Les Artistes: Sources of Beauty

Melissa Bonin

Balloons waltz in the lazy Uptown summer breeze, a Revere-ian signal to those who wondered if Cinderella would make it to the stroll.

Dressed to the nines in a hot-pink maxi dress, Louisiana landscape artist Melissa Bonin hides traces of the exhausting week beneath makeup, painted nails and the faint glow of perfume. With grace borrowed from a bygone era, Bonin takes an exaggerated breath and taps into an energy reserve so that she may play hostess to her new neighbors between Louisiana and Napoleon avenues in New Orleans.

As the sun punches the clock, foot traffic along Magazine Street picks up for the monthly “Champagne Stroll” – a collective open-house amongst the boutiques and shops dotting this primarily residential area. For Bonin – the new kid on the block – it’s a big night. After sharing space in New Iberia and museums throughout the country for years, Bonin’s art is finally able to be showcased singularly at her own gallery in New Orleans.

While Bonin’s hanging work catches the eyes of those who meander in and out of the main viewing area, the most awe-inspiring spectacle occurred without an audience. For as beautiful and as “put-together” as Bonin looks tonight, a couple of hours ago she was rocking an old pair of shorts and a T-shirt that looked like Sherwin-Williams sneezed all over it. Ever since Bonin bought this fixer-upper shotgun duplex, she’s slaved alone inside its walls for weeks, holding out hope she’d finish in time for tonight. 
“My friends looked at the state of this place and seriously wondered if I’d have this place up and running in time,” Bonin says. “Hey, I wondered too. I didn’t know. So I told them, if you see balloons tied out front, then we’re open.”

Before we begin trumpeting the work of Bonin, whose pieces caused one critic to gush poetic about “the infused magic of the impressionist’s eye” and how she makes “paint sing,” it’d be a disservice to skip past her diversity – skilled enough to be exhibited in fine art museums, refined enough to speak of her craft with those the art public reveres and down-to-earth enough to put in the sweat necessary to get her gallery ready for guests. Heck, she conducted this entire interview without a flinch, just minutes after dropping a hammer on her toe.

“Really, really hurts, too,” Bonin half-jokes.

For the many accolades and honors attached to her art résumé, Bonin maintains the work ethic that comes from being reared the daughter of a butcher shop owner.  

“My father always appreciated beauty and he was very verbal about it – most men aren’t,” Bonin says. “He’d bring home a flower he picked. That’s how he was. You can ask anyone who knew him. But he wasn’t into high society. That wasn’t his world.

“(My parents) weren’t quite sure what to do with me, because I wanted to be a ballerina and I wanted to be a painter,” Bonin continues. “Mom and Dad were artisans in their own right and made fantastic boudin, but they had no earthly idea how one becomes a painter.”

Luckily, as a 10th grader, Bonin was adopted as a sort of apprentice by writer James Edmunds, who back then was a staple on the New York City contemporary art scene. Shortly after meeting Edmunds, the then-16-year-old Bonin attended UL and studied art under the tutelage of Elemore Morgan Jr. After school, she traveled to France for a period of two years where she found her artistic personality – venturing away from the 12-foot abstract pieces that consumed her in college and toward more traditional landscapes.

“When I stepped off the plane and heard the language, I felt like I was home – more home than I felt at home,” Bonin says. “Everything just came together, and I learned the first rule of good painting: Paint what you know.

“I did the opposite of most artists,” Bonin continues. “Most paint a bowl of fruit in the classic style. I never did that. I just painted abstractly intuitively. So when I went to France I spent a lot of time in the museums and started to appreciate the Old Masters. My palette changed. My application changed. It’s more refined. I had a different set of goals and criteria for my work.”

Adopting a soon-to-be signature “wet on wet” painting style (a technique where Bonin works on another layer even though the previous layer is not dry), Bonin began capturing the essence of the Louisiana landscape while continuing to allow her craft to evolve.

In her “Finding Source” series, Bonin incorporated methods used in aboriginal paintings – minimizing her brush strokes as those who would have composed cave paintings. Bonin describes these pieces as “songlike, with minimal notes, ceremonial and sacred.” Years later, in her third “Moss” series, titled “Glistening,” Bonin studied the tendencies of reflected light in crystals and water and showcased this technique (which subtly hints back toward her abstract college work) in various bayou scenes.  

“A lot of painters just start painting abstractly. They just throw things on the canvas and color here or there,” Bonin says. “But for me, I need to have the source. I need to know the source, everything about it.”