Visual Arts Series kicks off with unique exhibit from CSB/SJU art professor

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September 4, 2020

By Mike Killeen


Rachel Melis and her two daughters.

Rachel Melis has been involved in plenty of art exhibits. But her latest was originally cut short due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control.

The associate professor of art at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University got just a one-day run for her exhibit “Fruitful and Fretful: Forty Weeks in Watercolor.”

The display opened in March, and was canceled after 24 hours due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But there’s good news for art lovers on the two campuses. Melis’ exhibit is currently on display again in the Benedict and Dorothy Gorecki Gallery in the Benedicta Arts Center at CSB. The display runs through Sept. 26, and is part of the Visual Arts Series at CSB and SJU sponsored by Fine Arts Programming.

It is open to students, faculty and staff only due to COVID-19. Guests will be expected to comply with campus-wide policies to reduce the transmission of COVID-19, including wearing masks and ensuring social distancing. The gallery also has a 12-person occupancy limit at any one time.

Melis will hold a virtual artist talk at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 10 via YouTube.

Of course, the exhibit should have been over in the spring. Fortunately for Melis, it stayed up on the walls of the Gorecki Gallery behind locked gates.

“Initially, Rachel and I spoke of the seasonal connection of her opening last spring as being good timing. It was not (because of COVID-19),” said CSB/SJU Art Gallery Manager Jill Dubbeldee Kuhn. “However, the fenced in and protected exhibition can now share its bounty of color and exquisite detail with a perfect fall due date. After all, the last vegetable in the show is a pumpkin.”

“I got to walk by and kind of peer through,” Melis said, laughing. “It has been very nice to still be recognized after the show was boarded up for so long.”

It’s a unique exhibit worth peering into.

While pregnant with her second child, Melis sought ways to visualize the changes happening inside her body. Melis began a series of paintings inspired by common fruits and vegetables she had seen used as metaphors for the stages of fetal development.

“I did 37 paintings,” Melis said. “They range from a poppy seed for the fourth week, which is the first week you can maybe know you’re pregnant, and then the last one is the pumpkin at week 40.

“If you could see a picture of the gallery, you’d see there’s a very gradual increase across all 37 paintings, where each one either gets broader or taller or both,” Melis added. “It’s very subtle, because there are 37 tiny little increments.”

Melis was asked why she decided to do this.

“I knew I wanted to do art work about the experiences I was going through, being pregnant and being a mother,” Melis said. “I also wanted to do something I could do at home while parenting.”

That was important, because most of her work as a book artist and a letterpress print-maker had to be done in her campus studio, she said.

But there was a historical aspect as well.

“As a child, my parents grew an incredible organic garden,” Melis said. “It was more than a garden, it was the way they sustained us. They are self-employed artists, and they wanted to raise their own food and not have to buy it. So, I was surrounded by that all the time.

“As soon as I encountered fruits and vegetables as metaphors for pregnancy, I just thought I’d like to actually paint them, too,” Melis said.

Using gouache watercolors (more opaque than watercolors, allowing the paint to sit on the paper more and layer easily), she would literally measure each object with a ruler to make sure she matched the scale.

“I also was trying to find ones that looked like they had stretch marks, or belly buttons - not necessarily looking like a baby, but just kind of anthropomorphic,” Melis said.

Melis, who will teach a biological illustration course for the first time during spring semester 2021, said she hopes viewers come away from her show feeling more connected to nature and appreciative of pregnancy.

“I hope that it makes the experience more accessible to everybody,” Melis said. “I don’t want to speak for anyone else about what their pregnancy experience was, but just make everyone more empathic to the variations and challenges of pregnancy.

“I really hope our students get a better understanding of how you can be an artist and a mother. I think filling up the gallery with these paintings helped me see that I could do both,” Melis said. “I’m very grateful for how I’ve been able to have my art career, my teaching career and have children, and I want my students to know that while you may not be on top of your game on all those things all at once, you can combine your life and art.”

Gorecki Gallery hours are from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Wednesday (all-day FAEs are available; the gallery reserves the right to adjust hours and the number of FAE Wednesdays based upon staffing availability). The gallery is closed Sunday and Monday. More information on the Visual Arts Series is available here.