Interview with Artist Melissa A. Benson
- Christian Tobehn
Melissa A. Benson is one of the original 25 Magic artists. Her paintings illustrate 63 Magic cards, printed from Alpha to Urza's block. Some of them, especially her earliest pieces, count among the most iconic creatures of all time: Nightmare, Lord of Atlantis, and the mighty Shivan Dragon.
While her Magic days lie in the past, Melissa A. Benson is still active in the world of cardboard, as we'll learn from the following interview …
Dr. Exhume: Mrs. Benson, please tell us how you came to illustrating.
Melissa Benson: Well, music and art have been my two loves. Right out of high school I decided to pursue music. I received my associate degree, tutored my classmates in music theory and harmony. Although I play woodwinds, I majored on bassoon with an eye toward conducting. When it came to getting a job, I found the music industry too ugly to pursue professionally.
Fortunately, I took art classes all through the music program, and decided to go for my associates degree in art. So many of the required courses were the same for art and music that I was able to get the art degree quickly. And art was a better fit for me since you can do it alone. Music usually involves other people. I was always drawing as a kid, I decorated the wallpaper in the living room—much to my mother's displeasure. I was very fortunate to have supportive parents for both music and art. Mythical animals and anthropomorphic creatures were my favorites.
Dr. Exhume: You started illustrating Magic cards with the very first set, Alpha. How did you get involved in Magic: The Gathering?
Melissa Benson: I was looking for work doing paperback book covers for fantasy novels. My husband was a comics fan and dealer, and the comic book store had some gaming items. They looked like a good fit, so I took down some addresses and contacted them. One of them said they'd send me a five-page list of gaming companies, so I said sure. Then I started sending out queries to them all.
Jesper [Myrfors] at Wizards of the Coast got back to me. He said that he was the art director for a game that was in the works, and that my work looked like it would be a good fit for it. Soon after that, he got back to me and I took seven cards. In hindsight, I should have taken more. I had the time. But Wizards was only paying $50, and $50 worth of stock, per illustration. I didn't feel like I could spend more time on those cards than that. I had to look for jobs that paid better. Sigh …
Dr. Exhume: You illustrated many highly iconic creatures like Shivan Dragon, Lord of Atlantis, Nightmare, and Cloud of Faeries. Do you have a favorite among your Magic artworks? Is there a piece you do not like anymore?
Melissa Benson: I don't have a favorite image from the game. I still really like the ideas behind them all, but after 25+ years I see some irritating mistakes I made, and how they should have been done. I wouldn't say I dislike them, I am just kinda embarrassed by some now. If I had them to do over, many would be altogether different.
Melissa Benson: There is a special relationship with all of them at the time they are being done. That was the beauty of being able to pick the images rather than having them assigned arbitrarily. I like doing pin-ups and creatures, and for the most part, that is what I always chose. I like to make my creatures unusual. For Xira, I thought of those moths with the fuzzy antennas, and noticed how much they resembled a medieval headdress, and it spiraled out from there. Ivory Guardians was originally titled the Skyros Titan. That is why he is blue. It is also why there is only one. It is also why he is huge. It was really annoying when they changed the name. It was a pet peeve of mine.
Dr Exhume: Is there a colleague you admire—whether from back in the day or more recent, from Magic or elsewhere?
Melissa Benson: Quinton Hoover. Without a doubt, hands down. We talked about doing a piece together, but never got around to it. I would pencil it, he would ink it, and I would color it. The closest we got was when Quinton, Mark Poole, and I were at a show in Vermont, and we all did a piece together. Quinton offered to ink it, and Mark and I couldn't say yes fast enough. You can see the print on my website.
Dr. Exhume: That's a phenomenal choice! What are you currently working on?
Melissa Benson: Besides trying to catch up on a five-month backlog of commissions, I have done many of the cards for the new game Sorcery: Contested Realms. The game is designed to look like an old-school card game made in the nineties, with the varied, hand-painted, and iconic art of that era. There are several of the original Magic artists working on it, and there will be a Kickstarter for it in 2021. You can see some of my art for it on their their Facebook page and on this page of my website. I'll be putting up pieces a little at a time. Most images are characters/creatures or artifacts.
Dr. Exhume: Thank you so much for your time and for the nice conversation!
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