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Melissa Bonin

Jun 29, 2016 02:20PM ● By Marisa Olson
By: Marisa Olson

The spirits of shady oaks, Spanish moss, and the sleepy, meandering Bayou Teche, spread over the hauntingly beautiful town of New Iberia, imbuing it with a palpable, calm dreaminess. Local landscape and portraiture artist, Melissa Bonin, like so many artists and writers from the area, recognizes she was spiritually and artistically influenced by her natural surroundings.

Mrs. Cathy Indest, President of Iberia Cultural Resources Association, an Organization Member of the Iberia Preservation Alliance, and Board Member of the Bayou Teche Museum, lauded Bonin’s achievement and contribution to the community:

"Melissa Bonin, an extraordinary artist, is a perfect example of New Iberia's wellspring of creativity, marking this community as a center for art, culture, history, literature, music, preservation, and theatre. New Iberia could not be prouder of Ms. Bonin, her native daughter, and all that she has accomplished in the world of art." 

Indest’s family, renowned arts philanthropists, and themselves, native New Iberians, share with Bonin and other famous, local artists a deep connection to their community, the land on which it was founded, and its breathtaking beauty.

During periods of trial or crisis, Bonin has drawn restoration and solace from the Bayou Teche, which laps at the edges of her backyard. The Teche is where her deep relationship with the Louisiana landscape began, and from its cradle, she has explored and expanded her deep connection to Acadiana. To maintain her connection to nature, Bonin used to paddle frequently down rivers and bayous, and at Lake Martin, although now prefers birding by the coast in Peveto Woods, or by the Cameron Jetties.

“I Know These Bayous By Heart”

As a young girl, Bonin was shaped by the natural surroundings and by the boundaries, which were defined in her home town of New Iberia. She grew up and played on one side of the bayou, but by age 10, she began visiting the other side where her school friends lived. The Teche was both a natural and magical transition point, bridging the two banks, each side representing distinct aspects of life: On one side was home and family, the other was “the outside” world of friends, school, and the dance studio where Bonin took ballet lessons.

“I know these bayous by heart . . . I have crossed them thousands of times. They are part of me. My bayous represent the union of those two banks. Holding the balance and moving forward with the flow of the river as the force beneath me. It is a beautiful image of life,” says Bonin. “Our sense of place defines who we are, shaping our character, our way of being. People from Louisiana are spiritually connected to the water, trees, land, and its creatures.”

After Katrina

Bonin’s earlier works portrayed clear focal points in the distance, but in works created after Hurricane Katrina, obstacles began emerging in the foreground of her paintings: vines, branches, and ripples that sealed off the earlier, open vistas. The perspective changed, forcing one to look up, and from side to side, to find the way. The perspective also looked more deeply into the water. In earlier, simpler times, Bonin explains, the path through life seemed clear and unambiguous, but there were “more things to consider as my experience grew. It became clear that ‘obstacles define our path,’ and that perspective exists from many directions.”

Formerly, Bonin painted a la prima, wet on wet, with none or few preliminary sketches, and constantly moving the wet paint until the painting is done. Now her works are more complex with new challenges that she sets up for herself. Her creations require more planning, more days to finish, sometimes weeks, sometimes years. She often erases and discards.

The Process

Before painting a large work, Bonin enters a state of “wonder,” and she “wanders,” quite literally: “I used to find myself at the fabric store instead of working in my studio, and would get angry with myself for wasting time until realizing this was an integral part of my process.” Even when present in the same room with others, she may seem detached, her thoughts somewhere else; but she is only absorbed and immersed on her next work.

Bonin paints mostly in silence, preferring to ruminate and listen to her thoughts, which, ironically, create a useful distraction: “If you focus too intently on what you are doing, you will get in your own way. I reflect on nothing in particular, just interior ramblings that allow me to paint instinctively, and do not choke up on the brush and try to control things. I guess it is a Zen thing,” she smiles.

She also derives inspiration from music. John Coltrane’s concept of Sheets of Sound resonated with her work and affected the way she applied paint. She also loves classical pieces, such as Pachelbel’s Canon and Handel’s Water Music.

Spirit Waters

Bonin’s works evoke reverie and possess a dream-like quality. Renderings of natural scenes pass through her mind’s eye where the subject’s physical, outer layer is gently lifted away, revealing its spiritual nature. Bonin does not present the viewer with scenes of water or trees, but the essences of water and trees, thus facilitating an authentic, powerful encounter between the viewer and the nature spirits that inhabit her paintings.

Bonin explains: “I strive to paint the essence of my subject, that one thing that -- if you removed it -- would no longer be what it is. I try to hone it down to the one thing. It could be a certain flicker of light shooting from the object, and that is all it might take to communicate that one thing.”

The waters of Bonin’s paintings assume shape, movement and depth through luminous color. Often, their surfaces are broken and disturbed -- or illuminated - by a flash or play of light, or veiled and obscured by lattices of cypress branches. Bonin’s spirit waters impart the illusion of flowing across the canvas, or that, even when waters rest still, a deeper rhythm undulates below. But whether the water’s surface is solemn and enigmatic in one work, or sparkling and serene in another, one senses always the lurking disquiet that belies the primordial beauty.

Bonin ascribes the influence of her subconscious as the creative impetus of her work. She has avidly recorded her dreams for decades, and dream images emerge through her work. Her psyche has transformed dear friends, fellow artists, and great masters into powerful muses with whom she (figuratively) interacts in dreams: “Sometimes, I will have a wonderful dream about an artist that I respect greatly, and then I know that the next day in the studio will bring a gem.”

Her Favorite Works

Bonin includes among her favorite works, Favorite Things from the Coltrane Series, and her self-portrait completed days after her son's birth, which inspired Bonin to dedicate her life to her art:  “My son’s birth made everything more important and urgent.”  

About the artist

Melissa Bonin is a major Acadian artist whose landscapes and portraiture have been featured in Southern Accents, Lagniappe, Southern Living, and Louisiana Life magazines and many more. Bonin draws from her native Louisiana landscape to produce original works that can be seen at her Magazine Street Gallery in New Orleans, and her Lafayette Satellite Gallery.

Bonin has studied and exhibited in both the United States and abroad. At sixteen, she attended the University of Southwestern Louisiana, studying art with Elemore Morgan, Jr., Herman Mhire, Tom Secrest, and William Moreland. Thereafter, she studied fine art in Europe, and upon returning to the United States, continued her fine art education at Bennington College and the Massachusetts School of Fine Art.

She currently lives and paints in Lafayette and travels back and forth between the two galleries. Among her many accomplishments, she received the Woman In Business Award 2015 and the Bunk Johnson Award. Works have appeared in Television Series, and also Live Performance of Zachary Richard's "Attakapas" and as a selected artist in the book of Louisiana Artists"A Unique Slant of Light, Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, John Kemp

In the world of art influences, Bonin acknowledges Whistler, Rembrandt, Sargent, O'Keefe, Monet, Joan Mitchell, and Freda Kahlo.

Among her personal influences, Bonin counts Iyanla Vanzant, with whom she has personally studied, and Opal Broussard, whom Bonin regards as a “positive, creative and life-affirming spirit from whom I draw daily inspiration.” Also, her dear friend Judy Rizzo, who has given tremendous, unwavering support from the beginning of her career to this day

Bonin has exhibited her paintings throughout the United States and abroad. Her work is on display in important private collections of Blake Lively, Emeril Lagasse, Roger Ogden, Christian LeBlanc, Ryan Reynolds, Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco and many more.