Friends keep slain Norwalk waitress’ artistic passion alive
NORWALK — Melissa Wilkinson was a person always searching for modes of self-expression.
Sheena Parker, a friend who worked with Wilkinson at Strada 18 on Washington Street, remembers Wilkinson as someone who loved to sing karaoke, make her own jewelry, collect old cameras, take photographs and sketch.
“One thing that I liked, that stood out, is that she was always doodling and stuff,” Parker remembered.
Erienne Murphy, who met Wilkinson in Norwalk through her boyfriend, remembered her as always smiling, an almost larger-than-life presence at Strada 18 and Match Restaurant, where Wilkinson also worked for a time.
“She was one of the strongest personalities I’ve ever met. Her personality was just so big and bubbly. She always had this gigantic smile on her face. Her laugh was so contagious. Anybody that was part of her group or part of her people, she was so good to them,” Murphy said.
“I feel like when people pass away, we say these things about how wonderful they were and how they lit up the room,” said Mary Stine, a close friend of Wilkinson’s. “She didn’t just light up the room, she lit it on fire. She came in with this bombastic energy.”
Wilkinson was a beloved friend, a waitress known to many on the South Norwalk restaurant scene and an aspiring artist who, because of financial hardships, had to put her degree in graphic design on hold. And, on April 30, 2017, she was killed at age 33 in a murder-suicide by her father, who had been living with her in her Wilton Avenue home in Norwalk.
Her death was a shocking blow to her family, friends and community. And in the years since, Parker, Murphy, Stine and others have been puzzling over a way to memorialize their friend.
“When it first happened, all I could think was I needed some way to bring light out of all this darkness,” Parker said. “All these things were going on in my head and I said, ‘How do I make this work for Melissa?’ I spoke to some other friends, her family, her sister came on board. We threw some ideas around.”
Ultimately, they decided to create a foundation that would channel some of Wilkinson’s passions and encourage self-expression in others.
The goal of the Melissa Wilkinson Foundation — formed in July 2018 by Parker, with Murphy as treasurer and Stine as secretary — is to raise money for artists facing financial hardships. And on April 27, almost exactly two years since Wilkinson’s death, the foundation will host its first-ever fundraiser, from 1 to 5 p.m. at Blind Rhino on North Main Street. They’ll offer food and drink specials, auction off art works donated by friends of Wilkinson’s and raise money for the Norwalk nonprofit Junior Arts & Music (JAM), whose mission it is to provide an artistic safe haven for underserved communities, specifically inner city youth and adults with special needs.
“Melissa was an artist and Sheena was really keen to honor her legacy and her creativity with providing some kind of art and music program to those that otherwise wouldn’t have access,” said Bridget Mariner, lead “JAMbassador” at the nonprofit. “We’re hoping to do some kind of program partnership in honor of Melissa that really gives back to the community.”
As recently as December, Parker was still working to solidify her plans for a first annual event. At a separate charity event just before the new year, Parker saw students from JAM perform and immediately decided she’d like to collaborate. She connected with staff from JAM, then secured a date at Blind Rhino.
The next step was to gather people who knew Wilkinson.
“It’s been absolutely remarkable the people that want to get involved, who either knew Melissa personally who want to participate, who want to help. There are a lot of local artists and a lot of restaurants in the community coming together. She was part of that world for a long time,” Parker said.
Those involved cite different reasons for wanting to honor Wilkinson’s memory.
Andrea Rossi is one of several artists and friends of Wilkinson’s who will donate works to the auction. Rossi is formally trained in printmaking and photography and worked with Wilkinson at Strada 18, but when she moved from New York City to Norwalk, found herself unable to find inspiration. She worked through her creative block with the help of Wilkinson.
“It got to a point where I said to her I was having almost, like, a block,” Rossi said. “We talked about how as artists we go through that and ways to overcome it, so I started carrying around a drawing pad and pen and would sketch whatever I felt like. It kind of kept me more in the moment.”
To Stine, Wilkinson was a constant karaoke companion at the Norwalk Boat Club, where she sang heartily despite, as Stine described it, not having the best voice. She said that, when thinking of her friend, she likes to recall the words spoken about Wilkinson by the priest at her funeral.
“Let us not define Melissa by how she left this world, let us define her by how she was when she was in it,” Stine remembered the priest’s words. “And that’s what we’re trying to do at the Melissa Wilkinson Foundation.”
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