best local artist

Melissa Graves Brown works in her Hailey studio, which is adorned with paintings from both her "Aspens" and "Dreaming Trees" series.
Photo by Roland Lane

For best artist,
a passion for trees

Melissa Graves Brown is a Wood River Valley favorite.
Freddie Harris

Artist Melissa Graves Brown's "Dreaming Trees" assault their audience with color in a paradox of melancholy solitude and an ethereal promise of an everlasting life cycle. The "Dreaming Trees" offer a new subject for valley honoree, Graves Brown, who has been voted Best of the Valley on several occasions.

"This valley is exceptional and the support I've received is spectacular," Graves Brown said in her Hailey studio. "This is such a ridiculously creative valley. It's amazing."

The artist's "Dreaming Trees" series exhibits a depth and layers of color that transform the trees into something other-worldly. The project reflects a lifelong endeavor for Graves Brown.

"People ask me how long it takes me to paint a canvas like this," she said of one of her works. "I tell them it's taken me all my life to paint this painting. I've dreamt of this day all my life. I've gone many places before I could envision it."

Graves Brown's trees reflect her longtime preoccupation with color theory. As a master's student in fine arts at the University of Pennsylvania, Graves Brown was—and still is—hugely influenced by the German-born American painter Wolf Khan. Khan's canvases present tree-covered landscapes that evoke the American Northeast, re-realized in shock upon shock of bright color. Khan's work—and one can see this in Graves Brown's too—is shaped by "color field" painting, a style that emerged from the American Abstract expressionist movement of the 1950s. Mark Rothko is a principal figure in this movement.

The "Dreaming Trees" series portrays a solitary and thick-trunked tree whose leaves appear to be falling, but are caught in a gust of magical wind. Consequently, the leaves swirl around the tree in billowing movements of reds, golds and yellows.

The "Dreaming Trees" represent a departure from Graves Brown's "Aspens"—a subject that dominated her work for several years. In essence, she has morphed from focusing a notion of the collective to one of isolation.

"We come into the world alone and we leave alone," she said.

While this might be a rather melancholy feeling to underscore her subject matter, Graves Brown insists that the "Dreaming Trees" remind her that we have limited time on this earth to create.

"We must be inspiring during our lives," she said.

One thing that inspires Graves Brown is color.

"When I moved to the valley 15 years ago," she said of her first encounter with Idaho's fall colors, "the leaves lifted off the tree and swirled above me in this Idaho blue sky." She grins. "I was in rapture and am still wrapped up in that moment. I have tried to capture that moment since."

Graves Brown's wistful trees certainly evoke romantic notions of something much larger and more beautiful than we experience in human lifetimes.
Perhaps this accounts for her enthusiastic following in health care. Since signing on with a publisher, seven out of 10 of her sales are from the health-care industry. Indeed, many of Graves Brown's prints hang on hospital walls, while patients receive treatment or sit in waiting rooms.

"When I sat with my mom in the hospital when she had cancer, we had nothing to look at," she said.

It is those moments with her mother that continue to inspire Graves Brown's trees.

"Artwork can completely change an environment to heal in," she said. "For hospitals to invest in artwork is tremendously important to patients' healing processes. My trees give them something to look at and daydream."

Graves Brown's trees promise a spiritual and creative life reborn.

"We all wish we could come and go," she said. "If we could all revisit life again and again, we could be better at it in a new and improved version of ourselves."

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