“I’m a poster girl for inappropriate art,” says Melissa Ryan.
The petite 31-year-old Halifax artist is sitting in her north end apartment/studio, with her brown wavy hair in pigtails, surrounded by the odds and bobs of different projects she’s working on.
Here are small canvases with splashy pop-art paintings piled up on a shelf above her desk. In the window dangles a colourful angel mobile she made—it looks frozen in mid-flight. From under the right-hand corner of her desk, she pulls out the piece of art she’s most proud of, a large piece of fabric with cutout dolls, like you would find on the back of a kids’ cereal box, with a front and a back panel for each character, and tabs on the side to connect them. Ryan’s cutouts are meant to be sewn together, filled with stuffing and played with. Only this cutout is of a bag lady, complete with a shopping cart, a radio, mitts, a purse and, of course, a cat. “I like to explore the line of appropriateness,” Ryan says.
On the floor beneath the window sill is a framed black-and-white chalk drawing of a defiant, headstrong little girl, dressed in striped tights, a skirt and wiry pigtails that have smoke coming out of them. She’s holding a big round cartoon version of a bomb and staring at the viewer as if making a dare.
Meet Bombgurl, the title character of one of Ryan’s latest creations—a children’s book, of all things—about a little girl born of soot and ashes. “Sulphur from China,” says Ryan. “I think the inside of her is yellow.” While the book is for children, it’s still written by Melissa Ryan, and carries her sense of humour. “I like things that make me laugh, and it’s an evil snicker,” she teases.
The story focuses on the little girl with sparks in her hair and a toy duck named Luck, her only friend (the other kids in school want nothing to do with her). Then Luck goes missing, and in her search for her toy, Bombgurl turns up some happy surprises. It’s the classic tale of the outsider struggling to find her place in the world.
The artwork, however, is quite adult, quite
Drawn with conte chalk in greys and blacks, the world Ryan creates for Bombgurl and Luck is leafless; the sky is ominous and ravens are plentiful. Red is used for accent, or blended in to add atmosphere, but the work can’t be called colourful. Ryan works on canvas and blends the chalk, coaxing the weave to show itself.
The result is textured, smokey and ambient. Comparisons to Burton’s work seem inevitable, but Ryan doesn’t cite him as an influence. Rather, she says he opened up the playing field for others with a similar sensibility.
“It’s awesome Tim Burton’s around. He’s allowed people to gaze at dark images and have love for them.” But for Ryan, Bombgurl is more like Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. “I wrote it to be a children’s book. I know the images are appropriate to adults, I know they’re dark images, but the text is totally childlike.”
There is no release date for Bombgurl—Ryan has yet to approach a publisher. For now, she continues to edit the text and finish the few remaining panels, while selling prints of other Bombgurl panels at her regular stands at the Farmers’ Market and “on the fence” at the corner of South Park and Spring Garden. She has no idea when the book will hit the streets, but she’s sure of one thing: When it does, Bombgurl will have her own cutout doll.