As a boy growing up in the gritty northeastern town of Middlesbrough, England, Ken Melber excelled at drawing and painting. He went to college to study art and art history, but his father took his newly minted art-graduate son, pointed to an advertisement in the newspaper for a teaching job, and insisted he apply for a "worthwhile" career. Melber did, and today, after years teaching in prestigious schools in the United Kingdom and Africa, is now a vice principal at the Out-Of-Door Academy.
But along the way, Melber returned to his first love-art-and now has a fledgling but thriving business, Architectural Artistry, for which he sketches portraits of Sarasota houses. With crisp, confident strokes, Melber captures the essence of some of this city’s loveliest neighborhoods. Feathery foliage brushes against a welcoming bay window in one portrait; in another, a banyan spreads its gracious limbs in the foreground of a sprawling Mediterranean mansion. Water glints before bayfront mansions, and sunlight streams through dense oak canopies, dappling the winding driveways below.
"I do a lot of lines, and then, all of a sudden, the lines start coming to life," says Melber, a genial man who grows his hair long during the summers he spends traveling across America (this year, he trekked through the Badlands). "The more texture on the house-stucco, tile, gravel-the better, because I love drawing the texture. If there’s a bush in the wrong place, I get rid of it, and I exaggerate perspective to make the house more dynamic."
Indeed, Melber’s sketches, with their dreamy strokes and the nostalgic air they impart, do confer a patina of age and dignity upon their subjects. Perhaps that has something to do with one of his favorite subjects, Stowe School, a British preparatory school set in an historic house amid magnificent landscaped gardens, where Melber chaired the art department for 13 years. His sketches of the ornate entryway, its pillars, bridges and steps, caught the eye of a Sarasota woman who asked if he would draw her house.
Before teaching at Stowe, Melber worked for the president of Malawi, Hastings Banda, helping start a school that now bills itself as the Eton of Africa. His wife, Annie, and their now-grown son and daughter lived in Malawi six years. "At one point, we were 22 miles from the nearest gas station or shop," he recalls.
While working in schools in Malawi, Uganda and Nigeria, Melber began drawing the little dukkas, or ramshackle shops, on the side of the highways in Africa. They sell everything from kerosene to beer and flour and often have goats tethered to a post outside. His sketches were popular with the expatriate community there. After moving back to England to teach at Stowe, Melber began to draw pictures of some of the picturesque cottages in the Cotswolds. Soon, friends asked him to make portraits of their houses also, precursors to his work here in Sarasota.
After Stowe School, Melber became principal of Wycliffe Preparatory School in England. While there, he established an exchange program with the Out-of-Door Academy that’s now in its fifth year. The principal of Out-of-Door invited Melber to teach here two years ago.
He and Annie live in Longwood Run, in a house whose walls are hung with many of Melber’s paintings, mostly of nature and Florida fauna. This is where he spends a good 10 to 12 hours working on each commission. After photographing the house, he makes drawings for the client to approve before creating the final sketch. Along with the artwork, which Melber frames, the client receives a CD with Melber’s image, so they can use it to print business cards, greeting cards or make posters to frame. So far, all of Melber’s business has come from word of mouth, and though he thinks he would miss teaching were he to switch to art full time, he does enjoy his house sketches.
"I like that they become three-dimensional on the page," says Melber. "When you get the sunlight right, the drawings can look fantastic."
Black-and-white portraits start at $350; color portraits at $650. Melber can be contacted at Architectural Artistry, (941) 351-7353, or visit his Web site at kenmelber.artsourcestudio.com.