Melanie Spillman

My intentions as an artist are to create paintings that celebrate my southern heritage and Memphis’ finest natural attraction, the Mississippi River. This body of work features paintings created with mud from the Mississippi River. I was born in Memphis, TN and have spent the past three decades becoming well acquainted with the river’s fierce currents, stellar sunsets and thick dark brown mud that spans as far as the eye can see. I began working with Mississippi mud around October 2005 after having a picnic lunch on the riverbank. I merely looked down at the abundance of mud and thought that it would be interesting to try to wrestle it into submission by turning it into paint.

When people see my work they often ask questions like, “Why on earth do you use mud?” and, “Is it archival?” My answer is always the same. I use mud because through extensive research and education I have discovered that all artist grade paints are indeed created with earth pigments; in a sense, they are all made of mud. I decided that after years of working with man-made paints, I wanted to work with a medium that is more environmentally friendly. My answer to those who question the archival properties of my mud paintings is to ask them to consider the cave paintings of Lascaux. They too were created with mud and natural earth pigments and even after 30,000 years, they are still rich with vibrant color and graphic elements. For me this is scientific proof that water based earth pigment paints, when properly prepared and cared for, are more archival than oil paints. In short, it seems only logical for a painter to try using earth as a medium.

My process of working begins by gathering mud from the bank of the river and allowing it to dry completely. Once dry, it is sifted to remove impurities then it is ground into a fine powder and is then re-constituted with river water. I keep a master bucket of plain brown mud in my studio and often use it without adding additional color. When I do want to add some pigment, I mix the brown mud with natural earth pigments such as deep magenta poke-sallet berries or bright white artist grade powder pigment. I am able to transform the mud into any color I would like it to be. The subject matter in my work depicts southern floral motifs that are drawn from life as well as textbook illustrations. I paint directly upon a wooden substrate treated with a traditional white gesso base. The mud is applied in thin layers in a style similar to a watercolor application. Each thin layer is sealed with clear gesso to prevent chipping and to ensure a bond with the substrate. To create some of the linear elements in my work I also use traditional drawing media in conjunction with the mud such as charcoal, conte crayons, china markers and graphite.

Melanie Spillman received her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in 1997, and her Master of Fine Arts from the University of Memphis, Tennessee in 2003.