Melanie Norris

Melanie Norris is a Johnson City native who now lives and works in Asheville, North Carolina. She studied at East Tennessee State University, graduating in 2011. She currently has a studio in whiteSPACE gallery of the Wedge Studios in the River Arts District of Asheville


What sets mankind apart is the broad range of emotions that flesh out their personality; the things that can neither be seen nor described, only felt. In my paintings, I do not strive for a likeness in a technical portrait sense. I try to lay hold of their inner being, the soul that exists within the flesh. I seek to show how a body isn’t existence, but simply a vessel. Physical looks and material things are superfluous signifiers of our life. They are easy to understand and define, therefore the materials often replace the true person. I pare down environment and objects from my compositions, leaving a bare being. I use watercolor at times because it naturally reflects the understated transience of our bodies. By nature, it is fragile and easily lost. With that, however, comes great freedom. Pigment can be fed water and with little guidance makes its own path. In contrast, a great boldness comes from the confident strokes of oil paint, building into a viscerality that sends the subject into the room with the viewer. Layers of this create a unique language for every painting.

In my portraits, I want to go deeper, search out the soul by sitting and having a conversation with my subjects, taking photographs and soaking in their presence. I then paint from the photographs, focusing on their skin and expression, editing out clothes, backgrounds, objects that tether the subject to their material environment. I try to find a series of paintings that are evocative of the tone of our conversation. Irish painter Cian McLoughlin takes a similar approach to his portraits. His Camden Town Aisling Project, a series of portraits of homeless men with whom he had established relationships, has influenced my familiar and psychological approach to painting. Similarly, Lucien Freud and Jenny Saville’s boldly physical and non-idealized treatment of their subjects is reflected in my work as well. In this way, my cruelty fuels my art. The people I’m most drawn to paint are the ones most uncomfortable in front of a gaze or a camera. A very raw honesty comes from their discomfort. I crave that in every painting. Their faces, their hands reflect the unease in my unmasking of them. The face they use for the world disintegrates after a few minutes, fading into their natural and slight anxiety. And therein lies the portrait. The true beauty of humans lies in their bared vulnerability and characteristic flaws.