Michelle Dunaway Explores the Mystery & Majesty of the Inner Self

An Interview with the Figurative Painter

Study of Holly in Charcoal by Michelle Dunaway

Michelle Dunaway was born in Alaska where she spent many of her nights watching the fascinating colours of the night sky created by the northern lights. She moved to New Mexico in her teens and was greeted by the enchanting beauty of the land.

But the enigma that captivated her most since her childhood was the expressions, often ephemeral in nature, on the faces of the human being. As her fondness for painting grew with time, she actively used her brushes to trace the obscure language of the human heart.

In the process, she took training in the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California; earned several awards and herself as a premier visual chronicler of life. Her portraits and figurative paintings, ‘Remembering Home’, ‘Strength and Grace’ or ‘Poetry’ aptly depict what has long been suspected, that, ‘Beauty is truth’s smile when she beholds her own face in a perfect mirror.’

Growing up amidst the pristine natural beauty of Alaska how was the artist within you spurred early on? How the environment at home nurtured the artist and human being in you?

Growing up in Alaska was a truly magical experience. Although I lived in the city of Anchorage, the wilderness still surrounded us and I was constantly inspired by the natural environment that is so unique in that region of the US. Seeing the Aurora Borealis in the night sky for example or the tremendous variations of colour throughout the natural landscape … summer nights where sunsets lingered for 4 hours on the horizon because it hardly got dark in the summertime, the amazing wildlife all around. All of this spurred my creative and imaginative side as a child. I spent last summer travelling around Alaska and painting the people and landscapes there. My recent paintings from Alaska will be featured in a solo show in New York City in Sept 2014.

My home environment was also very creative. My mother was always involved with the arts in some way from wood carving to stained glass and painting. Being around her creativity encouraged me to find and express my own. My father and I spent a lot of time out of doors in nature as well which was also a great influence.

I tend to feel more enriched after the painting is completed as if I’ve added to my experience not just as an artist, but as a human being.

How did the relocation to a geographically and culturally different landscape of New Mexico affect you? How did the formal training received in Art Masters Academy, Albuquerque and Art Center College of Design, Pasadena help refine your skills?

New Mexico is very different from Alaska but equally as beautiful. The skies here are ever reaching and vast and again the colour is just mesmerizing. New Mexico is called the Land of Enchantment for good reason and there are many painters that visit the area because of the qualities of light. The Art schools I attended really honed my life drawing skills. It’s imperative that an artist works regularly from life, nothing trains the eye and hand as well as working from life.

Shell Seeker, Painting by Michelle Dunaway
Shell Seeker

As a figurative painter, how does it feel capturing the soul of the subject on canvas? How does your power of observation come to your aid in this process?

That’s always the goal to me, to capture the essence of the sitter, something indicative of the spirit or soul. As painters, we must get our drawing accurate, find the correct values and technical aspects, but a painting is much more than simply those qualities.

A painting or drawing is a moment captured, a moment where you see beyond the surface of things. When I experience those moments in the presence of another human being, when you glimpse something beneath the surface presented to you and see a bit of the inner journey of the individual, well, those are the moments I cherish experiencing as a human being and those are the moments I wish to capture and preserve in paint.

There develops a connection in those moments, they are fleeting and pure and authentic. My greatest aspiration is to convey a bit of that inspiration to the viewer, to somehow imbue the painting beyond simply the physical representation of what I’m seeing and impart some of the inner beauty I am experiencing.

You do have the privilege of being mentored by some of the finest contemporary artists. How did these experiences help in widening your perspective?

We are always standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before us, in the arts or in any vocation. I feel so grateful for the generous mentors that have shared their knowledge with me over the years and I hope to pass on all that I have learned to my students. There’s a beautiful ripple effect from teachers sharing generously of their experience and wisdom, it ensures the knowledge doesn’t get lost and it helps to progress the whole field of painting.

How much of ‘yourself’ do you leave behind post completion of each one of your paintings? In practising a representational art how often do you find yourself stumbling upon something new, technically, conceptually or otherwise?

I don’t know if you ever leave yourself behind after completing a painting, in fact, I experience quite the opposite. The painting always reflects a portion of yourself and your mindset when it was created, but I tend to feel even more enriched after the painting is completed as if I’ve added to my experience not just as an artist, but as a human being.

In the attempt to connect to a certain subject or to do my best work it always leaves me feeling richer within for having put the best that I have to give into a painting. As to the other part of the question … always. I always find myself stumbling across something new technically and conceptually every time I paint.

Even when not actually painting, when just listening and observing people and or the natural world concepts creep in, the inspiration is always there when we are open to receive it.

Remembering Home, Painting by Michelle Dunaway
Remembering Home

You have also been involved in teaching/workshops for some time now. What do you make out of the interaction between the teacher and the students and has there been any learning out of this?

I love teaching and feel it’s very important to pass on the knowledge to future generations. There is always mutual learning going on, I learn a lot when I have to articulate what I’m doing and why teaching helps hone my skill as well as that of my students.

Which human facet do you love portraying the most? If you are requested to summarise your creative pathway so far what would your answer be?

Introspection is the human facet I love to portray the most. The moment just before or just after action; when the person is in contemplation of something, either an inspiration or a reflection of a moment. We all experience such moments and when I have the beautiful experience of witnessing it in another person it’s like a veil dropping and you can see the authenticity of that person, they show some transparency and you see deeper into who they are.

Those are enchanting moments to me when you can really see a glimpse of another soul and find the connection to your own. Underneath our exteriors we are all so similar, traversing the same emotional inner journeys. That fascinates me and inspires me as an artist.

It’s beyond the shapes of the face to the essence of the character of an individual. It’s what I’m most interested in seeing in another person and most inspired to paint. Both individuality and connectivity simultaneously.

My creative pathway I would summarise as paying attention. Really, paying attention to life. It’s something that takes practice, really listening and observing. The world shouts at us so much, especially in this period of history with our smartphones and television and internet, but when we take a moment to get quiet, to observe and really see all of the majesty and mystery around us, to really see the person before us and understand and be appreciative of what an immense gift it is to sit in another persons’ presence and share a conversation or a moment of shared experience with them.

When we open up to that we see how very rich we are as people, we are rich because we can experience truth and beauty at any moment that we choose to be open to it and that when we do, the inspiration to express what we are experiencing creatively just flows, whether you are a painter, a musician, a parent or a teacher.

My goal is to pay attention a little more each day, be grateful a little more each moment and paint all of that experience the best I am able.

Portrait of Michelle Dunaway

Michelle Dunaway

‘I can’t give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create. Accept that answer, just as it is given to you, without trying to interpret it.

Perhaps you will discover that you are called to be an artist. Then take the destiny upon yourself, and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what reward might come from outside. For the creator must be a world for himself and must find everything in himself and in Nature, to whom his whole life is devoted.’ Rainer Maria Rilke shared this advice with a young aspiring poet, Franz Xaver Kappus. It is documented in Rilke’s ‘Letters to a Young Poet’, a book exceedingly admired by Michelle Dunaway.

Her other favourite happens to be, ‘The Alchemist’ by Paulo Coelho, an allegorical novel depicting a man’s journey into his own self. Classical music and instrumental movie soundtracks manage to touch the deeper chords of her heart.

She explains why she loves watching Searching for Bobby Fischer, the Steven Zaillian film released in 1993 — ‘it’s about finding your own creative pathway through your artistic gifts.’ The soothing tone of forest green always has a calming effect on her mind.

Find more of her work at her website.

Image Courtesy: Michelle Dunaway