Sometimes when you're fairly well-known, especially for a particular style or product, it's tempting to stick with that style, especially if it's what pays the bills. Not so for Melissa Cole, who is both a tremendously successful artist and an adventurer on many levels.
"I'm drawn to things like enamel and raku [pottery] and encaustics because you never know the outcome," says the Spokane-based artist, who has been experimenting with all three techniques in her Millwood-area studio.
Studios. Plural. Cole has a small area mostly dedicated to painting in the house she shares with her husband, Brandon Cole, an underwater photographer. The house is saturated with artwork — hers, her mother's, pieces she's been given or collected, including Ric Gendron's, with whom she collaborated for a 2017 exhibition at the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture. Many mementos are from travels to far-flung places, including dive trips with Brandon that inform so many of her paintings about creatures in, on and around water.
Her other art space is a 20-by-30-foot shop, with kilns for heating enamel — fusing colored glass powder to metal — and pottery, and an area for heating and manipulating the colored wax involved in encaustic.
Cole stores a literal ton of material for her murals and mosaic work, which includes numerous public commissions. Riverdance, the 22-by-24-foot mural of swirling salmon and cavorting wildlife, hangs inside Spokane Convention Center.
Cole runs her hand over a particularly luminous piece of glass.
"It's like candy," says Cole, who was recently chosen to create art for the Ermina Skyway, also known as the Carlisle-to-Mission section of Highway 395.
The sparkly glass, bright colors, and richly patterned surfaces — they're all highly identifiable for Cole, as is her penchant for depicting animals. Yet the artwork that covers the goldenrod walls of her shop and her website explore a range of other subject matter and techniques.
Art was a constant for Cole growing up and living in Spokane offered her opportunities to explore in earnest. While hanging out at 4 Seasons café and working her way through Julia Cameron's guidebook, The Artist's Way, Cole made watercolors, which she hung up in the store, created signage for the company, and designed their labels. It got her thinking.
"It was sort of a light bulb that art could be a career," says Cole, whose eclectic background includes a childhood in London, Hong Kong and India, a zoology degree from Oregon State University and time in the Peace Corps.
In some ways, she's returned to her science-oriented roots with works from her Cellular series, resembling both cellular organisms and marine plankton. In other ways, she's breaking new ground, trying new processes like encaustic, but also creating some of the most personal work she's ever shared.
Although she's still influenced by the more folkloric and typically patterned ceramics, batik, sculpture and mosaic from her travels, Cole finds herself increasingly drawn to both more primitive and more contemporary work, fewer brighter colors, and less overt patterning (she makes a point to experience as much art as possible when she's traveling).
"It definitely feels like an evolution," says Cole of her emerging aesthetic.
That's evident in the series Broken, recently at Kolva-Sullivan Gallery, which deals with an injury Cole incurred while diving. A black-and-white striped figure with its spine exposed smiles through the pain. In a two-panel painting connected by a spinal-like cylinder, she incorporated the (numerous) billing documents from her ordeal.
It's not that she won't continue to make the work for which she's better known, she says. Rather, she made a decision a few years ago that she was going to pursue more and different techniques, ideas and content.
"Now I realize there's no fear in just doing whatever I want to do."