By Elizabeth Sturgeon
Photos by Mary Fehr
Mary Mellen remembers how one unabashed expert told her that no one buys art with the color green, and certainly not when the color’s obvious in the piece. “Well, all of mine have green,” she thought, as the color always rolls through her lush pastorals and sets each piece in the middle of the countryside.
Green, often taking a soft, bluish hue, is one of many things Mary and her daughter Katherine Trammell share—a love for painting landscapes, wall space and mother-daughter shows at the Grand Bohemian Art Gallery and generations of female artists in their family line.
Despite these connections that bring their work together, Mary and Katherine work as independent artists with distinct styles, and they each started painting at different points in their lives—though the artistic streak was always in their blood from mothers, aunts, grandmothers and great-grandmothers who practiced their drawing and painting talents.
For Katherine, she remembers seeing their work, in particular that of her grandmother Anne Latimer who painted on china dishes, and recognizing her own interest in drawing and design. She ended up going to Auburn University’s program in interior design, where she completed an intense summer option in the School of Architecture with many all-nighters that ultimately led her to take a different direction.
But the drawing course she took planted a seed as she enjoyed the artistic elements to the classes. Flash forward some years later to when Katherine was raising her two children, and she began taking art classes at Briarwood Presbyterian Church and Alabama Art Supply that got her into painting and helped her build her technique and interest in landscape paintings.
Mary’s journey with art began, too, with classes at Briarwood. About 20 years ago, her friends started going to lunch after their art classes each week, and Mary didn’t want to miss out. She began to pick up the practice almost immediately and soon began to paint on her own.
At this point in each of their stories, Katherine and Mary saw their own styles develop. Katherine’s art became abstract, and Alabama artist and teacher John Lonergan helped her build this abstraction with bright oil paints. Mary, on the other hand, narrowed her focus on traditional landscapes and stuck with acrylics.
Katherine and Mary also moved from working from photos to painting from their imaginations. Both simply start with a blank canvas and let the scene take form on its own. “I start from an idea in my head, and I let the painting change as I paint,” Katherine says. “The idea is just a starting point, and it evolves. I let go of my preconceived ideas of how the painting should go.”
Mary agrees that “I never quite know what I’m going to paint until I really get into it” when she starts with her preliminary sketch. After outlining the scene, she then begins filling in below the horizon line and then into the skies. Often, the pastoral scenes animate an open, grassy landscape, reminiscent of Mary’s drives to Washington, Georgia, the small town where her family is from.
In repeated layers of bright colors—typically less subdued and soft as Mary’s—Katherine sees her landscapes take form of peaceful verses from Psalms. “I see the beauty of the Earth that God created, and I want to convey a peace that speaks to the people who connect with the painting,” she says.
Katherine also paints abstract crosses alongside her landscapes, where she plays with light and darkness through the layers of paint. The loose, expressive strokes bring her joy in the art she’s making and help her pin down the peace she incorporates into each piece.
As she’s grown in her talent and begun to share more of her art on Instagram @katherinetrammellart, Katherine has felt more and more ownership over her work. “It’s been a slow journey for me while raising my children, and now my youngest is about to go to college,” she says. “Over time I’ve started painting a lot more and doing some commissions.”
She and her mom have both succeeded in elevating a new hobby to a passion, with their technical skills and talents. Mary says that, 20 years ago, she never would have imagined she and Katherine (as well as her other daughter Rushton Waltchack, a Vestavia Hills artist who works with inks) painting at this level—even though the women in their family have showcased a kind of artistic birthright.
There is a difference that Katherine sees. She remembers her grandmother’s (Mary’s mother’s) talent in particular. She would sketch people around her with an amazing likeness, but Mary and Katherine never saw her take her talents to their full potential. That’s been a reminder for both of them to develop their styles and make art to put out in the world.
“As I’ve been home with my children, knowing they’re grown up, I wanted to develop something for myself,” Katherine says. “I don’t want to waste any talent that I’ve been given.”
As longtime Mountain Brook residents—Mary spending 50 years here and Katherine most of her life—it’s only fitting that both of their first shows were in Mountain Brook. Mary first showed her work in Crestline at one of the Mountain Brook Art Association shows. Years later, Katherine first put her work in the same show. And now, along with different regular art shows they participate in, their work decorates the walls of the Grand Bohemian Hotel Art Gallery.