Artist building reputation with paintings of wild turkeys

February 24, 2001

Artist building reputation with paintings of wild turkeys

By RICHARD F. BELISLE / Staff Writer

GREENCASTLE, Pa. - Melissa Gayman Ball dips a tiny paintbrush into a dab of acrylic paint and gingerly applies it to a turkey feather. The results, when she's done, are wildlife scenes and portraits that add a new dimension to nature's handiwork.

Last weekend, Ball, 27, of Grant Shook Road in Greencastle, won first place in a field of 20 entrants at the National Wild Turkey Federation Convention in Ohio for an acrylic painting on canvas depicting a turkey hunting scene. Her back yard and her husband, Jim, were the models.

Her daughter, Kali, 8, a budding artist, won a first prize in her age division at the convention for a wild turkey water color.

"It was the first time a mother and daughter were first-place winners. Everybody there was talking about it," Ball said.

Ball grew up in Greencastle and graduated from Greencastle-Antrim High School, where she took art classes. Her first commission was an impressionistic painting of a historic building in Chambersburg as it was supposed to have looked in 1800, she said.


She spent a year as an apprentice with renowned wildlife artist Mark Twain Noe, of McConnellsburg, Pa. Noe attended the same show in Ohio. He said Ball and her daughter wowed the judges.

"The Turkey Federation's real high on her right now," Noe said.

"She's got a tremendous talent," he said. "I just can't say enough about her."

Ball said she decided to try her talents on turkey feathers when she saw it done by another artist. Her first attempt was a portrait of her husband, shotgun in hand, squatting over a turkey he had just killed. It was painted from a photograph as a surprise gift for him, she said.

Her second feather painting, also a portrait from a photograph, showed her grandfather and her brother in a hunting scene.

"When I started painting feathers, I had no idea it would turn into a full-time job," she said.

Today, commissions come walking through the door as her work is seen by sportsmen and nature lovers.

Her feather scenes range from portraits to wildlife. They sell for between $100 and $350, depending on subject and framing.

Painting on feathers is tedious work. Ball begins by spraying each feather with an acrylic sealer to prevent the paint from soaking into the porous surface.

The tiniest brushes work her art onto the feathers. She has a habit of sticking the paint-laden brushes in her mouth between strokes to maintain their points. The acrylics she uses are not toxic, she said.

"It's just a habit now," Ball said. "I don't even know I'm doing it half the time."

Her latest canvas is entitled "Last Call." It's a still life showing a turkey call, two shotgun shells and a turkey feather. The original sold for $1,250, she said.

The scene, being sold in numbered prints, is becoming popular with buyers who enjoy Ball's kind of art.

The family is converting a basement room into an art studio.

"When it's done, Kali will have her easel in one corner and I'll have mine in another," Ball said.

"I started out painting on the living room floor," she said.

Moving her studio to the unfinished basement has made her work easier, she said.

Her husband and his hunting friends keep her stocked in turkey feathers.

Jim Ball runs his own house painting and wallpapering business.

"He does the big stuff and I do the little stuff," Ball said.

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