Looking over a selection of Melissa Egan’s paintings is like leafing through an album of vacation snaps where costumed ermines, tigers and polar bears rub shoulders with notorious kings and famous historical figures. Often positioned within a lush landscape, waiting with bags packed or seated at tables laden with treats, Melissa’s protagonists appear as though they are paused briefly in the midst of a journey. The landscape they travel through is distinctly Australian with a mild European flavour, a direct influence of Melissa’s early years in Tasmania, Singapore and Canberra.
“I had an idyllic childhood growing up in Tasmania, surrounded by a beautiful countryside and animals, all of which I constantly draw from,” Melissa explains. “My time spent in Singapore was very British Colonial and looking back on it, quite a privileged lifestyle. In contrast, the harsh terrain surrounding Canberra was very prominent in my early work. At the moment, we are renovating an old house in Tasmania and this is definitely giving my paintings more detailed interiors.”
Currently based in Samford, a rural locale on the doorstep of South East Queensland’s Glasshouse Mountains, Melissa works from a light-filled studio bordered by mango trees, a fishpond and a veggie garden. Much like the paintings she creates, Melissa shares her creative retreat with a vast array of inquisitive creatures. “I am fortunate to have occasional visitors,” Melissa says. “A flock of white cockatoos, a black faced wallaby, two large goannas, an echidna, snakes, sheep, horses and some very annoying bush turkeys.”
In addition to the natural world and animals, humans appear sporadically in her paintings, and the influence of art history is clear. Echoes of styles reminiscent of Rembrandt van Rijn, Frida Kahlo and Henri Rousseau trickle through Melissa’s generous brushstrokes and sumptuous palettes of jungle greens and seaside blues. “Musicians and artists have always played an important part in my work, especially the old masters,” she says. Painting mostly with oils and acrylics, Melissa is especially fond of 18th-century English painter George Stubbs, an artist who became known for his highly detailed paintings of animals, particularly his anatomically accurate depictions of horses.
A recurrent character in Melissa’s paintings is a slender white ermine affectionately named Edmund Thermine. In her recent painting Cherry Pickers, 2019, Edmund is perched on a table, leaning in toward a primly dressed girl. He wears a blue sports coat embellished with gold fringe and is taking aim with a golf club at a plump cherry, briefly paused in motion and about to punt it directly at the viewer. “Edmund Thermine began as a fragment of my alter ego and has since developed into a character I use quite regularly in my paintings,” Melissa reveals. “He is the perfect muse, totally unfazed by what he wears or what he does.”
Throughout the course of her career, Melissa has been a finalist in numerous art prizes including the Archibald Prize, the Sulman Prize and the Portia Geach Memorial Award. She is represented by Anthea Polson Art in Main Beach, Queensland.
Her most recent exhibition, Stories, continues to embrace the essence of travel and discovery, pulling gently on the thread of an unfolding narrative. For Melissa, engaging the viewer in a narrative is sometimes intentional, sometimes not. “Each painting evolves differently, some begin with a background or stage, others start with the subject. Painting is a puzzle and never a straightforward, easy process. If there are stories to be disclosed in my paintings, I prefer them to be ambiguous to let the viewer have their own interpretation.”
Melissa’s solo exhibition Stories runs from 30 November until 14 December at Anthea Polson Art in Main Beach, Queensland.