Lafayette painter Melissa Bonin paints landscapes, she says, "that permit me to sit on the edge of abstraction and reality." The painter's interest in abstraction began with her studies at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
Lafayette painter Melissa Bonin, born November 4, 1960, in New Iberia, is inspired not by what she sees but by what she feels as she explores and paints the South Louisiana landscape. “When I go out on the water something happens to me,” she once said during a magazine interview. “I feel an electricity, an energy.” Her paintings evoke a spirituality one often finds when a strong emotional relationship exists between the landscape and the artist. Reflecting upon that spirituality, Bonin does not consciously try to create that effect but acknowledges it is there.
“Landscapes,” she says, “permit me to sit on the edge of abstraction and reality. You can manipulate colors in a way that produces a feeling of the landscape without copying everything realistically.” Her interest in abstraction began as an art student at the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette), where she studied under William Moreland, Herman Mhire, Tom Secrest, and the well-known south Louisiana plein air landscaper painter Elemore Morgan Jr. In 1981, she received a bachelor of fine arts in painting and then went on to study art and French at Angers, Paris, and the south of France. Upon return to the U.S., she continued her art education Bennington College in Vermont and the Massachusetts School of Fine Art in Boston.
Unlike many painters, Bonin does not work from photographs or do preliminary drawings or studies to be refined back in the studio. She walks up to the canvas with a concept in mind and paints. Her work is spontaneous and emerges from her imagination. “I have no conscious awareness of the subject. I absorb things and they come out in my paintings later. They’re totally unconscious. I have an idea of the time of day I want to create or a palette or a geometric shape in mind, but that’s it. I don’t want a photographic image. I want it to be from some other place.”
At first glance, Bonin’s paintings call to mind the work of Alexander Drysdale (1870–1934), the prolific New Orleans painter once scoffed but now critically acclaimed for his impressionistic and dreamy paintings of live oaks and bayou scenes. Bonin recognizes the similarities but says she was painting her Bayou Teche images long before she had seen Drysdale’s work because she was drawn to South Louisiana’s humid and hazy light, which creates wonderful colors and often obscures details. It is an impressionist landscape that has inspired artists for generations.
Bonin credits other artists and the influences they have had on her work. They include Elemore Morgan Jr. “for his plein air approach to the exterior Louisiana landscape”; William Moreland “for his contemplative, spiritual approach to the interior or psychological human landscape”; Rembrandt “for his ability to make things shimmer and glow”; Titian “for his passion and movement and color”; J.M.W. Turner “for his minimalist color and atmospheric qualities”; James MacNeill Whistler “for his oriental appreciation and his subtle quiet surfaces which are minimal but loaded with information and detail”; Mark Rothko and Georgia O’Keefe “for color and simplicity”; Jean-Antoine Watteau “for mood”; and John Singer Sargent “for draftsmanship and efficiency of line.”
In 1999, the city of New Iberia, Louisiana, commissioned Bonin to paint a mural depicting life in the region. Her finished work is a 48-foot mural titled Ce que le Teche m’a donne (What the Teche gave me). In 2010 the FOX television network featured her work in the television series The Gates, and in 2009, she received the Bunk Johnson Award for Visual Arts. Between 2007 and 2011, she was the recipient of an Atchafalaya Basin Foundation grant, and in 2006, Bonin’s paintings appeared in “From the Art of New York,” an exhibition sponsored by New York 1 News, The Bank of New York, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and The World Financial Center Arts and Events Program. Her work has been displayed alongside well-known names in the contemporary art world, including James Rosenquist, Christo, Robert Rauschenberg, Yoko Ono, and George Rodrigue. Her list of honors, including a 2004 Kennedy Center grant for Artists as Teachers, is extensive.
Bonin’s paintings are included in numerous private, corporate, and public collections, such as the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans; the collection of actor Christian LeBlanc of the television drama The Young and the Restless; the Hilton Riverside Hotel in New Orleans; Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center in Lafayette; the Louisiana Governor’s Mansion Foundation Collection; the Exxon Mobil Corporation in New Orleans; the Knoxville Museum of Art in Tennessee; and the Bayou Teche Museum in New Iberia.