Music often plays in the background at Melody Allen’s art studio in Kalamazoo. Sometimes a soft, meditative song fosters her creativity. Other times an upbeat, lively tune fuels her vision. Whatever the selection — relaxing or energetic — now and again she gets a bit “lost.”
“Occasionally I get so into my work that I don’t even notice when the music stops,” Allen says.
Perhaps it’s that complete immersion that infuses the pastel artist’s pieces with an ability to pull viewers into her peaceful renderings. One is easily drawn into the beaches of inviting Michigan shoreline and captivating sunsets of Pentwater and Manistee. In describing some of her pastels, Allen talks of walking the beaches and feeling sand between her toes. Her audience almost experiences that stroll too.
Allen, who always found pleasure in drawing when she was younger, didn’t necessarily know she wanted to become an artist. She graduated from college with a degree in advertising design and worked in that field for a few years before becoming a stay-at-home mom. When her kids grew older, Allen sought part-time work again in advertising design but discovered the industry had changed during her absence.
“When I was trained, it was pre-computer, so I knew that if I went back into graphic design I would have to get retrained, and I really wasn’t interested in sitting in front of a computer all day,” Allen says.
Instead, in 1994, she became a part-time teacher in the children’s department at the Kalamazoo Institute of the Arts. She also began taking classes there, including one in pastels.
“I did not do very good work when I started,” she says, laughing. “It didn’t come naturally at first.”
To master pastels, Allen began with still lifes. A limited number of objects simplified things, she says. Eventually she advanced to portraits of cats, treating them as still-life objects, creating contrast in her scenes with light and shadow. For budding artists, Allen advises keeping pieces uncomplicated as well as practicing, avoiding discouragement and exploring different techniques.
“I was so intimidated I couldn’t bring myself to do landscapes,” she says of her early days working with pastels. “When I first started, it just seemed so overwhelming. I just couldn’t break it down into basic elements, so starting with the still life was much easier for me. But once I got the hang of it, then I could move on.”
Pastel sticks are a combination of powdered pigment and a binder. The artist holds a pastel stick like chalk, Allen explains, drawing lines or using the side to create a broader stroke. An artist might blend pastels or push them into the paper. A variety of papers exist just for pastels. They have texture or sanded surfaces to hold the particles. The look of pastels has always intrigued Allen, even before she took classes, but other characteristics solidified her love for the medium.
“When I started working with them, I liked the fact that it’s real immediate,” she says. “ In other words, you don’t have to let paint dry before applying another layer. You don’t have to mix the paint first or the colors first — you can just put one on top of the other.”
In 2003, Sheila Bohanan, a former art teacher at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, urged Allen to enter a piece in the KIA’s West Michigan Art Show. Allen’s art was accepted, propelling her into her first juried art show.
“I was thrilled,” she says, “so that kind of gave me the confidence that I needed to say, ‘OK, I guess I’m on the right path if I can do this and they’re worthy of showing.’”
That first show went so well that half of Allen’s pieces sold during the opening reception. More shows followed, and Allen has since participated in 17 juried shows, 20 solo shows and 16 group shows.
Initially, Allen created pieces that were about 24 inches by 36 inches or 18 inches by 24 inches, but over time she switched to smaller works for practical reasons. She found people tend to purchase smaller paintings because the pieces cost less and don’t take up much room. “They can always tuck a small piece someplace,” Allen says.
But one part of her success has taken some getting used to: saying goodbye to her pieces.
“I remember clearly that I couldn’t sleep that night (of the first show) because I was both overjoyed that my work had sold, yet overcome with a sadness and a sick feeling in my stomach because I felt like I had lost my babies,” Allen says. “I’ve since gotten over that reluctance to let my work go, though there are still some favorite pieces that I hate to part with.”