lines.
Burgess has been
painting her entire adult life, but not all in Richmond. She spent eight years in Boston, where she painted streetscapes and architecture. She was particularly taken with Boston’s Chinatown area, she said.
She also has painted scenes from her travels to China, Korea and Venice.
She always travels with a camera so she can take pictures of buildings or street scenes and then paints from those photographs.
While living in Boston, Burgess said, she’d often return to Richmond and seek out the familiar areas that captured her imagination, places such as Oregon Hill and Fulton Hill, all the way to Dock Street along the James River.
She moved back to Richmond 15 years ago and bought a house off Forest Hill Avenue specifically to be part of one of those neighborhoods that she’s watched evolve since she was a child.
“I paint my neighborhoods, where I live. I’m there all the time, and I can watch the change of the seasons and notice things that people don’t normally notice.”
But more than just her passion, Burgess said she sees herself as a documentarian. Her artwork serves to preserve Richmond, even the parts that seem undesirable, she said.
“There are so many pockets of Richmond that are not even noticed,” she said. Those elements “combined with the architecture and the history just have to be preserved.”
Ironically, the old house that now houses the gallery and her artwork is one she noticed several years ago when she moved back to Richmond. “It was just so grand,” she said of the former house at 3404 Semmes Ave., which she recalled sat vacant for several years and was even partially burned down at one point.
“There was a flowering pomegranate (bush) outside, and I would sneak in and cut some flowers,” Burgess said. When the house burned, “it was heartbreaking. I thought it would be turned into a parking lot.”
Nest Antiques Gallery owners Mark Robertson and Marcelo Outiero opened their shop last year on the first floor of the old home. They turned one room into gallery space for local artists.
Robertson said they’ve known Burgess for some time as a neighbor and have been asking her to exhibit her work in their space.
“We have always admired her work,” Robertson said, adding that the response from shoppers “has been overwhelmingly positive.”
“We are thrilled to have her,” he said.
“The Nature of a Neighborhood” includes 13 large pieces plus seven small ones of insects Burgess found.
She said the name of the exhibit is a play on the structures as well as the plants that have grown around them.
Though most of her work includes images from south of the river, she said she wants her work to look like any Richmond neighborhood.
Of her preservationist feelings, Burgess said, “it just feels like something I have to do. I don’t think about it. It’s just necessary.”