It’s hard to find something completely new amid the timeworn familiarity of Mobile Mardi Gras. But for attendees at the 2016 Polka Dots ball, there was something fresh amid the ritual.
“I set up the canvas to the side of the main grandstand, I was inconspicuous, which was good, but I still got to talk to a lot of people since they came by and we had conversations, and I really enjoyed the entertainment part of it. People really enjoyed that too,” Melissa Munger said.
The subject of conversation was Munger’s easel and canvas as she strove to capture the scene before her. The moment’s magic was her goal.
The live artist wasn’t just a first for the Polka Dots but for Munger herself. That was true in several ways.
Munger is new to Mobile’s seasonal flow. The Jacksonville, Florida, native met her husband in Kentucky where they married in 2009. They relocated to her husband’s native Azalea City with their children in January 2015.
“I am self-taught except for a couple of classes I took when I was a child, but I work all the time. I’ve been painting and drawing since I can remember,” Munger said.
Portraits and plein air work are where Munger focused her talents until recently. Learning of event painting and reflecting on her own love for social interaction, Munger decided it suited her. Opportunity was the missing component.
“My sister-in-law’s mother is a member of the Polka Dots. While visiting my sister-in-law I just kind of remarked what I was looking to paint. I didn’t know exactly how it worked but it sounded like a very intriguing event and that it would look cool on canvas with all the colors,” Munger said.
Word passed down the line and before long the Polka Dots’ president sent word. Munger had her chance.
“I hadn’t been to a Mardi Gras ball before so this was my first. I had to actually ask people to define terms for me because I was unfamiliar. I kind of had to do a crash course so I got the right elements in there,” Munger said.
She had some planning in store, medium and supplies included. She also had custom to accommodate.
“I ran around like mad trying to find formal attire. Most people had already bought their dresses so it was a challenge,” Munger said.
She made a particularly smart move both in materials and dress.
“Because I was using oil pastels I didn’t have to wear a smock. It’s funny; I was looking at my dress today and there was just the smallest little thing on my dress. Other than that there wasn’t anything. It was all black so that helped,” Munger laughed.
She arrived at the Civic Center Arena close to 5 p.m. and set up her easel in position while a high school marching band played and the Polka Dots milled about, then organized into float assemblies. She began roughly planning the elements for the 24-inch by 36-inch black canvas around 6 p.m. as the ladies moved out to load the floats.
“When I had the ballroom to myself, I went around and took a few close-up pictures of things and took a few pictures of the stage [and tableau backdrop] before they closed the curtain,” Munger said.
By the time attendees started to filter in, she was well into her work. At that point, her depiction of the background gave onlookers a clear idea of where she was going with it.
“Then I added in things, like when the emblem came out I went ahead and put her in the painting. Then when finally everyone started dancing, I got some of that in there. Maybe got some of the lighting too. As the event went on, I just tried to capture the overall feel of the room,” Munger said.
One fortunate turn was her decision to bring her own lighting. She had no idea it would be so dark when the tableau began.
After the evening was over, she revisited the work, adding in details she wanted. Overall, just eight hours of work were involved.
When her painting was completed, Munger presented it to the Polka Dots. She said she’s heard they plan on making prints available.
Her longer-range desires are to put that black dress to greater use through more opportunities with more organizations. Each evening is different, each backdrop, each theme and experience unique. She’d love the chance to capture them.
For now, she’s taking other avenues toward working her way into the local scene. She’s explored joining Mobile Arts Council and is planning to have a license and permit ready to set up a booth at the April LoDa Artwalk.
“I’ve been doing a lot of plein air paintings and look to have that down there and bringing those out. I’ve got some watercolor commissions I’m going to be bringing as well,” Munger said.
The artist calls commissions her “bread and butter.” Her hope is the event business will increase as wedding season arises in late spring.
Munger might consider acquiring a smock before then. A black formal dress in the Mobile summer would certainly put some sweat in her labor of love.