Melanie Pennington, Sculptor
Just give me one thing that I can hold on to. To believe in this living is just a hard way to go. –John Prine, “Angel from Montgomery”
Every artist is on a journey. Every artist is being called away from her path by a million different temptations and choices, many of which are meant to be there–meant to create longing or meant to be taken, in order to offer some additional scenic side trail to the quest. Some journeys are more direct than others–leading straight from Point A to Point B, and some are far more meandering and bewildering, leading through caves and over bridges and right to the edge of dizzying ravines before careening back around to safer territory. Some of the journeys don’t even make sense until they are finished–they seem too pocked with mixed up switchbacks, backtracks, and personal despairs. But like intricate, fading maps meant to provide directions, or the stories trees tell through their scars and rings once they have been cut down, the stories of the journeys are works of art themselves.
Melanie’s path has been a winding one, but it has been characterized by a strong sense of her own identity as both an artist and a child of God. There have been many artists in her family–designers, creators, and visionaries, including her aesthetically-minded mother and physicist father–and so it was not surprising that her gifts and interests would align with those.
At some point during high school, Melanie asked God to point her towards a particular medium. Though she had always loved to draw, she did not have a specific area of focus. She explains, “I was drawing all the time. Throughout childhood I was drawing Part of my story is that I prayed for a specific gift in art.” When I asked her more about this, she continued, “I was probably really frustrated with my high school art teacher, and I knew I was an artist, but I didn’t know how.”
After graduating from high school, Melanie took a year off to do YWAM missions, giving her the opportunity to travel and minister to others on one of YWAM’s Mercy Ships. During that year, “I drew, drew, drew.” But when YWAM’s discipleship training program stirred up many memories of friends and family suffering from death, illness, and abuse in Melanie’s past without providing her all the tools to complete the healing processes, she found herself angry and disillusioned with not only the organization but with Christians and God.
Melanie showed me a huge journal in which she took notes during her YWAM adventures. The careful, colorful notes she has taken on each large page are surrounded and interspersed with drawings. Some of the drawings are her own sketches of famous paintings or magazine clippings (“This is the kind of thing I would do all the time–I would find an image I liked and draw it.”) and some of the images are her own creations, some abstract, some with human figures, and some filled with words. It is these drawings that stand out, particularly in the emotions they express, the predominant one being anger. They are rough and harsh, both in language and line.
“After I went to YWAM, I couldn’t talk for three days. I felt like God left me like a baby in the rain in a war-torn country. That’s when I lost my faith.” It was in this state of anger and confusion that Melanie found herself beginning her university education at Wheaton College, viewed as a holy pinnacle of Evangelical Christian academics and missions by many. And not only was Melanie a Wheaton student, she was a fourth-generation Wheaton student. Coming from her recent experiences with YWAM and the furious questions they had stirred up about the goodness of God and people, Melanie became judgmental of her peers who seemed to go about blithely oblivious to their unawareness. “I looked down on everyone. I judged everyone even though I knew it wasn’t right. I knew it was wrong.”
Well, we’re drivin’ this car and the sun is comin’ up over the Rockies
Now I know she ain’t you but she’s here and she’s got that dark rhythm in her soul. –Bob Dylan, “Brownsville Girl”
Surprisingly or not so surprisingly, it was at this fragile point in her life that Melanie’s request was granted, and she discovered her passion, her art–sculpture. After trying to get into a general art creativity class and learning it was already full, one of the college art professors suggested Melanie try a sculpture class instead. On the first day of class, “I did a whole figure, and I was like, ‘this is it.’ So that’s what I did for the next four years.” Melanie had also been accepted into the competitive acting program at Wheaton, but once beginning her sculpting class, she decided to quit the acting in order to focus on sculpting: “I didn’t like being vocal in front of people. I liked to do my thing and then stand back and let them feel it.”
After Melanie’s first year at college, her roommate and very close friend, Hope, invited her to take a year off and go to Pakistan with her, but Melanie realized she shouldn’t leave at that point in time. “I told her, ‘I need to stay here and deal with my demons,’” namely the bitterness and judgment she felt towards God and many of the people around her. But before the school year could begin for Melanie and before Hope could leave for Asia, Hope passed away suddenly.
The tragedy could have been a new excuse for Melanie to revert to anger and self-destructive behavior, but she did not choose that route. Instead, she heard God tell her, “‘I am good, and I am here…’ I realized that year, ‘I have to grow up, I have to stop hurting myself.’… I finally knew I couldn’t be angry at Wheaton anymore.” In addition to finding peace with God again, Melanie also turned to art for solace. “Sculpting was my saving grace in college, because after Hope died, I was a total wreck for a year.”
And we’ll keep working on the problem we know we’ll never solve
of love’s uneven remainders, our lives are fractions of a whole.
But if the world could remain within a frame like a painting on a wall
then I think we would see the beauty–
then we would stand staring in awe at our still lives posed like a bowl of oranges,
like a story told by the fault lines and the soil. –Bright Eyes, “Bowl of Oranges”
After college, Melanie explains, “I thought I would get an MFA.” At her senior art show, one of Melanie’s respected professors recommended to her father that she should go to graduate school, which seemed to cement the deal in her mind. When she graduated, however, her brother was working for Joe Ritchie, a brilliant, successful, out-of-the-box-thinking entrepreneur who happened to be Hope’s father. “Joe was like, ‘we need to figure out a way to employ all these artistic people,'” and he took Melanie along for the ride.
Joe was in the process of designing new office spaces for his business endeavors, and he invited Melanie to do the interior decoration, in spite of her lack of experience in the arena. He wanted the touch of an artist versus the typical look created by corporate interior design. Joe had an architect “who wasn’t really entirely gelling with” the project. So Melanie decided, “I would go home and come up with a plan by myself. I knew all they were hoping for, so I drew up a number of plans.” Joe, a fan of Melanie’s blueprints and gutsy initiative, took her up on her architectural vision.
And though the opportunity was unprecedented, there were challenges. “I was a shy artist who wanted to be alone who then for two years had to go to big meetings with corporate people who wanted all this fancy stuff.” It was the “most stressful time in my life…” Melanie described feeling like, “I do not have a clue what I’m doing.” However, the job began another new path for Melanie. “Now I’ve been doing [interior design] for ten years, and Isabel [Allum] says I have a business mind.”
Melanie’s business and reputation have flourished, in spite of her lack of education in interior design—her abilities are based on her creative intuition and the experience she has now developed. In fact, the beautiful, unusual building she originally designed for Joe was recently sold for a ridiculous profit during this poor real estate market.
Reflecting on the beginning of her interior design work, she explains, “Part of the stress was, wait, I’m supposed to be in grad school; I’m a fine artist.” Melanie admits the career path, in spite of the prophetic words that have been spoken into it, “doesn’t move my soul the way sculpture does–sculpture makes me cry.” So in order to continue to fuel the sculptor inside of her, Melanie would travel to Loveland, Colorado, to attend seminars and workshops, including an inspiring one offered by Western sculptor John Coleman.
About six years ago Melanie had her first child, a son, followed two years later by a daughter. She had anticipated that being a mother would give her time to sculpt. She “didn’t realize you get tired and exhausted and angry and depressed.” (Yes, mothers feel negative emotions from time to time.) Additionally, Melanie was only able to sell a handful of pieces, each of which cost her thousands of dollars to have cast in bronze. So, with time, the financial cost to keep sculpting–combined with the challenge of finding hours and energy to balance sculpting with children and a job, not to mention the space and mess required to maintain some remnant of a sculpting studio in her home–led to a steady decrease in the amount of time she spent doing what she loved.
She humorously described herself as “angry Melanie gives up sculpture because I have children and am an interior designer.” So instead of continuing, she “pulled sculptures from the gallery downtown [where they had been on display] because I was embarrassed because I wasn’t sculpting. I went into shame about my sculpting.”
Lands I have never seen
And shall not see, loves I will not forget,
All I have missed, or slighted, or foregone
Call to me now. And weaken me. And yet
I would not walk a road without a scene. –Richard Wilbur, “The Sirens”
Which brings us to the last year or more and Melanie’s “latest transition.” She has been one of the people, along with Jay Fancher and Ruth Patzloff, who have been invited to work on their art publicly during worship periods at church. The prospect scared her at first. She wondered, “Oh, am I just gonna make crappy spiritual art?” But since one particular sculpture she created for a Pentecost Sunday service a few months ago, “I feel really different… Well, yeah I want my pieces to be about God, and yeah, I want them to be really beautiful.” But for her, sculpting is what she is meant to do, which is how she is meant to worship God: “It’s doing what I do, another form of worship for me.”
The experience of sculpting in church has coincided with a change in Melanie’s interest in and optimism about church and church experiences, including the supernatural. She actively and enthusiastically participates in classes and conferences that did not formerly appeal to her–she worships freely through movement during church services, shares in giving and receiving group prayer for healing and other miracles, and has even felt moved to sing spontaneous songs in front of others. The idea that spiritual “gifts are for everyone” has also been new for her, having spent years thinking that “only certain people get these things” and “the Holy Spirit is for weirdos.”
Melanie explains, “Sculpture is my resting place and that’s what I also want it to be for other people–for them to be meditative. Our bodies convey so much non-verbally. These sculptures are a non-verbal way of communicating.” She describes sometimes feeling like she is “just copying what someone [God] created before us, but it’s nice because you kind of hold it–hold a moment.”
Long term, Melanie does not see sculpture being confined to a Sunday morning activity. “I have dreams about it, for sure, but I don’t know when. I love sculpting in church… But I want to be great; I want to be Rodin. I think about what Dan McCollum said. ‘Take the little bit you have, and let God grow it.’ I always look at what I lack in my sculpture, but I want to just give my little bit, even though for now my little bits are just in church.”
In another way, Melanie explains that she feels her sculpting has gone from dark to light—still retaining its depth and touching her soul but without becoming cheesy or boring. It seems as though the mystery of the Holy Spirit has replaced the mystery of darkness in her art. “The Holy Spirit is art. I think the Holy Spirit accesses all of that in us, but in a pure way, not a flagellating way. I am so glad to be accessing that and for it to be deep and not dark. I was a worshiper of dark, because it seemed way more beautiful and interesting, but the Holy Spirit has become way more real.”
It is fascinating to see this transformation from dark to light in Melanie’s art for yourself, which she pointed out to me. “There is a lot in the pose. It’s one of those things I tried to work out. What I’ve noticed about my sculpture is how it’s changed–all my sculptures have been hunched over–in the fetal position, dark, downcast, comforting, secret, hidden. For me to do the opposite of hunched over and actually feel it is a powerful piece is absolutely crazy.”
Melanie points to a newer piece she did for church to illustrate her point. “She’s still in the fetal position, but there’s something not dark about her: her arm reached out and the peace on her face.” Another recent sculpture is of a tightrope walker who Melanie describes as “kind of hunched over, but moving forward and lyrical.” Melanie continues, “Is it okay for darkness to be beautiful? I think it’s okay as long as it’s not hopeless. You also have to believe in light.”
- Roads go ever ever on,
- Over rock and under tree,
- By caves where never sun has shone,
- By streams that never find the sea;
- Over snow by winter sown,
- And through the merry flowers of June,
- Over grass and over stone,
- And under mountains in the moon.
- Roads go ever ever on
- Under cloud and under star,
- Yet feet that wandering have gone
- Turn at last to home afar.
- Eyes that fire and sword have seen
- And horror in the halls of stone
- Look at last on meadows green
- And trees and hills they long have known.
- –J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
To see more of Melanie’s art and interior design work, respectively, check out these websites:
To read more about the sculptors and artists who inspire Melanie, check out the following links: