Bayou Artist | Melissa Stroud
article by STARLA GATSON
photography by KELLY MOORE CLARK
Whether you spotted her slinging lattes and cappuccinos at the café where she baristas or selling her creations at a local art market, you could probably tell at first glance that Melissa Stroud marches to her own drumbeat. “I think a lot of people see me and say, ‘Oh, she’s different, but she’s owning it. She’s very comfortable with herself,’” the Louisiana native muses. Anyone who thinks that of Stroud is correct. She is different, and she’s comfortable with herself, thanks to her upbringing in a household that valued and encouraged self-expression. She is confident enough to embrace standing out. And, as any artist would, she brings that confidence into her work.
Many of Stroud’s fellow North Louisiana creatives busy themselves sketching lifelike portraits or painting landscape scenes, but her work tends to depict other images. Like her peers, she paints and draws. But she focuses much of her energy on creating three-dimensional artwork with things like pressed flowers, animal skulls, and preserved butterflies.
“I’ve always had an interest in things that aren’t necessarily considered beautiful,” she says, explaining her unique choice of materials. She adds, “I wanted to find a way to incorporate those things with those that are generally beautiful, like flowers.”
The young artist uses the combination of lovely and not-so-lovely things — flowers and skulls or preserved bugs and insects — to shine a light on a dark, often avoided topic: death.
“Death is kind of a scary thing,” Stroud admits. “We don’t know exactly what happens when we die, and it’s something that brings fear to a lot of people. But death is unavoidable. Eventually, we will all succumb to something, and I want to show people it doesn’t have to be this scary thing. You’ve lived your life and left a mark on the world. Let it be an inspiration.”
Stroud hasn’t always had such a brave, optimistic perception of death — “I tried not to think about [it],” she tells BayouLife when asked how her younger self viewed the topic. But now, she embraces it fully, acknowledging death as a natural part of life.
“As I got older and death became more prevalent — people close to me passed away — I adopted the idea that when we die, it can be something beautiful. We go to heaven or whatever afterlife you believe in,” she shares. “But I can show that it’s beautiful before we pass and give people the idea that death isn’t something to be feared.”
Stroud’s intent to normalize death and alleviate fears surrounding it led her to create Of Life and Loss Creations, the business under which she sells her art. The name is somewhat self-explanatory, she says, adding, “It speaks to what my business is about. I sell stickers with zodiac symbols and make birthflower paintings. Those have the life aspect. There’s loss [shown in] the preserved butterflies I use and the animal skulls. [What I sell] is an incorporation of the two, life and loss.”
The macabre, gothic pieces Stroud makes aren’t for everyone — and taxidermy artwork isn’t super prevalent in the area, either! — but she isn’t deterred by the naysayers she sometimes encounters.
“I’ve had a few people look [at my art] and say, ‘Oh, that’s so dark. You should do something a little bit lighter,’” she says. “But I also have people that have purchased from me who are glad to see something different. That’s what encourages me, and I try to let the negative comments roll off my back. It’s not for everyone. I knew that going in.”
Stroud admits it’s frustrating when people don’t like her art, but she reminds herself that, regardless of what they make, every artist experiences criticism or rejection.
“Everyone has an opinion on what you make,” she declares. “They might want you to do something differently, but it’s all about what you’re making. You are the artist, and your creations are a symbolic representation of who you are. I want to fully be myself through my art. That’s all that matters to me.”
The ability to express herself freely through her work is another reason Stroud began Of Life and Loss Creations. She had been interested in art since childhood and decided early on that she could see herself pursuing a career in the field. So, she did what many others do: enrolled in a university graphic design program. However, it didn’t take long for her to realize that graphic design wouldn’t give her the artistic autonomy she craved.
“I dropped out around the time COVID happened,” she says. “[The pandemic] made it really hard to do drawing classes online, so I took a break from art altogether for a while. Then, my husband and I saw some artists selling bone art. They were pieces you don’t normally see in this area. And it inspired me.”
Stroud says now that a career in graphic design wouldn’t have fulfilled her — “I don’t love being told what I have to draw.” — but she gives her brief stint at college credit for developing some of the skills she uses in the art she makes now.
“[College] taught me a lot about composition and how to keep the viewer’s eye moving throughout your piece. I use a lot of that in my art,” she shares. Then, she dives deeper into her creative process and what making her preserved butterfly- or animal skull-emblazoned pieces typically looks like.
“The frames I use are thrifted, just to embrace Of Life and Loss; that frame was lost to someone, but it’s new to me, and I’m using it for something new,” she says. “I usually spray paint it gold or black and add some new details to it.”
Stroud says even the colors of the frame contribute to her life and loss, light and dark, themes, “Gold shows royalty. It’s very elegant, so I use it to add to the beauty of it all. It’s contrasting to the art I do. [Gold is] elegant, and most people don’t see death as an elegant thing.”
Then, after adding paint — giving new life — to the frame, she begins working on what goes inside of it. She explains, “I usually use velvet material to back the frame. I pin or use craft glue to adhere the flowers, bones, and butterflies to the backing. As I go, I see where different spaces need something.”
The result of these efforts are pieces that blend life and death beautifully, offer local art fans a taste of something different, and satiate Stroud’s desire to create the things she wants to make. She categorizes her work as gothic art, a style that’s received a bigger following in recent years. But because she knows not everyone shares her interest in darker, gothic-style work, she also offers paintings of birthflowers. That way, her collection has a little something for everyone.
“I found a book called The Wise Garden Encyclopedia,” she says of creating the flowery images. “In it, I’d look up whatever flower or plant I wanted to do, sketch it out in pencil, and paint it. I take inspiration from other paintings of the same flower I find, but ultimately, I create something new and unique.”
The birth flower paintings cater to those who aren’t quite as fond of her macabre taxidermy creations, but they also reinforce one statement Stroud wants local art patrons to know: death isn’t the only thing on her mind.
“I’m not a scary person,” she says. “I love life. I hope people can see there’s more to my art than meets the eye.”
Keep up with Melissa Stroud and Of Life and Loss Creations on Instagram, @oflifeandlossco.