+ By Christine Fillat
Melanie Royster’s acrylic paintings depict a world of lush vegetation and iconic feminine form. Imagine, for example, a colorful, beautiful jungle populated with beatific women. Her paintings and large-scale murals tell stories with intention, going beyond the jungle habitat.
“I’m very much influenced by my Caribbean culture,” says Royster, who grew up in Prince George’s County. The tropics and an international lifestyle were a big part of her upbringing. “My mother is Jamaican . . . even the church I went to, in this area, it was a Catholic Church, but a lot of it was African culture—a lot of people from Nigeria . . . from Cameroon.” She first went to Jamaica when she was three years old and spent many vacations on the island.
An only child, Royster was quiet and shy when she was young. “The way I expressed myself was drawing,” she says. “I remember drawing so many images at once, and I feel like a lot of it was just what I was experiencing at the time. It was nice for my parents, too, ’cause I wasn’t talking, and they could see through my drawings [to] where my head was at. It was like they were looking at a journal, in a way.”
At Elizabeth Seton High School and then at Virginia Commonwealth University, Royster, who stands tall at 6’2″, played varsity basketball. She has a bachelor of arts in interior design and a master’s degree in sports leadership. Her teammates saw her as an artsy girl while her art school classmates saw her as a jock.
The COVID-19 pandemic shutdown proved to be a turning point for Royster. In 2020, she was working at the Annapolis Regal Paint Center as a color consultant and living with two roommates who preferred social distancing. She was also going through a breakup. The forced time alone was not wasted. “All of March . . .
I worked through those things. I was wanting to get into an art business full boot. Then, one night, at 3:00 a.m., I made my Etsy account, and it went from there. Eventually, I made a website, and so on.”
Royster soon recognized that there was something missing in her life. Her basketball teams always made a big deal out of community projects. She wondered if there was some way she could give back to the community.
Jeff Huntington, the Annapolis-based artist who co-helms Future History Now—a nonprofit organization that works with underserved youth to create murals—would routinely come to the Regal Paint Center for supplies. There, he met Royster. In the summer of 2021, Huntington invited Royster to join Future History Now on a project titled Elevate Your Game, painting a basketball court for Studio 39 Apex Arts, an arts magnet school for seniors from Broadneck and Annapolis High Schools. Royster was interested in murals, and this was the first mural project that she had worked on. Huntington didn’t know about Royster’s basketball prowess. On the last day, while finishing up the project, Royster was playing around with a basketball and sunk a mid-court shot; the moment felt otherworldly to Royster.
That fall, Royster painted her first mural for The 3rd, a Columbia, Maryland, coworking community and mentoring space for professional women of color. Her images are used in many of The 3rd’s promotional materials. Royster has gone on to paint murals for organizations that have meaningful social missions—places such as the Tahirih Justice Center, an organization that focuses on immigrant women dealing with gender-based violence, Women’s March, and Femme Fatale DC, a nonbinary womxn’s resource center.
“At first, I was just doing art to make people happy but . . . I can also be empowered, too. A lot of my artwork reflects that,” she says. “Even when I tell stories about myself, I want people to feel that they’re being seen as well, especially people who look like me, ’cause they’re not used to seeing art with us in it, and it is not accessible to us.”
Royster has numerous women in her life, having grown up with many aunts and cousins, and she credits her paternal grandmother as her biggest influence. These women figure prominently in the visuals that Royster has created in her paintings. Full of strength and beauty, they present an iconic visual of the face, vegetation, and flowers—a symbolic equivalent of her tropical world.
“I love nature,” says Royster. “That’s why it’s in all my work. I love curves. Even if you were to look at my thesis, it was curves everywhere. . . . I’m kind of very much like, Women! Black Women! I’m Queer! People! I care about people! And them being their free selves! And people not trying to put them in a box! And so on.”
She often refers to metamorphosis and uses it symbolically. “I think a lot about that with women, even through puberty, or when they’re learning about love, or when they’re learning about beauty . . . when you started to feel confident in your beauty, of what your beauty is, and there’s all these different things that we find is beauty within women,” she says. “Even if I do paint men, they’re seen in a softer space, [a] safe space. ’Cause I think it’s important for men, especially Black men, to have that, too.”
Winter was a time for introspection, and Royster took the opportunity to explore the source of her own doldrums. “I feel like I’ve gone mad, especially with all the bans on our bodies, feeling from my experiences, like in the different images, especially through social media, when it comes to just Black women or just women in general, what we have to go through is difficult.”
The resulting painting, Gone Mad, is a different sort of piece for Royster. It depicts a woman with a bird’s nest in her hair and a mother bird squawking at her hatchlings. The baby birds have their beaks open, looking for nourishment, but the mother isn’t offering anything. The vegetation is the bird’s nest, and it is streaming from the woman’s hair and in her mouth. The painting was inspired by a folk myth that if you leave your hair where a bird may find it, then the bird will use your hair in its nest and you will lose your mind. “So that’s a perfect example of a tale,” says Royster.
This past May, Royster traveled to Morocco with a group of women on an artistic retreat. Each day brought a new experience in the city, the desert, or the seashore. It was an introspective journey that will surely influence her future work. She also has a new job, at McLean and Tircuit, a woman-owned interior design firm based in Laurel, where she will be a project coordinator. In August, she will turn 30. At some point, she hopes to study art therapy.
In the meantime, consider attending one of Royster’s art events. The divine feminine exists in all of us. █
For more information, visit melroyart.net.