Melanie Banayat is a contemporary figurative artist who I’m so glad that I met online and after seeing her website, decided that I had to chat with her.  She’s very passionate about her work, but more importantly, about the accessibility of art and the role it plays in society at large.  Sit back and read my chat with her. You won’t be sorry.

MICHAEL: Hi Melanie.  Right off the bat, I have to say that what strikes me most about your work is your use of color.  You're clearly not afraid of primary colors ... and of course, your subjects are female.  How do you describe your work?

MELANIE: Hello Michael.  Yes, I have been accused of being a color addict on many occasions.  And I love it!  My bold use of color was strongly influenced by the artists from the Fauve movement, where artists such as Henri Matisse, Paul Gauguin, and Andre Derain used pure, brilliant color, applied straight from the paint tubes to create a sense of explosion on the canvas.  I use this technique to support the expressive emotions that I want to convey in the images.  Color evokes emotions in people, and that’s one of the main things I want to do in my work – strike an emotional cord. 

MICHAEL: What your female driven subject matter?

MELANIE: My predominant female subject matter really took shape without any real intent in the beginning.  It began to develop on its own as I was moving through a very difficult and emotional time in my life.  While going through this transitional period, I began exploring my own emotions by talking with other women to find out how they dealt with similar issues in their lives.  During this process of connecting with other women (some close friends, others complete strangers), I discovered such diverse and insightful responses. Yet at the same time, there was an unmistakable similarity that existed between all of them.  I discovered a real sense of common ground despite their background, social status, nationality, or skin color.  It was a shared spirit, a sisterhood of compassion and understanding.  After a two-year period where I was emotionally unable to paint a single brush stoke on canvas, I finally felt inspired to get back into my art studio.

MICHAEL: When you began again, what did you paint?

MELANIE: I found myself battling a tendency to paint dark themes.  I wanted to move away from that; I wanted to focus on becoming happy and feeling joy.  So even though much of the work stems from pain, the focus is on rising above it.  Ultimately, the work is really about shining light on the spirit of women.  And I must say, it has been and continues to be, one of the most positive, healing, and inspiring experiences.

MICHAEL: What's so intriguing to me is the fact that you've used art, in this case your own, as therapy and a way to heal yourself.  You use color, form, experience and insight to create great things that give you a sense of wholeness.  On the other side of the painting, this is exactly what art does for me, the observer and collector.  I have this theory that if an artist is really good, the intention and emotion of the work (often unspoken) will translate almost exactly to the viewer.  Do you agree or should we have room for personal interpretation?

MELANIE: Even though I approach a painting with a specific message in mind, I feel there’s always room for interpretation. That’s the inherent beauty of art; no matter the intention of the artist it remains versatile. 

MICHAEL: So how do responses to your work affect you?

MELANIE: On one hand, it can feel quite fulfilling when someone ‘gets it’, meaning they get the message that I was intending to portray. Then again, sometimes when I look at one of my own paintings two or three years after I’ve completed it, I may feel like the message has changed depending on what’s going on in my life at that time.  So, even though a painting seems to be this permanent unchanging object -- life continues to change all around it and in affect changing the energy of that painting. The blue skin tone may have felt cold and hard to me once before, but now it feels calm and soothing.

MICHAEL: I think people who like art, but don’t know a lot about it, will love hearing this.  It means that their interpretations have some real merit … no matter how misguided! 

MELANIE: To me it’s fascinating to hear how other people interpret my work, especially when their interpretation comes from a completely different angle. I get to say, “Wow, I hadn’t thought of that - interesting.” When someone is willing to share with me the message they get from one of my paintings, I don’t want to take that away from them.  Interpretation is ownership of a feeling, whether it’s good or bad.  In a way, I think each interpretation becomes part of that painting’s story, its history, and its energy. It gives it life.

MICHAEL: Do you think the old masters also felt this way about their work?  It's interesting because when you listen to art scholars or even museum docents, the presentations are great and I learn a lot, but they're sometimes very didactic and don't leave much room for individual expression or interpretation.  Not many people speak up and say, "Here's what I think!" for fear of looking like an idiot.

MELANIE: Interesting question.  I can’t help but smile trying to imagine what it would have been like to stand beside an old master like Diego Velazquez, in front of one of his paintings and offer my interpretation. Hmm.

MICHAEL: I know!  Still, I think many of them were probably much more accepting of informed, outside opinions than we might assume.

MELANIE: There are probably just as many different personalities and temperaments among artists as there are creations of art.  With that in mind, I would imagine that some of the old masters welcomed interpretation, while others were not as open to it or simply didn’t care what others had to say. It’s certainly no secret that artists have to grow some pretty thick skin in this industry because some people are going to love what you do, while others may not be so kind. 

MICHAEL: Interesting. I’m guessing that you believe there should be a balance between formal art education and individual interpretation.

MELANIE: For the most part, the art scholar or docent is just educating on things that they have been educated about; most of them are neither there to offer their own personal interpretation nor invite people to offer theirs. I’m not knocking what they do, because they’re helping people gain insight into the world of art, which seems so mysterious to many people.  I, also, really enjoy looking at other artist’s works; I like to allow my imagination to pull me into a painting like a storybook.  Often times, I don’t want to know what the artist’s intention was.  I really don’t even want to think too hard about it.  If it doesn’t come to me naturally, then I probably don’t care that much for the piece of art and I’ll move on.  But those pieces that do pull me in, well, sometimes I’ll feel the desire to share the experience and engage in conversation, but sometimes I like to just keep it to myself, because it’s personal. 

MICHAEL: So when looking at art, people shouldn’t feel pressured to constantly give their opinion anyway.

MELANIE:  I’m not sure that it’s so important whether or not a person speaks up and shares what they think about a painting.  I think the important part is that they remained in front of a piece of art long enough to allow it to have an impression on them.  Of course, what’s even better is when they’re able to embrace a piece of art and let it play a daily role in their life by bringing it into their personal space without giving any thought as to whether it matches their sofa.  What matters more is that it adds a certain degree of value to the quality of their life.

MICHAEL: You know Melanie, what you've said so eloquently here tends to be the same thing I hear from so many artists.  They want people to appreciate their work in a personal way.  Telling people to "buy what they love" seems like such a cliche, but it's really the only way to get people coming back for more.  Still, many artists would choose acceptance by the art world over some Joe Shmoe who loves their work.

MELANIE: What is “the art world” anyway? Just for effect, I decided to look it up online to see how cyber space has defined it.  Wikipedia defines “Art World” as the "world" composed of all the people involved in the production, commission, preservation, promotion, criticism and sale of art.  These are the very people who help artists along their way to a successful art career.  They are the ones who often see an artist’s works before the rest of the world.  So, an artist needs these people to love their work, so that they can receive the kind of support necessary to weather the storms on the road to success.  So, it’s really not a bad thing to want acceptance from the art world, but acceptance from the art world is only a stepping stone.
So who exactly is Joe Shmoe?  Once again, Wikipedia says it’s used to identify the typical, everyday person who does not have any special status, frequently in contrast to some group (in this case we’ll say in contrast to “art collectors”). Well, I for one like to make my art available and affordable to the Joe Shmoes of the world. I don’t feel that fine art should be some exclusive commodity just for the rich and famous. Since art can change the way we view the world, I say there needs to be lots of beautiful and inspirational art in every home.  I know, I sound like an idealist -- I have a pair of rose-colored glasses, too, but only because I’m a color addict.

MICHAEL: There’s nothing wrong with wearing rose-colored glasses.  If you’re funny too, it helps.  Idealism gets me out of bed on some mornings.  What does your family think about your work?  Are you the only artist in your household or are your kids artistic as well?

MELANIE: In 2006, I spent six months in Jalisco, Mexico to transition from one chapter of my life to the next.  I felt a need for isolation in order to spend a lot of uninterrupted time in my studio painting.  Some of my family members and friends didn’t understand why I needed to go all the way down into central Mexico to do that, especially since I had never been there before, didn't speak the language, and didn't know anybody there.  They were worried that I was a single woman alone in a foreign land.  Though I did understand their concern, it was a fear that I needed to conquer for myself as well. But when I returned to the States and they saw what I had produced, I got the distinct feeling that they finally understood.  The female members of my family are more vocal with their support, telling me they love my art and they especially love my note cards that feature my art and inspirational prose.  They seem to understand the mission behind my work now that it has become more defined. Every year, my mother and sister-in-laws buy lots of my note cards and send them as gifts to their girlfriends.  That is one of the best compliments that they have given to me. Currently, my daughter, Mikhaila (16), and Son, Dakota (13), are both very talented in art.  They’re quite fearless in their expressions, which is incredibly inspiring to me.  I don’t remember being as daring with my ideas at their ages.  It’s refreshing.  I believe being in touch with their creative side has really helped them tremendously in all other areas of their life.  Their minds are so open to thinking outside of the box, they’re not afraid to question things and challenge themselves to push the limits.  It’s really cool to witness how it all works together in these young people who are still developing.  I've learned so much from them! 

MICHAEL: You really are a walking, talking case for art and the important role it plays in our lives.  You know, sometimes as an art advocate I feel like it's a losing battle to get people to see this.  Does it make sense to even try to convince people who've gone through much of their lives without any real contact with art or artists?

MELANIE: Oh my, that’s a loaded question. I do understand your dilemma. It’s especially difficult to bring up the topic with people when the economy is struggling and basic necessities become the priority. I suppose the real question we should be posing is, “What would the world be like without art?”  Art is a part of everything around us.  Children’s books would just be a bunch of boring letters (aaaaah!), blank walls everywhere would make it feel like we lived in a cold institutional desert and those who express themselves better through art would feel like lost souls (zombies).  And that’s just referring to the visual arts.  That doesn’t include, music, dance, writing, photography, animation, film, and fashion. There are developmental benefits in young children and there are the social and cultural aspects. Art is a great stimulus for the economy, because it draws tourists into communities. It’s an affirmation of life, a language and an instrument of communication. It has no boundaries. It records our history. It nurtures our need to reveal, heal and transform. It transcends our ordinary lives and lets us imagine what is possible.  So in answer to your question, my answer is a resounding YES!  It does make sense to encourage people to embrace the blessings of art.  The sad part about people who don’t understand the grand importance of art in our world is that they don’t recognize the impact that art has had in every part of their lives already. But, if they were to live in an environment for an extended period of time where art did not exist, I believe they would feel its absence to their very core.  I personally don’t want to experience that. So even when it feels like you’re not making progress, just remember that you never know how far a simple gesture will go – you might be surprised.

MICHAEL: Melanie, this has been a tremendous pleasure.  You really seem to be not just a great artist, but great person as well.  Thanks for chatting and much future success to you!

MELANIE: Thank you Michael. It was a lot of fun. It was a fun way to do an interview.  The anticipation of the next question was exciting.  Thanks for giving me this opportunity to carry on and on about my passion. I really appreciate your enthusiasm for art.  Keep up the good works!

You can find out more about Melanie Banayat’s work by visiting her online store at