Nell Melcher, 1927—2012

06/07/2012

Nell Melcher, world traveler, teacher and local artist whose work was shown in more than 50 galleries, featured by Kenwood Vineyards, and honored by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, died May 20 in Point Reyes Station after struggles with a long illness. She was 84.

A life-long seeker of beauty and meaning, Ms. Melcher prided herself on always being able to support herself through her artwork alone. Born to artistic parents Bernice and Albert Randolph in Lodi, Calif. in 1927, she was descended from an old East Coast pilgrim family that moved west for the Gold Rush in the middle of the 19th century. Her father, a sign painter, would prop up little Nell on a high stool in his workshop, where she recalled seeing cardboard in a rainbow of colors and jars of tempera paint in every shade.  It was there she was given her first scraps and paints to play with.

An imaginative and independent child, Nell was inspired by her family’s visits to Mexico, the Sierras and the Southwest, where she was enchanted by the parade of unfamiliar hues. She kept pennies in a piggy bank and said she was “saving money to buy an airplane.” At a very young age she was already on an individual spiritual path, and her parents let her visit the various churches and temples of her hometown, all on her own.

One day while vacationing in the mountains as a little girl, Nell almost drowned in a lake while her parents napped on the shore. Her sister, Flora Jane, rescued her, but the experience stayed with her as one of great significance.

“That was what made her unafraid to die,” her niece, Niña Gorman, said. “She remembered floating off into this beautiful place. So when she was ill, she told me that she wasn’t afraid because of that, and because of her Buddhist beliefs.”

As a teenager, Ms. Melcher was something of a gentle rebel. She dressed in jeans or dungarees before it was common for young women to do so, and wore boots along with her dress to a formal high school dance. During the holidays, she and her sister made sure Christmas was a magical time for their younger cousins, getting them ready to meet “Santa Claus”—who bore a striking resemblance to Albert Randolph.

What exactly she did after graduating from high school eluded friends and family. “She was a sort of a mystery woman because she went off and did her own thing,” her cousin Linda Lacey said.

When Ms. Melcher arrived in Sausalito to live in her early 20’s, she recalled getting off the bus in the center of town, where a band was playing. A large dog that was unleashed in the square ran straight up to her and put its paws on her shoulders. As it turned out, the dog belonged to Barney Harrold, who would become Ms. Melcher’s first husband. Quite a few years older than she, Mr. Harrold “swept Nell off her feet,” Ms. Lacy said. It seemed fated, but in later years, after the relationship had fallen apart, Ms. Melcher joked to family: “I should have married the dog.”

The new Mrs. Harrold had one son, John, with whom she was very close. Like his mother, he would grow up to be an artist.Ms. Melcher’s career as an artist grew steadily. She became known for her deceptively simple paintings of blooming flowers, lush leaves and elegant still-life settings, held together by a strong sense of color and composition. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art chose Ms. Melcher’s tree design for a holiday postcard in the 1950’s, but it wasn’t until 1975 that she had her first gallery show. The assertive lines in her work from the 60’s and 70’s had an illustrative quality that proved quite popular, and over the years her work would be chosen for 18 greeting cards and five posters, sold internationally.

In 1976 Kenwood Vineyards selected her as a featured artist and her painting of a food and wine-laden table appears on the label of their 1976 Cabernet Sauvignon. In her biography for the vineyard, Ms. Melcher said she thought of her paintings more in terms of “situations” than still lifes—situations that “touch a nerve of fond remembrance in the viewer.” She joked that she had to leave notes for her teenage son “not to eat the still life.”

“I have a knack for putting a still life together so it captures a moment in time,” Ms. Melcher wrote at the time. “[C]rowded arrangements of ordinary and personal objects that evoke pleasure and delight when grouped together in a certain way—glasses of wine, cut flowers, a magical parrot feather, a wedge of Brie cheese, a crystal wedding present, and a seashell from Mendocino.”

Over the years she studied art at the Mendocino Art Center and the College of San Miguel in Mexico, before eventually earning a Bachelor of Fine Art degree from Sonoma State University. As her career grew, she made homes for herself in Sonoma, Mendocino, Marin, northern New Mexico, New York and Hawaii.

“She once lived in this funny, funny older house in an area of historic Chinese immigration,” Ms. Lacey recalled. “She was so artistic, it was just enchanting. She could always give wherever she was living this wonderful bohemian feeling.”

After her divorce from Mr. Harrold came a second marriage and divorce, followed by a third. Meanwhile, Ms. Melcher was always searching for her next artistic project—and the next perfect place in which to live. Besides her artistic work, she enjoyed teaching and giving back to her community. She taught for 20 years at the California Academy of Sciences and the University of California, San Francisco, led Point Reyes Field Seminars, and offered art classes in Marin City through the Head Start program. She spent stints as a lecturer on a South American cruise, and as an artist-in-residence on Kauai.

In the early 1980’s, she became close with Marilyn Cheseboro, a girlfriend of John’s, and while their relationship lasted six years, Ms. Melcher remained close with Ms. Cheseboro’s son, Billy, who would remain her honorary grandson for the rest of her life.

In personal journals recovered by Ms. Gorman, Ms. Melcher revealed herself to be a thoughtful and intelligent woman whose mind was often brimming with ideas. She described studio visits with professors at Sonoma State, and being inspired by the natural colors of the Southwest for a collaborative mural in Marin City.

She also wrote about her desire to visit Africa, and in 1989 she sold most of her possessions and left her home in Stinson Beach to join the Peace Corps in Botswana. She was 62. She loved her time in the Kalahari and the people she met there, but her travels were cut short after she fell ill following an insect bite.

Back in California, tragedy struck when her son died suddenly, at age 41.

“Nell really saw the beauty of life and death,” Ms. Gorman said. “She always loved to paint sunflowers, and after her son passed away, she started to paint sunflowers that had started to wither.” She would point to the autumnal oranges and browns in the fading petals and remind friends and family “there is beauty in death, too.”

Ms. Melcher moved to Point Reyes Station in 2002, and family members say she felt she’d finally found the perfect place. She took solitary hikes through the forested paths and misty dells, collecting inspiration for her paintings.

A dedicated Buddhist and member of the Mainstreet Moms, Ms. Melcher had truly found her niche in Point Reyes. Described as a staunch Democrat, she participated in spirited protests.

In her final years Ms. Melcher’s work focused on trees, and she was saddened when her eventual confinement to a wheelchair prevented her from getting out to her favorite drawing spots. She had a final showing of her work at the Bovine Bakery in April, which was moved up due to her ailing health.

Ms. Melcher passed away peacefully as the moon covered the sun during the annular eclipse.

The following week, on a bright and breezy spring afternoon, friends and family gathered at Walnut Place to celebrate Ms. Melcher’s life amidst tears, laughter and stories. Friend Carolyn Osborn, minister of the Point Reyes Presbyterian Church, was one of many who spoke. “She was very at peace with it being her time to go,” Ms. Osborn said. “She was ready to turn her face to that door of the unknown.”

Nell Melcher is survived by her nieces Jane Balshaw, Niña Gorman and Whitney Bakaleinikoff; nephew Misha Bakaleinikoff; cousins Maryellen Connell, Linda Lacey and Stan Randolph; friend Marilyn Cheseboro and honorary grandson Billy Cheseboro; and loved friend young Maxie Melcher. She is predeceased by parents Bernice and Albert Randolph; sister Flora Jane Gorman; first husband, Barney Harrold; third husband, Skip Melcher; and son, John Harrold.