An empty nest gave Melanie O’Keefe the time she needed to turn her hobby into a full-fledged career.
Art and drawing have always been a part of Hoover native Melanie O’Keefe’s life, but it took her until recently to find her way back to it. She started off teaching fellow students how to draw in elementary school, but she didn’t pursue it in college. She got a degree in finance since that was what her brother and sister received, but that wasn’t what she excelled in.
“Well, I can’t add two and two together, so you can imagine how that turned out,” Melanie says. “By that time, art was kind of in the background.”
She ended up going back to school for interior design and graduated summa cum laude since it was an artistic field. From there, she moved to Atlanta to do renderings for a company before getting married and having two children.
In 1998, her family was transferred back to Hoover. It was here that her painting really began, starting with painting murals for Oak Mountain Presbyterian Church’s nursery in 2011 and 2012. After this experience, she decided to move her talents to canvas.
While painting was a hobby at first, she didn’t turn it into a full-time job until recently. When her sons both left home about five years ago, she began to pursue it even more than before. In this short amount of time, her career has skyrocketed, leading to publications, exhibits and awards all over the country. “I have been very blessed to have a lot of doors opened for me,” Melanie says. “I’ve been able to do things that not a lot of artists get to do, like being published.”
Her most recent publication was in Southwest Art Magazine in February for the annual landscape edition, her second time in the magazine. She has also been honored by the National Oil and Acrylic Painters’ Society in their catalog for the “Best of America Exhibit.” Closer to home, she was selected by the Huntsville Museum of Art to be in the 2017 Art Auction Gala.
When the time came to decide what to paint, landscape was the easy choice. With a love of traveling and nature, Melanie has been to what she describes as the most beautiful places on Earth, which still give her goosebumps years later. “I think that nature is probably the most beautiful thing there is on Earth,” she says. “Nothing can replicate it, especially man. When I’m painting, I like for whoever’s looking at the painting to feel like they could just walk right in there and sit down.”
If there is one thing Melanie is known for, it’s her ability to paint water scenes. She’s been praised for this talent, especially when it comes to light reflections on water. It’s become her favorite subject, and it’s often an emotional thing for her to paint. Once she finds her inspiration and idea, it can be hard for her to stop painting, leading her to finish paintings in one night. “Once I start, I get so hungry to paint,” she says. “Sometimes I’ve been here painting until 4:30 in the morning because I love what I’m painting.”
Beyond coming up with her own ideas, she also does commissions. She completed one for a friend’s father, who happens to be a retired senator of Panama. The 5-by-7-foot painting is a depiction of their land featuring a creek with rocks and trees. The family is already wanting a second piece from her, this time of a bull, but on a smaller scale.
A typical work day for Melanie can be anywhere from six hours to 15 hours a day, seven days a week. With this schedule, it can usually take her a few days to a week to finish a painting. Her favorite finished painting is one she completed of a friend’s daughter on her honeymoon in Oregon, called “Varina View,” on her portfolio. “I wasn’t going to put her in there, but you can tell by her body language that she is overwhelmed by what she sees, so I put her in there,” Melanie says. “This woman climbs every mountain and trail from here to Timbuktu. She is quite a person, just like her father.”
When Melanie started painting full-time, she wasn’t sure what she was doing or how to sell paintings. Her two mentors, Rik Lazenby and Tom Findlay, gave her the help she needed to get where she is today. Lazenby, who shares a studio with her, friended her on Facebook and right away they had a good connection artistically. Findlay is on the business-side of her work, helping her sell paintings and find shows to enter.
Her advice to those looking to get into a career in painting is to find a mentor as soon as possible. She compared it to acting, since it can take years to build up a name and get a following. A mentor will support you and give you honest advice. “You don’t want mom and dad and your best friend supporting you because they’re always going to tell you it’s beautiful,” she says. “You need someone who’s going to say, ‘That is totally wrong, you have to redo it.’”
Melanie has found her place in the art community, and her success so far is only the start. Even without formal training, she’s practiced and strived to perfect her work. She has a room of reject paintings, ones she can’t connect with or figure out how to make them better. However, when she finishes her work, the product isn’t what she loves best.
“There’s no bigger rush to me than when somebody who buys a piece of art connects with it emotionally,” she says. “You know you’ve done what you set out to do because it reminds them of a past memory and they get so excited. That to me is the most wonderful feeling.”
To contact Melanie about commissions, reach her on Facebook or by phone at (205) 602-4850.