By Sharon Santillo
Have you ever known a little kid who liked to draw all the time? Jesse Melanson, the designer and and painter of the new “Spirit in the Sky” mural in Malden, was one of those kids growing up in Maine in the 1990s.
His journey from Maine to Malden took him from a friend’s car to California, on a bicycle to Central America, and to Austin with his lady love and her horse.
In early 2019, Melanson, an Austin, Texas-based artist, answered the call to artists from Malden Arts ARTLine for public art proposals, especially proposals to honor well-know artists, writers, and musicians from Malden. A major fundraising campaign was held in 2018 and Patronicity and the community responded with enthusiasm. The first mural in 2018, located at Exchange Street at FitzGerald Park, honored Malden-born award-winning children’s illustrator, Ed Emberley. A playground for small children was recently added nearby.
In August, Melanson, assisted by Megan Lacy, executed a four-story mural at the corner of Washington and Exchange Streets to honor Malden musician/composer Norman Greenbaum and his song, “Spirit in the Sky.”
The official ribbon-cutting for the “Spirit in the Sky” mural, located on the back of 110 Pleasant Street on a building owned by the city of Malden will be held at 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 16. Both musician Norman Greenbaum and Melanson will attend.
In a recent interview, Melanson reflected on his life’s path.
Q: Did your parents see any foreshadowing of your career in art?
A: When I was kid I was always into drawing and making art. My mother’s side of the family has a history of very talented artists. My grandfather, a potter, introduced my brother and me to clay when we were very young.
My family and teachers always encouraged me to express myself creatively. I remember in third grade winning a ribbon for a Maine state wide duck stamp drawing competition. I was pretty stoked on that and still have the image of that duck at home. My parents and family have always been and continue to be supportive in whatever I do.
Q: What are some highlights of your life journey from Maine to Austin?
A: I graduated from the University of Maine Orono in 2010 with a degree in New Media. I packed into a Volvo with my friend Jeff and hit the road toward San Diego, Calif. Growing up in Maine and being an avid skier, I decided to spend the winter skiing and snowboarding. I spent the next five years in Truckee, Calif., and absolutely loved the place. I got a job at a health food store called New Moon Natural Foods and met some of the most amazing, creative, inspiring, and beautiful people. I also met Megan Lacy, the love of my life.
From 2012-2014, with Truckee as my home base, I rode my bicycle across the United States twice. Once from Oregon to my parents’ front door in Maine, and another trip through Central America. I didn’t even own a bike when I decided to bicycle across the country the first time.
In 2015 Megan and I decided to move to Austin to pursue her career as a musician and let me take a stab at being an artist. It was time to shake things up! This city has presented us with valuable experiences to grow our careers in ways we originally didn’t think were ever possible.
Q: What in your adventurous spirit attracted you to a mural project in Malden, Mass.? Were you familiar with the song “Spirit in the Sky.” What was your design process?
I first became aware of the possibility of becoming a public artist after reading about opportunities in an Austin newspaper. After completing a couple small murals here in Austin, I wanted to do something bigger. I found the call for the ARTLine murals on publicartist.org and read about what Malden Arts and the City were looking for. It all looked really cool and I was immediately attracted to the projects. I remember seeing the photograph of the wall at 110 Pleasant Street and thinking to myself “Wow, that is a big wall and would be absolutely nuts.”
I knew that if I wanted to paint large murals, the first step would be putting myself out there and taking chances. So I filled out the application. A few weeks later I was contacted by Malden Arts letting me know I was a finalist and asking me to draw up a render of a Spirit In The Sky mural for the 100 Pleasant Street wall.
It was important that the artwork be open ended for interpretation. I wanted it to be inviting and relatable to everyone. The hand is in shades of black and white so that it can be multi-cultural; the rainbow is an abstract representation departing from Newton’s order of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. The orbs are open for however you want to perceive them. The artwork encourages imagination and is designed to make people happy and honor Malden native Norman Greenbaum’s song, “Spirit In The Sky.”
The actual process of how the artwork would be applied to the wall was quite complex and used a lot mathematics I came up with a original grid style method for transferring the image that was what really what made this project successful. Each grid cut out measured on paper 4X4 inches which when I drew the grid squares on the wall, I could scale up to 4X4 feet.
If I hadn’t come up with this method, I don’t know how I would have completed the project and kept anything in proportion.
Life always figures itself out. You just need to believe in your self, press forward and trust that the best outcome will happen. I love that.
Q: What were the most memorable responses you got while working on “Spirit in the Sky”? How do you see the role and value of public art?
A: The support from the community in Malden was unreal and made me feel so darn good. While painting, nearly everyone that walked by looked up, smiled and had something nice to say. I remember at one point, after a hot day in the sun, someone drove by in their car holding down their horn and screaming positive remarks out their window. Everyone was just so excited to see a big piece of artwork like this.
I see public art as an extremely valuable and important part for any community that wants flourish. Public art has a proven track record in benefiting cultural, educational, economic, and historical values and bringing people together. When done right, it creates powerful benefits for local communities and the entire world.
The official ribbon-cutting for the “Spirit in the Sky” mural will be held at 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 16, at the corner of Washington and Exchange Streets in Malden, MA with Greenbaum and Melanson in attendance. From 6-7pm, the celebration will move one block north to The Markey Community Center, 7 Washington St., for speeches, reminiscing and refreshments.
Read Part 1 of this story focusing on Malden native Norman Greenbaum, the man behind “Spirit in the Sky.”
Feature photo by Gary Smith. All other photos and video (below) courtesy of Jesse Melanson and Megan Lacey. “Spirit in the Sky” song used by permission of Norman Greenbaum and Concord.