“Most people look at my work and say, ‘Oh god, it’s so obvious you were an architect,” Rachel Mello says.
While the business of zoning maps and floor plans can easily overwhelm the blueprint-illiterate, Mello’s house-shaped canvases bearing painted images of nature evoke the ephemeral state of neighborhood development and time’s passage more than anything most architects could ever dream of drawing up.
Her work is the logical culmination of her entire career, which started with an architecture major at Rhode Island School of Design, continued with a master’s in theatrical set design and scenic art at Brandeis University, and jumped to her mural painting company after graduate school (because “backdrops are the fun part of scenic painting”).
But Mello draws inspiration from long before her schooling—from the simple fascination of looking around the neighborhoods of her childhood home in Baltimore City, a habit that continued in her adopted home of New Orleans, and later in Somerville, her home of 30 years.
“The thing about New Orleans architecture or Baltimore architecture or Somerville architecture is that it all tells stories,” Mello says. “When I go walking around Somerville, I can quickly glance at a house and see how many units it was built to have and how many units it has now. Sometimes, houses built as multi-family have been turned into one family, and others were built as two-family that now have three or four.”
These details, although seemingly minor, create a fuller picture of a neighborhood with layers of history. Mello writes in her artist statement that “roofs, windows, antennas, trees, and wires weave a story,” a claim that shines in her paintings. In one, blue skies surround a house overrun by weeds. A series of canvases shaped like cranes along the ever-changing Boston Harbor skyline show a pastoral scene of a tree illuminated by a sunset. The Sky Cranes hint at Mello’s interest in urban planning around Boston, but they also easily evoke the nuanced emotion of seeing your childhood home replaced by new developments.
Sometimes, the layered ways in which her work resonates with viewers surprises even Mello herself. Case in point: a phone box outside of Somerville High School that she worked on as part of a citywide arts project often attracts kids, who peek and invite their dolls into the diorama-like painting of power lines through a field.
“I am delighted to hear that,” Mello says of her younger fans. “There were a few choices I made that I think intentionally led to that. All the artists that participated in the project had an option of having the city install a plexiglass cover to protect the work in there. I didn’t want the plastic to get scratched or scuffed up, so I just thought I would make the actual piece as durable as I knew how so there wasn’t that temptation just to mess with it. The pieces in there are steel and power-coated and it could be damaged with spray paint, but nobody has and it’s been there for several years now. I’m really flattered by that, honestly.”
Mello speaks warmly of local destinations like The Nave Gallery and fellow artists like Martha Friend, Kelvy Bird, Susan Berstler, and Tori Costa, but takes careful pause when asked the “big, heavy question” about how Somerville serves as a home for art.
“This city tries,” she begins. “The community and residents mostly are hugely supportive, and I really appreciate hearing the mayor talking about how important the arts are, but there are some ways in which the city falls very short of its own stated goals. If you value artists in a community, affordable housing and art really have to be linked.”
Mello reiterates that, while the discussion around arts is positive, she’d rather “see the dollars that back it up.”
“It’s the same story you see in every place where there’s a density of art,” Mello adds. “The artists go to an area that is very inexpensive, they start working and renovating in their own communities, they attract people that are interested in the art that say, ‘Great, I want to go live in this arts place,’ and then the patrons price out the artists.”
Still, there’s an overwhelming sense of hope when Mello discusses the future of arts in Somerville—specifically when she mentions the Somerville Open Studios in May, for which Mello was a coordinator and board member for several years.
“We did a lot of research into other open studios around the country and found that Somerville’s is actually in a really rare category in terms of size and scope,” Mello says. “I really hope people in Somerville realize how special the Open Studios are when you look at the number of artists, participating buildings, trolleys, and group shows that we have. You could hit an open studios every weekend [in other communities] from March until Christmas, but we have something really going on here.”
This story appears in the Arts & Architecture issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.
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Tim Gagnon is a staff writer and social media coordinator at Scout. Follow him on Twitter for music-related musings and extremely lukewarm takes at ?@surfjanstevens.