Heart of Gold | Oil on Panel | 20 x 24 inches


It was a revelation when Krystii Melaine realized she could step outside the box of Western American art, her realm for three decades. Or, more accurately, “My brain exploded,” Melaine says, laughing. Not that her paintings of wildlife, cowboys, and Native American subjects — internationally collected and highly acclaimed — were ever constrained to pure realism. From the start, the Australian-born artist has reached beyond simple visual portrayals, aiming instead to express her subjects’ feelings and experiences.

Still, Melaine’s active imagination, especially what she calls her nighttime brain, had been busy gathering visual ideas for some time, even vividly dreaming entire paintings as she slept.

Moose Crossing | Oil, Wax, and Alkyd on Linen Panel | 36 x 36 inchesideas

Then, Chris Sanders, owner of Sanders Galleries in Tucson, Arizona, asked her a simple question: “Is there anything in your heart you’ve always wanted to paint?” Sanders also promised to show whatever she painted, as large as she wanted. This permission, not without risk for both the artist and gallerist, opened the floodgates for a radically new direction in Melaine’s art. While she continues to enjoy creating the kinds of paintings for which she is known, the gamble paid off, providing creative satisfaction and immediate collector interest.

Melaine refers to this new and deeply personal series as her angels. They are large-scale images of female figures who exude human compassion yet also have an ethereal, otherworldly quality. Each painting takes many months to complete. They are intensely challenging, calling on decades of knowledge and experience in painting the human figure. Each painting is produced entirely from Melaine’s rich imagination without using models or reference photographs. “I’ve always been telling stories about other people’s lives, but this work is about my life and how I view the world,” Melaine says.

Oil and Gold on Pastiglia Linen Panel | 70 x 48 inches

One such piece, Luna, emerged from a period of sleeplessness when her nighttime brain was especially active. Initially, the artist envisioned luna moths, which are nocturnal, encircling the figure’s head. But the moth’s coloring is plain, so the luna evolved into fantasy butterflies amid elaborate gold swirls reminiscent of Art Nouveau. Their bejeweled wings were inspired by enamelwork and Melaine’s experience creating beaded clothing and accessories she’d use as references for her paintings of Native Americans. Luna’s dress, which echoes the filigree curves around her head, draws on the artist’s background in creating bridal gowns.

Sanders notes that with all the angel paintings, the eyes stare directly at the viewer, something art students are taught to avoid. “Krystii is breaking all the rules, and these paintings are absolutely, positively haunting,” he says. Sanders adds that when she decided to do them, Melaine confessed to being terrified. His reply: “I’m thrilled that you’re terrified!” He knew it meant she was ready to break new ground with her art.

Peacock Perfection
               Oil on Linen Panel | 48 x 48 inches

Diving into ventures that demand new skills and a strong focus is something Melaine has done all her life. Growing up in Australia, she was a quiet, observant child, talented in drawing and painting but funneled into commercial art by a high school career counselor. Not resonating with that path, at 18 she began a fashion design business with her mother. Before long, her creations were sold throughout Australia and New Zealand. But fine art kept calling her, so Melaine left couture and spent five years in traditional atelier study in Melbourne. During visits to the U.S. beginning in 1998, she found the painting subjects that spoke to her most deeply: wildlife, cowboys, and Native Americans — themes that echoed her longtime fascination with the history and wide-open spaces of the American West.

For 10 years, Melaine returned to the U.S. as often as possible, soon gaining collectors, museum and gallery shows, and awards. In 2010, she and her husband relocated to Spokane, Washington, to be closer to the material she loves to paint. After 14 years in Spokane, the couple recently moved to Cody, Wyoming, where they purchased 35 acres and are building a home just an hour from Yellowstone. They have already given their neighbors permission to graze horses and mules on their land, allowing the artist to spend time observing and photographing them. She is designing her dream studio, with tall ceilings, generous windows, abundant storage, and easy access for large paintings — all qualities missing from her basement studio in Spokane. There, she had lovely views of a river valley and accompanying wildlife; in Wyoming, her studio will look out to mountains and vast skies.

Spirit Horse
                   Oil on Linen Panel | 48 x 48 inches

Every life experience impacts Melaine’s art. Different light, new vistas, any transition becomes integrated into her psyche, although she doesn’t try to guess how it will translate on the canvas. One direction in recent years has been an increased interest in abstraction. Her portraits and wildlife images are realistically rendered but placed on abstract backgrounds. One such painting, Spirit Horse, features a white horse blending into a white background, with subtle rainbow colors in the horse’s mane and shadows.

Newer wildlife pieces have taken her exploration of this style even further. In Moose Crossing, straight and curving lines fill the background and blend into the moose’s antlers and fur. For Melaine, the patterns are more than color and shape. They suggest the animal’s perception of its environment, with lines and circles representing tracks and paths through woods and meadows to marshes, ponds, and lakes. The artist imagines this as a kind of blueprint of what’s in the animal’s mind. Rather than paint the actual landscape, she envisioned it in abstract form.

Going Forward
          Oil, Wax, and Alkyd on Linen Panel | 32 x 64 inches

Similarly, with portraits of Native Americans and other Western figures, Melaine aspires to convey a sense of the subject’s viewpoint and world. Toward this end, she taught herself to make Native American-style beadwork and clothing. With the assistance of museum curators, she examined and photographed artifacts to discern how they were produced. She sourced 19th-century beads and drew on her garment-making skills, sitting on the floor, cutting hide, and sewing by hand to emulate as much as possible the experience of traditional craftsmanship.

She also participated in a several-day immersive cultural experience in Montana with other artists and Native American models who wore traditional clothing, spoke their languages, and simulated their ancestors’ lives as much as possible. Meanwhile, the artists observed and photographed individuals and scenes. As a bonus, Melaine says, they developed warm friendships with the young models and their families. With cowboys, she often follows along as they perform their ranching tasks, not sketching but simply absorbing their world and building understanding that adds authenticity to her work.

Omahkapi’si Timber-Wolf Blackfoot
           Oil on Linen Panel | 40 x 30 inches

Melaine is aware that adding the angels to her long-recognized body of work may surprise many viewers and collectors. But for her, “It’s a logical progression. I’m trying to take my art into a more thoughtful, emotional perspective,” she says, incorporating not only Western life but also her dreams, nighttime visions, and imagination in meaningful ways. She wants viewers to perceive the angels as real “but also benign, like a guardian angel looking down on you. I want them to be comforting,” she says.

This fall, August 28 through 30, Melaine will lead an oil painting workshop, “Learning to See Accurately and Paint Creatively,” at the Booth Art Academy in Cartersville, Georgia. And one upcoming experience is bound to impact the artist in ways she can’t predict. As a result of having been selected as the Artist of Distinction during the 2023 Quest for the West Art Show & Sale at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis, Indiana, Melaine will have a retrospective solo exhibition at the museum. The show runs concurrently with Quest for the West from September 6 through October 13. (She will also participate in Quest.)

Oil and Gold on Pastiglia on Birch Panel | 60 x 60 inches

The Artist of Distinction award is given every two years and is based on “artistic stature, recognizing an illustrious career and contributions to the field,” says Johanna Blume, the Eiteljorg’s curator of Western art history and culture. Melaine is the first female artist to have received the award.

“Krystii is an exceptional painter,” Blume says. “She’s had such an interesting career, with so many fascinating twists and turns in styles and subject matter.”

The artist herself is looking forward to seeing 30 years of her work in one room, an experience she has never had since her paintings are constantly going out in countless directions. “To be able to walk in and see my whole life in front of me, I don’t know how that will affect me,” she says. She knows it will eventually be reflected on the canvas, perhaps as another bold direction waiting to emerge. “I feel like I’m a bit of a trailblazer,” she says. “We don’t have to stay in the same box the whole of our career. We can break out and do something different.”

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