After 11 years of bringing you local reporting, the team behind the Vancouver Observer has moved on to Canada's National Observer. You can follow Vancouver culture reporting over there from now on. Thank you for all your support over the years!

Melanie Kobayashi: underground painter

Melanie Kobayashi with one of her paintings. Photo: Osamu Kobayashi 

I mean literally underground—as in three levels below the street in a friend’s parking garage. It’s a relief on a hot summer’s day to get out of the sun. Here it’s dark and cool.

“Like a barn,” says Melanie, who was raised on an Ontario farm. “I feel oddly at home here.”

When she turns on the ceiling lights and floor lamps, I see the paintings everywhere—on the floor, on the wall, hanging in sheets on a rack. Big paintings—one of them nearly 12 feet long. And I’m jealous. It’s not so much that I want to have painted them. It’s that I long to be in the atmosphere of their making—a freedom of physical gesture that suggests vastness and density at the same time.

I step close, step into each one and look around, careful not to tread upon the ones on the floor. For those I crouch down, dive.

Vastness and density. How does she do it?

She starts by rolling out a five-foot wide sheet of Fabriano paper.

“I don’t cut it until I know how big it’s supposed to be,” she says. “Then I start throwing the paint down and smearing it around with different tools—sticks, pallet knives, my hands. I add gloss gels or pumice. I add paint. Then I scrape it away and leave patterns and tracks. Sometimes I’ll take a wet paper towel and wipe it off. It’s sweaty work. Messy. Exhilarating.”

And how does she know when a painting is finished?

“When I stand back and see a color balance, a texturing I think is interesting. It may look random, but if I put down any more paint, the whole thing would be wrong. If I can’t imagine adding even another dot, I know it’s done.”

Kobayashi began this present series of large abstractions out of a sense of frustration, feeling contained, both physically and mentally. Up until then, she had been painting smaller “social commentary pieces on politics and gender issues. The up-coming Olympics had a big influence—Canadianism and what it means to be a Canadian. The Queen in the Canadian woods, the Queen in a canoe, the Queen roasting marshmallows,” painted carefully on 18 x 24 inch pieces of paper on the floor of her apartment.

“There was no room to move in the living room, and my husband’s studio was in the solarium. It pushed me to the edge. I said I don’t care about convention or what’s polite. I have to pursue what I want and move ahead.”

So she boldly asked a friend if she could paint in his garage space, and he said yes.

“I felt like a bulldozer,” she says, “which was hard for me.”

The result?

“A huge departure and a huge awakening,” she says. “Freedom.”

Kobayashi was raised in a flat, open landscape near Lake Erie. “Horizon was everywhere,” she says. “I saw freighters out on the water and wanted to run away on one.”

She started the first painting in this series last November.

“The first  few throws of paint were scary—and so exciting. I just squirted piles of paint. Osamu [her husband] built me a brush one foot wide. I dragged it through paint. I thought: Oh I’m on to something here. I have to do another one. Then I just kept going. It took on a life of its own.” 

She began to meet other artists and started going to openings. Slowly, tentatively, she began showing her work to her friends, and the response was enthusiastic.

“It’s not something I can share easily. It’s a personal freedom. There’s a stigma around abstract-expressionist art. And yet the more I painted, the more painting defined who I was. I thought if this is who I am, I may as well put it out in public.”

For more information about Melanie and her work, please visit her website:

More in Just Between Us

On seeing the Cézannes at the Vancouver Art Gallery

All these years, I have walked by Cézanne’s paintings without really seeing a thing.

Vancouver Confidential unveils gritty, fascinating side of city's history

These bloggers, actors and tour guides “are creating a much larger conversation about Vancouver” than could be created by conventional historians.

Writer urges us to reclaim our sleep

Katt Duff loves sleep so much, she had to write a book about it
Speak up about this article on Facebook or Twitter. Do this by liking Vancouver Observer on Facebook or following us @Vanobserver on Twitter. We'd love to hear from you.