“You’re going to have to find a job, or get married,” he said in a firm, but kind voice.
That was her father’s advice upon learning she wanted to major in art at Ole Miss.
Yes, admits artist Melanie Dame Withrow, life is not easy for an artist. She’s wrestled with that desire to create art her whole life.
Art can be an addiction. Art supplies are expensive, but the pull of the desire to create is like nothing else.
How did she get here? She often asks herself the same question.
“I wasn’t born with a silver paintbrush in my hand. That’s for sure,” said Withrow. “And I wasn’t reared with fine art all around me. But I was born of a mother who was a very modest, but talented artist.”
It has always been difficult to separate her life from her mother’s life. That’s because her life has mirrored her mother’s in so many ways.
“Mother was adopted from a St. Louis orphanage called Saint Ann’s. She was a curly-headed, precious little girl,” recalled Withrow, who tells the story with the skill of a writer.
“My grandfather, Manuel, and my grandmother, Lucille, chose my mother after having tragically had stillborn twin girls,” she said, with a bit of a Sikeston drawl.
To add to the drama of the story, Withrow explained that her mother, Janet Ann, became a Campbell, largely because the orphanage was under quarantine at the time due to an illness that was sweeping its way through the institution. Her mother was the only child who wasn’t ill.
“So they dressed her up and paraded her before Manuel and Lucy, and they were instantly smitten with her,” smiled Withrow. “They had been determined to adopt a baby boy. But all of that went out the window when they met my mother.”
So Janet Ann was finally home at the age of two. She had a lovely sister, named Mary Rose, who was born just after Janet’s adoption. Janet’s middle name was taken from the name of the orphanage from which she had come, St. Ann’s.
The family’s story grew even more interesting when Janet Ann became a mother herself, ironically having twin daughters: Melanie and Melinda.
Melanie says she and Melinda continue to be inseparable. After all, they were only 12 minutes apart in birth.
It came as a shock when she went away to college at Ole Miss, suddenly separated from her family, especially her dear twin sister. She bravely set about charting her own course in life, which at the time included going to school on a cheerleading scholarship.
She wasn’t even sure what she wanted to pursue as a major.
“It was tough learning to balance everything…academics, cheerleading, sorority life…on and on,” recalls Withrow.
She said the one thing that seemed to give her peace was art. While everything else seemed to be pulling her in different directions, art was her solace.
But the announcement of art as a major was not met with loads of support from her father. He felt it was a highly impractical choice.
“But all I wanted to do was paint…and paint…and paint,” said Withrow, her eyes lighting up. “I loved drawing and sculpting, also, but I would always come back to painting.”
Luckily, she notes, her mother was more supportive.
“At least she remained neutral about it. She didn’t really actively encourage or discourage the art,” said Withrow.
So…that was enough to get her to declare her major as Fine Arts. Her mother gave her the ultimate seal of approval when she presented Melanie with a gift…a Picasso work entitled, “Poor Robbie”
But, like most college students transitioning into life, life came calling, complicating her world.
She met a farmer, just like her mother had. She ended up back in Sikeston, just as her mother had.
Just like her mother, she got pregnant while on her honeymoon.
“So now there I was, back in Sikeston, pregnant, and all I wanted to do was paint, just like my mother had before me,” said Withrow.
At some point it started dawning on Withrow that she was living more her mother’s life than her own.
“I had my first daughter, then got pregnant with my second, and I finished up my bachelor’s degree at SEMO University, while coaching their cheerleaders and Sundancers,” said the artist.
“I felt like I was struggling just to keep everything together. I don’t know how I did it,” said Withrow.
Living on the outskirts of Sikeston, she had her first daughter. Then came along baby girls two and three, again mirroring her mother’s life.
“I was trying really hard to do everything the right way,” she recalls. “But somehow it just wasn’t feeling right to me.”
After eleven and a half years of marriage, the marriage ended.
As all women who go through these turbulent years know, it was not easy to get her old self back.
“I didn’t even pick up a pencil or a brush again until I met this wonderful man,” explained Withrow. “But Jason was busy working, and I was burning out as a lobbyist. I just wanted to put it all aside and draw.”
But, the talent didn’t all come back immediately.
“I was so rusty in my skills that I didn’t even want anyone to see my work,” she laughed.
She got up the courage to show her mother one of her sketches, and her mother was elated.
“Oh, what a joy to see you drawing again. This makes me so happy,” her mother told her.
“But Mom was also very honest, and said I needed a lot of practice,” related Withrow.
So…practice she did.
“I painted everyone in my family!” she laughed, adding that sometimes the results were quite ghastly.
Then, she started drawing iconic figures, like Ava Gardner, Audrey Hepburn, and Sophia Loren.
These seemed to strike a chord with people, and suddenly her work became more in demand.
And that led back into doing commissioned portraits.
“I’ll never forget the first time someone asked me how much I would charge to draw a portrait of them,” she laughed. “I didn’t know what to say!”
It was her mother who dubbed her “Melangelo”…a combination of Melanie and Michelangelo.
“Yeah…no pressure there,” she smiled.
Though the art business continues to pick up for her, Withrow admits there is a reason artists are referred to as “starving”.
“All of the supplies are so expensive, and you have to really believe in yourself to continue investing in it,” said Withrow. “I feel like I’m always living on the edge of being poor!”
But, her love of art has also given her greater faith.
“I’ve learned that some things, you just have to leave to God, and he always provides,” confided Withrow.
The Sikeston native now shows her work at several St. Louis area galleries, but she sells a lot of it simply by word of mouth.
She realizes now that she is a different person than her mother, and her twin sister, but she values all that they have given her in establishing her own identity.
“I thank my mother for passing down to me her eye for drawing, and her passion for the arts. I also thank her for teaching me to be brave when criticized,” she said. “Listen…and learn…but don’t let criticism diminish you.”
Now she finds that life, once again, is coming full circle.
“At the age of 15, I realized my third angel is truly talented. She has an eye for the art world, and I’d say she has already surpassed me in ability. And I try to do the same as my mother did for me. I neither encourage nor discourage. But I have to say, she is very good. Very good, indeed,” concluded Withrow. “Now she is my Ann, and I am so proud of her.”
Human Eye by Amelia Moore, Melanie’s daughter
Melanie’s work can be viewed at The Diamond Shoppe, owned by Jeff Politte, and by going to www.Facebook.com/MelanieDameWithrow.