Story by Lisa Collins-Haynes | Photos by Sean Floars
Years ago, a friend of Gerri Mellen’s ran a small entertainment business and needed somebody to paint children’s faces at birthday parties and other events. She hired Mellen to do the job. Because she did not have much experience with face painting, Mellen took a class and discovered that she really didn’t like it. “I started off painting dog faces, cat faces and princesses in class but it didn’t intrigue me,” said Mellen, who now owns Face Odyssey, LLC, a Woodbridge-based face painting company.
She also said that she felt intimidated, perhaps because the other students were more advanced than she was. Still, Mellen didn’t want to disappoint her friend, so she went through with the class. And it’s a good thing she did. Her first job was a church event in Clifton, Va. where she discovered that actually working with children turned her entire perception of the craft around.
Carving Out an Artistic Career
Growing up in Worcester, Mass. Mellen discovered her interest in art during a museum trip at the age of 13. However, she said as a teenager she dreamed of becoming an executive secretary because she thought it would be a glamorous profession like in the movies and she could wear stylish clothes. While it wasn’t exactly the dreamy job she always wanted, she did work as a medical secretary at a dental supply company for a while. Her mother encouraged her to look for a dentist to marry. While she did try, marrying a dentist or being a secretary wasn’t in the cards for her.
As she got older, she realized interior design and decorating appealed to her most. Her artistic side awakened, Mellen began stenciling in 1977. First, she stenciled artwork onto her own walls, then moved on to those of family and friends. Eventually, she moved to Woodbridge and started working for clients at Horizon Homes, a model home building company she owned with her husband, brother and sister-in-law. The demand for her work grew to the point that Mellen and a friend created Silver Bridge Reproductions, designing stencil kits people could use to decorate their own homes.
Mellen said that the editor of Better Homes and Gardens bought a kit and loved it so much that she featured it in an article. After that, orders for the kits poured in from all over. Overwhelmed, Mellen enlisted her children to help put the orders together and mail them out. In 1984, the women sold the business to a wallpaper company.
Soon after, Mellen received the face painting call from her friend. Within months of that first job at the church, Face Odyssey began to take shape almost by accident. People started asking for her business card. She realized that maybe cards would be a good idea, and quickly got a handful made. Next, she built her business by offering free face painting at a pumpkin patch in Dumfries. The calls started coming in for parties and events.
To keep up with demand, Mellen contracted more painters and an assistant to help manage her growing business. Mellen said she started off training the new face painters herself, but eventually required them to attend the same type of class that she took.
Kid Friendly, Mom Approved
These days, Face Odyssey is a regular fixture at several area businesses. In Woodbridge, you can find Mellen at the All American Steakhouse on Wednesday nights or Silver Diner on Tuesdays. She brings along a huge board that shows designs children can pick from. Mellen then recreates the designs on their tiny faces, managing to make each one unique. Mellen revealed that the most popular design for girls is butterflies; boys most often request Spiderman. four-year-old Riley Heim of Woodbridge can’t wait to visit All American each week. Riley’s mom, Beth Heim, said that when she asks her daughter what Wednesday night is, Riley screams, “Steakhouse night!” Heim has been taking Riley to see Mellen for almost two years.
“Riley just loves Gerri and getting her face or arm painted,” said Heim. “Gerri is wonderful with kids, does an amazing job, has great artistic ability and works with Riley each week to create the perfect art design.” Watching Mellen at work, it’s easy to see that selecting just the right vivid colors, listening to each child’s requests and recreating the exact image they want takes an incredible amount of artistic skill—and patience.
Mellen said she can do nearly a dozen full faces in an hour and even more for less intricate designs or cheek art. For large events, she calls in her face painters, all independent contractors, to reduce wait time for the children. In addition to restaurants, parties and large events, Mellen also goes to childcare centers. She is a preferred vendor for Minnieland, painting faces at its local centers for years.
Keeping Up & Giving Back
Mellen wants to continue to grow her business, so she keeps up with the latest designs and technology in the industry. She said she works hard to make sure her brand is distinctive and her designs fresh. Her car even sports a vanity license plate that reads FAC ODYC, and her “uniform,” a teeshirt with her colorful, recognizable logo, really draws people in.
Additionally, a website and mobile app allow people to book her services from anywhere. Mellen herself is mobile, and will travel to paint faces. She said she is considering creating a network of traveling face painters.
When time permits, Mellen also enjoys donating her time and services to charitable causes. She’s provided face-painting services for Habitat for Humanity and the Junior Diabetes Research Foundation. She has also volunteered at community events, such as grand opening celebrations for McDonald’s on Old Bridge Road in Lake Ridge and the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton.
What started off as a mere favor for a friend 10 years ago has turned into a labor of love. Mellen smiles from ear to ear when she talks about the joy of working with children. “The smiles, the hugs—I just love what I do and it’s one of the best decisions I ever made,” said Mellen. “The parents and kids remember you too. From party to party or from different events, when they see me, they say ‘Oh my goodness, you’re all over.’”
To book Face Odyssey for events or to view Mellen’s work, visit face-odyssey.com .
Lisa Collins-Haynes, who comes to Northern Virginia by way of Texas, is a freelance entertainment and travel writer and selfprofessed out-of-control travel spirit. Follow her travel blog at www.octsblogger.wordpress.com, or email her at [email protected]