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Painter Garrett Melby merges communities through art and music

Jessica Balisle

It’s a Saturday night in early September. At Springfield Brewing Company's downtown venue, "The Cellar," the band ilijah has just begun to serenade the crowd with a rich blend of rock ’n’ roll sounds.

Off to the right, a man sits in front of the stage with a canvas propped on an easel. A giant duffle bag of paint is at his feet. He’s dressed in overalls and a tie-dyed Grateful Dead shirt.

This is artist Garrett Melby. He regularly paints while bands perform at The Cellar and other venues around the Springfield and West Plains areas.

Jessica Balisle

“When people see it, they know it’s mine.”

Melby’s art is unique, with bold use of color and high-contrasting canvases.

“I think the neat thing about my artwork is that when people see it, they know it’s mine,” he said. “So, I mean, it’s kind of got its own identity and I don’t really have control over it. It comes out.”

Hailing from the small town of Brandsville, Missouri, Melby often paints in the West Plains area and Springfield. 10 years ago, he said, he didn’t feel that his art was accepted in his community because it was so different.

Typically people in the area liked traditional landscapes, barns, waterfalls, and mills, Melby said—not the loud, colorful animals and instruments he tends to paint.

“Just community-wise, I’ve seen a lot of growth in our community,” said Melby. “Not just in Springfield, but in the small towns, too—to where it’s more acceptable now to see something different that’s not the norm.”

He points out that people are more opinionated now than ever before with it being a “tough time” in our country and communities. Because of this, people are changing, and that is allowing for his artwork to be more accepted in the smaller communities.

'I’m fueled by the music.'

The first time Melby came to Springfield, he painted at Lindberg’s tavern while the band Clawhammer performed.

“Instantly, you know, once people started seeing what I was doing, they’re like, ‘Wow, ok, we like this,’” he said.

In the summer of 2020, the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Queen City Shout organized an online concert series. While musicians played in their living rooms, Melby painted along with them at his home.

“I think the friends that I’ve made through the music scene there, just through the Queen City Shout alone, have been a big part in my growth as an artist because I’m fueled by the music,” he said. “When I paint live, the music kind of creates what’s happening. I’ll sketch something out ahead of time, but I just feed off the energy of the moment. I’m kind of painting the music on the canvas. They’re creating the energy and I’m feeding off it.”

When he’s at a live venue, he’s also feeding off the energy of the audience. This often inspires his color choices in a piece.

He carries a 60-pound duffle bag containing about 500 different paint colors to every show.

Jessica Balisle

“I don’t know what I’m going to feel,” Melby said. “And so I don’t have a set idea on how things are going to look or what they’re going to turn out. But the more I start feeling the energy from the band and the music and the atmosphere in the venue, the more I’m like, ‘this is the right color for that.’”

Melby points out that painting to different musicians such as Molly Healey, Jalopy, Justin Larkin, Bryan Copeland, ilijah, and Maximum Weekend gives him the opportunity to feel different energies.

“I feel that the community here and the arts scene here [Springfield] is a lot different than where I’m at right now in West Plains. But I do see where West Plains is growing and the community arts is bringing me into that and I’m more vocal and more of a prominent figure there in the arts scene in West Plains.

Using art and music to do good

That prominence has landed Melby on the board of the West Plains nonprofit Yellow House Community Arts Center as chairman of fundraising. In his fundraising efforts, he uses the collaboration of music and art.

Jessica Balisle

“We try to bring in bands. And I’ve been able to bring in different musicians from up here and also integrate them into my community there to make a larger community.”

Melby recognizes that it can be hard to make the two hour journey from Springfield to West Plains, but his partnership with Wages Brewing Company has helped.

“We’ve had Molly Healey come down there and play, and Justin Larkin, which was really cool,” Melby said. “And the people there don’t get to see that every day. And it’s nice to see just the people that I’ve met be able to come in from a different community and kind of merge the communities together because we’re all in this together.”

Melby uses this music and art combination to help his community.

“So, not just in smiles and feeling good, but we’ve been able to raise money through charity auctions, selling my artwork. But we always bring a band in. And it’s nice to be able to kind of fuse the things together. You know, kind of help communities heal," he said.

Melby helps organize the Weekend Food Backpack Program in West Plains. He also talked about how a smile or a wave can go a long way to a homeless person.

“Sometimes you need to make eye contact with that person. And even if you don’t give anything, sometimes a wave or a smile or just say hello. Acknowledge their existence," he said. "And so, I’m trying to acknowledge the existence of such a beautiful art form that’s being created by people here and in my community.”

Garrett Melby paints to ilijah at the Cellar

Jessica Gray Balisle, a Springfield native, grew up listening to KSMU. When she's not wrangling operations and compliance issues, she co-hosts live music show Studio Live and produces arts and culture stories. Jessica plays bass in local band the Hook Knives. She and her husband Todd live with their two cats, Ellie and Jean-Ralphio, and way too many house plants.