The walls of Melissa Pierce's shop at The Barnyard Flea Market in Lexington are lined with prints of her digital artwork — colorful fantasy pieces featuring a cast of neon characters like bright, wide-eyed mermaids and dragons with sweeping wings.
Her work has brought an imaginative, fantastical art style to Columbia, which stands out because of its relatively lesser-done digital medium.
“Oh, there is no artist quite like her in the Columbia area,” her husband Josh Pierce said. “She does her own thing, and it's really, really magical how she puts it all together. And it's just so different, so unique.”
Her style is a combination of Japanese animation and Western animation, according to Melissa Pierce. She said her inspiration stems from folklore and mythology, as well as Dungeons & Dragons and the work of Brian Froud, conceptual designer for the movies "Labyrinth" and "The Dark Crystal."
The shop is a brightly-colored corner of Columbia’s art world that offers pieces Melissa Pierce said she hasn’t seen anywhere else. She recognizes the art presence in areas like NOMA Warehouse and downtown Columbia, but she said a city's "art scene" is whatever an individual artist decides to make it.
“I'd like to say I created my own art scene,” she said.
Before establishing this art scene, Melissa Pierce lived in rural Florida among “orange groves and swamp and pasture."
Although she loved the country, upon meeting her husband in an online chat room 20 years ago, she "escaped" to South Carolina with him. He asked Pierce if she wanted to move somewhere with cooler weather and better opportunities and she readily agreed.
"I said, 'I can leave? We can leave? Yes! Yes! I want to leave!'" Melissa Pierce said.
Upon moving, the two eventually settled in their current home, a converted bus, with their black cat, Chad.
Before she was a full-time artist vending at The Barnyard Flea Market, Melissa Pierce found work as a caricature artist and a photographer.
While working to make church directories and offering portraiture services, she began work on her comic book series "Shurale," which centers around a character based on the mythical “tickle monster” of Turkish folklore. She had self-produced several issues and chapters of the comic, but she hadn't been able to afford to print them out.
Her career came to its first turning point during this time in her life — she got an invitation from a friend to sell her art at Barnyard.
Vending at the fleamarket allowed her to earn enough money to print the first physical copy of "Shurale", which Josh Pierce said was another critical moment in Pierce's career.Over time, she expanded her shop at Barnyard from a table to a larger, permanent shop where there is now an entire display of "Shurale" comics available for purchase.
Tony Williams, who has been a vendor at The Barnyard Flea Market for over 15 years, has supported Pierce since she arrived at the flea market.
Williams described her as initially timid, but he encouraged her to have confidence in her work, assuring her that her products were unique and worth buying.
And he was right. Her shop now has a steady stream of customers, according to Williams.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, her work was a breath of fresh air for many of these customers, Josh Pierce said.
“She had so many people that were stopping by and they were just so thankful to come across somebody who was doing what she was doing," Josh Pierce said. “During the whole pandemic and everything, there wasn't any of that. So it was just, it was really refreshing for a lot of people to see that.”
Currently, Melissa Pierce is working on more "Shurale" comics, which she hopes to turn into a three-part series. She is also accepting commission requests, and she will likely continue developing her shop and work.
Her husband said he knows she will — he admires her determination most.
"She's so driven by what she does," he said. "She's always striving to better her style, better her technique and just to try new things."