“I am compelled by beautiful and functional things,” says Portland, Oregon, artist Melanie Catherine Nead. “I think as humans, we want our spaces to be beautiful, and there are iconic patterns and forms that we respond to as people and have responded to for centuries and centuries. Our design history is a long conversation with ourselves.” This compulsion, both personal and universal, has taken her on an unconventional path, from tattoo artist to muralist.
But before she decorated skin or surfaces, Nead had planned on being an English professor. A year-long apprenticeship at a tattoo studio changed those plans. “I love art, and I love people, and I thought it would be a good fit,” the artist says. A 15-year career followed; however, it was physically and emotionally demanding. She ultimately developed severe tendonitis and eventually came to acknowledge “I didn’t like hurting people.”
Nead knew it was time to pursue another path. “I’ve always been fascinated by pattern and wallpaper, and when I took over ownership of my tattoo studio, I cut an elaborate stencil in a damask-style design and painted one wall with it,” she recalls. “It really sparked something in me.” After selling her business, she revisited the idea and began by painting a wall at Bernstein’s Bagels, where her husband is a co-owner. Soon after, Lonesome Pictopia, her custom mural business, was born.
Now, her work ranges from a tarot-and-palmistry-influenced wall for Psychic Bar in Portland to fluttering butterflies for a high-rise nursery overlooking Lake Michigan. “Switching to mural work was magical,” she says. “It’s so much less loaded, and even though it’s detail-oriented it is much less physically demanding. It’s collaborative, and it employs a lot of the same iconography and decorative lexicon.”
Recently, Nead has begun designing wallpapers as well. That endeavor, also called Lonesome Pictopia, has been in the works for nearly three years. Pulling imagery from her local surroundings, her first patterns to launch will be Dogwood, inspired by one of the trees in her backyard and the bumblebees that flock to it, while Solomon’s Seal, named after one of her favorite plants in her garden, is influenced by Greek pictorial vases. Additional launches are planned—with a collection totaling 10-15 patterns anticipated to debut over the next year. In Portland, Manolo Walls will carry the line, which will also roll out to showrooms around the country. All are traditionally printed, a decision that the artist made early on. “I really like the squishy ink edges and textures of classic surface and flexographic printing,” she says. “I want to create wallpapers that feel traditional but are contemporary. I think of it as a botany of place.”