By Lauren Dowdle
Photos by Mary Tweedy
Every child gets asked what he or she wants to be when they grow up. It’s become almost a rite of passage. Some eager youngsters say they hope to become astronauts, teachers, doctors, fire fighters, athletes or veterinarians. All good choices.
Of course, it’s hard to say how many of those students eventually achieve those early dreams. But to find a child who did—after a slight detour—look no further than Calera.
When Melissa McMurray was asked as a 7-year-old what she wanted to be, she tried to come up with what she thought would be an exciting job. The answer to that seemed simple. She wanted to be an artist.
“I loved art class when I was in school because it was the most fun part of my day,” says Melissa, who grew up in Decatur.
And she stuck with that idea well beyond the second grade, taking art classes throughout high school and majoring in fine arts at the University of Alabama. However, the realities of adulthood and finding a job began to discolor her artistic plans during college, so Melissa decided to turn to another profession she was passionate about. “I love kids, so I thought teaching would be a good career,” she says.
It’s proven to be such a good choice that Melissa has spent the past 18 years teaching. She now calls Calera home with her husband and two children, Isla, 7, and Max, 5, and she spends her weekdays in a classroom at Meadow View Elementary School in Alabaster.
Most of her teaching career has been spent in the first grade. However, five years ago, her perspective, life and job changed. Her son was born two months early with a surprise Down syndrome diagnosis.
Each time Melissa would go to visit him at Shelby Baptist Medical Center in Alabaster during his six-week NICU stay, she noticed the various stores along her drive. While there were plenty that caught her eye, she kept thinking there was something missing: an art studio.
“When he was born, that was all I thought about. Art just popped into my head,” she says, thinking of her son and the challenges he faced ahead. “Anybody can do art and work with it.”
Knowing art could one day be an outlet for her son, her love for the craft became as strong as ever. Six months later, the art position at her school opened up, and Melissa says she couldn’t be happier with her current role as art teacher.
“Everything just fell into place, like a gift from God,” she says. “I have the most fun job in the whole elementary school.”
Accepting that position also pushed her one step closer to achieving her childhood goal of becoming an artist. After she moved into the role of elementary art teacher, Melissa began creating artwork of her own again too.
Her pieces feature bright colors painted in messy brush strokes, forming happy, light-hearted imagery. From flowers and landscapes to vibrant birds and bunnies, her paintings can liven up any room.
“My artwork starts off messy and chaotic. I like the messiness because I’m not trying to be perfect. You cover up parts as you’re painting and let others show through,” she says. “Finding beauty in the mess is a great analogy in life.”
Her son has helped her discover, even more so, how wonderful life can be and what’s really important. “He is a bright spot in our lives. He’s brought a lot of joy to our family,” she says. “I think he’s helped me realize the true meaning of life: to spread joy and happiness to others.”
Melissa’s work has been displayed at the Kessler Lofts on 3rd Ave. N. in Birmingham in February and March. To view or purchase her artwork, follow her on Instagram @MelissaMcMurrayArt.
Art Bridges the Gap
Putting both her mother and teacher hats on, Melissa McMurray knew her son Max—who was born with a surprise Down syndrome diagnosis—would be below grade level in every subject when he got to school. Well, except for one.
“If you’re a struggling reader, I don’t know about that in the art room. That’s where all of the kids are on a very level playing field,” Melissa says. “It’s not about the final product but about the process. I feel like art is a place where everyone can be successful in their own way. There’s no right or wrong in art. You can make whatever makes you happy.”
Taking that concept beyond the classroom, Melissa says she would love to open an art gallery and studio when she retires from teaching. That would give Max a place to work when he got older, if he wanted, as well as bring something special to the city.
“I see so many other kids who have a hard time finding employment, so this could help them too,” she says. “It would also be great for our community and be a place for everyone to come and be creative.”