Finding her religion

Martyr Artist

Melisa Kerns, a.k.a the Martyr Artist, paints in her home along the Truckee River.

Melisa Kerns, a.k.a the Martyr Artist, paints in her home along the Truckee River.

Photo By David Robert

Weekdays, she is Melisa Kerns, a 32-year-old single parent and AutoCAD draftsperson for a local hydrogeological firm. At casual glance, she might even appear mild-mannered, until the beholder’s brain senses the whole package: the hair in dreads, the pierced nose, the look-you-in-the-eye, cut-through-the-bullshit attitude.

It’s always the quiet ones.

Weeknights and weekends, Kerns is Reno’s Martyr Artist, a triple threat who could easily be labeled—painter, poet, photographer—yet whose disdain for labels is metaphorically reflected in her work. This creative force might be flipping the bird, but it’s a gesture tempered with fingerpaint. And that subtle temblor? That’s her own drummer, the roadie for her alter ego.

Incorporating a spectrum of techniques and media as mixed as motorcycle gears, rice paper, paint and bubble wrap, the Martyr Artist’s distinctive images offer the viewer not so much Kerns’ perspective as an opportunity to consider new perspectives. From her perch along the Truckee River, the Martyr Artist just picked up a couple of new commissions.

“I’m totally stoked,” Kerns says, leading the way into her living room, where the easel—not a big-screen TV—is the focal point, fortified by large paintings that dominate her walls. “I’ve almost gotten rid of everything else I had.”

Many portraits the painter ultimately gives away, and at the moment—agony and ecstasy—the Martyr Artist is out of paint.

Kerns says she got in trouble for doodling in her notebooks as a child in the Bay Area—far more interested in playing her sax than anything else.

After graduating from high school in Carson City, Kerns hit UNR on scholarship to study music and dance, then graphic arts at TMCC, and she has returned to the university to get her art degree. Three years ago, she started painting, an essential expression pursued with natural independence.

“I was sick of advertising design,” she says. “I wanted to be expressive. I’m a texture freak. I really like urban art and would love to do a mural or public art installation.”

Kerns’ paintings elevate the ambience at shops like Never Ender and La Bussola, and an early piece still hangs inside Club Underground. Both contrast and complement are visible in her current work—hours spent on minute details for the background of a painting, as painstaking as any AutoCAD or neuroses-riddled therapy session. Kerns unhesitatingly points a crepe-paper finger at those memorable characters that either encouraged her art or persecuted the artist.

“The only people that have ever tried to shoot me down are ex-boyfriends. Isn’t that horrible? I had one tell me he didn’t know why I bothered to try; I had no talent. After we’re not together anymore, he says, ‘I was wrong.’ He didn’t realize I spent all my time with him and not painting. Now that I’m painting, it shows. I don’t waste my time on a man anymore!”

The Martyr Artist laughs heartily, dabbing a little eau-de-paint-fumes behind each ear, understanding these works are commentary on her own inner workings. There’s no misinterpreting the unmistakable statement Kerns makes with “Child Support,” a Pop Art-influenced painting inspired by a photograph of her addict father—now estranged—smoking dope in the ‘70s. The utter family dysfunction and fluorescent tone of the piece is softly balanced by the feminine beauty in the Martyr Artist’s self-portrait. But even that one, she says, a friend begged to buy. And, in a self-fulfilling nod to the nuances of her nickname—bestowed by another artist—she caved, saying she just can’t keep them all.

“Why do you think I have other people’s art in my house?” she implores. “I get sick of looking at my own shit!”