Waiheke Island really is the jewel in the Auckland regions crown. Just 40 minutes on a speedy ferry and you are transported from the city to the rolling isle whose bays play host to luxury modern homes and low-key coastal boltholes alike. Its in a ridge hugging bach that artist Melissa Sharplin has taken up residence to work on a new collection. After being a not so subtle online stalker of her work for years I jumped at the opportunity to visit and was more than a little blown away at the story I heard.
Turns out this self taught artist isn’t afraid to do things her own way.
Melissa was genuinely unaware that she had any special artistic talent right up until she was 15. It was the arrival of a new art teacher at Burnside High School in Christchurch that encouraged her to research and read about artists, get inspired and “paint whatever she wanted”. She fell head over heels for the work and style of American painter; James Rosenquist and spent three months painting at home as instructed by her teacher. The resulting artwork earned her the top School Certificate mark in New Zealand and promptly sold! Initially she was as shocked as her family that she had been able to produce work of such a high standard – she had somehow tapped into a talent she really truly had no idea she owned!
But despite her new found passion for painting, on leaving high school she decided to follow in her mothers footsteps and went to study fashion at Christchurch Polytech (her fellow alumni include Mickey and Ra from MisteR) She continued to take on portrait commissions over that time but when she produced a canvas dress wholly hand painted for a project, her tutors just shook their heads in disbelief and questioned as to why she was there. The idea of entering the traditional path of Fine Arts study simply didn’t appeal so, like many young kiwis before her, she jumped on a plane and went to visit the world.
During her time away she continued to work, completing two shows in the UK which she described as not super successful. This left her feeling that it was important for her to return home and start at the beginning – growing her work in New Zealand first. And that she sure did! Her “Retro Nudes” collection in 2008 not only had buyers sitting up and paying attention but mainstream media caught wind of this young Christchurch women and her exciting, confronting style.
Just as the wheels were really beginning to turn on Melissa’s career everything drew to a violent and traumatic halt when she was caught in the middle of the 2009 Samoan tsunami and literally forced to flee for her life.
She struggled to adjust to normal life back in NZ and descended into an incredibly difficult and dark time. Strangely it was a dream following one of her worst days that proved pivotal. She explained that she saw a gallery of incredible paintings of women and birds, recognising images that she herself had filed away in her own visual diaries. They were so beautiful to her, even on waking up that she was compelled to begin her own versions of what she saw immediately. Despite the small scale of her Retro Nudes series, this new collection kicked off on the only medium she had – an enormous canvas.
Over the next year Melissa worked full time to complete 13 huge paintings for her “Swit Swirl” collection. She was able to squeeze in urgent and well paying commissions that combined with the amazing support from friends and her family, kept her afloat. However being a “non represented artist” she also knew that sponsorship to get this show on the road was crucial. With the help of a friend she was able to secure sponsorship with Audi who hosted her shows in both their Christchurch and Sydney showrooms.
When I asked why she didn’t have a gallery or agent she simply said that she was tired of always being told “No”. No your work is not right for this market. No your work is not right for us.
She sold all of her Swit Swirl original paintings for prices ranging from $10 000 – $33 000 NZ dollars each.
Mother nature hadn’t quite finished with Melissa and her nerves and subsequently shook them to bits in the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. Luckily all of her work was still in Sydney at that point however her studio that she shared with Micheal Hewson on the edge of Cathedral Square became a no go. It also marked a change of direction for Melissa. Competition for housing was at fever pitch, so she and new partner Alex Turnbull looked further a field and lucked out in finding an old school house for rent in Leeston, rural Canterbury. Over the next two years a series of circumstances led her to turn what was to be her new studio into a local cafe, immerse herself fully in the community and essentially chew up any time that would have been available for painting!
But now shes back at it! The cafe was sold and Alex secured a new Auckland based job as the GM of the Rhythm and Vines group. Friends had a house on Waiheke that needed renting and the couple needed a home. Whats more – Melissa needed to get creating again and on my visit she seemed to be doing A LOT of it!
Scattered around the walls of the house and on easels downstairs were new paintings in varying states of development. Due to the time the paint takes to dry, she will move from one canvas to another, slowly growing a whole new family of beautiful women aiming to be completed sometime toward the end of the year. She still receives commissions from around the world and is currently working on projects for a local vinegar producer and custom snowboard manufacturer. Not to mention the AMAZING Nike Air Force 1 trainers she was customising for the charity event Safe in Sound launching in Auckland on Thursday.
I spent just a couple of hours with Melissa but left her place contemplating the undeniable fact that while some might be luckier than others when struck with the talent stick – if you want to see the limits of your potential only YOU can make it happen.
All photography by Julia Atkinson for Studio Home
WHAT I LEARNT FROM MELISSA:
It’s your right not to believe people that say “NO.”
Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but its the one that lives in your gut that counts.