Radio Maine: Episode 2 with Missy Dunaway
Artist Missy Dunaway joins Dr. Lisa for our second episode of Radio Maine. They discuss Missy's earliest recollections of wanting to become an artist, her military upbringing, and her wanderlust that led to travel around the globe. Missy tells us about her Fulbright Scholarship that sent her to Turkey where she studied textiles and where she began her visual travel journals. We also hear about her new quarantine pet, Carrot the chicken! Missy is one of the featured artists at the Portland Art Gallery in March 2021.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Hello, this is Dr. Lisa Belisle Belisle and you are listening to Radio Maine episode two. Today we're speaking with artist, Missy Dunaway. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Missy Dunaway: Thank you very much for having me.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: When did you first know that you wanted to be an artist?
Missy Dunaway: I think it was always obvious from the very start I always had a natural interest in art and my parents were very kind of nurturing in getting me into art lessons from the very beginning. So I always remember having extracurricular art lessons with professional artists outside of school. And there was one teacher in particular in Monterey, California, where my dad was stationed there for about three years, named Dante Rondo. He is still a practicing artist and he's the first person who really encouraged me to take it seriously to, you know, describe myself as an artist, to say that I was an artist. I think when a lot of people are first starting their art journey will say, I'm just learning, I'm just a student, but he used to tell me, even at the age of six or seven say you're an artist, you're already an artist. And that helped me to take it seriously. So I'd say around then, I knew that that's what I wanted to do.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: A really interesting approach because I know that something similar goes on with writers where, you know, you're writing, you're writing, you're writing, but when do you get to call yourself an actual writer? You know, is it when you're published? Is it when somebody has bought your work? But if you actually are kind of acting as if, as if you already are an artist, then you can kind of re pattern your brain in a way.
Missy Dunaway: I agree. I think you deserve, or you earned the title when you are going through the actions. So when I'm painting, obviously I'm a painter. And I don't think that it's a a title that someone has to hand you. It just comes through the actions of doing it, that if you're writing, you're a writer, if you're a painting, you're a painter.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: I didn't realize that you came from a military family.
Missy Dunaway: Right. My dad actually retired when I was in the fifth grade. So we were moving up until I was in the fourth grade and then we were stationed in Annapolis, Maryland, where my dad was teaching at the Naval Academy. He's a graduate from the Naval Academy and he's a captain in the Navy. After that, he started working in Washington DC, like a lot of people from Annapolis. So we settled in Annapolis and for the most part I was raised there.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Well, it's interesting to hear that because in our family, we have individuals who are in the Navy, Air Force, and Marines. And I worked for the Veterans Administration for a little while as a doctor. It's a different mindset, isn't it?
Missy Dunaway: It is. It definitely is it's own world and it's very contained because , wherever you go, wherever you're stationed, do you have that military social network, and you also have the commissary where you get your groceries and they have their own movie theaters and, veterinary offices for your pets. Just everything you need is sort of contained in that little world. So when my dad retired, I think we finally got to enjoy civilian life and it was so different and I liked it a lot. Every man in my family, even those who married in, are military, except for my husband, Joe.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Do you think that traveling around when you were younger fed into this interest that you have developed in continuing to travel as an artist now?
Missy Dunaway: Absolutely. I definitely credit my wanderlust to traveling when I was little. And I think we stopped traveling at a very good time for me because I was just entering middle school where, you know, the social cliques start to form and you're going through the awkward stage and being a new kid in school can be extra difficult. And so I sort of had the benefit of moving as a very small child and having those memories that have now been greatly romanticized with time, but then luckily, once I hit the awkward teenage years, I was in one place and could find find my own way and make some friends and not have to worry about moving every two years.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: The things that you've seen as you've traveled have really informed your art.
Missy Dunaway: They have. I really like looking, outside of myself for inspiration. I especially when I was in art school, there was this real drive for the artists to communicate your vision you know, your thoughts or concepts or opinions about things. And I actually had an interdisciplinary degree. So while I was studying painting, I was also studying art history material and visual culture. And so those two passions really blended together. And I really liked using my art, not to talk about myself, but rather use it as a learning tool to explore a new interest. So yes, I mean, when you think about it, the contents of your own mind are limited, but the world is just so full of new things to explore and and learn about with your art. So why not just look outward?
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You have some of your work behind you. And it's really interesting when a lot of us think about art, we think about maybe landscapes or watercolor, and yours is very unique in its style. Tell me about it. So this is
Missy Dunaway: Just from a limited series that I created between about 2012 to 2015, but from 2013 to 2014, I was a Fulbright fellow in Turkey studying Anatolian textiles. And I first discovered the interest in textiles from my parents because my parents collect carpets from an array of middle Eastern countries. And once I got a little bit older, I realized that we had these beautiful works of art just enriching my childhood landscape. And I didn't know anything about them who made them, where they came from. What do these designs mean? So I started researching the origins of the designs of the carpets in my childhood home and started painting about them because, for me, painting is just a way to, to learn about it. You know, how, if you want to understand a clock, you take it apart and put it back together yourself.
Missy Dunaway: And for me as a painter to paint something, I understand its structure and form and a little bit about how it was made more deeply. And I was showing these paintings to a friend of mine who had just finished a Fulbright in Morocco, and she said, this feels like a Fulbright project. You should look into it. And so I started focusing on Turkish carpets in particular because they were my favorite ones. And when I was reading about the earliest Anatolian carpets, they were found in the Alaeddin mosque of Konya in, I think 1904. And these carpets came from the 11th and 12th centuries with the Seljuk empire which its capital was Konya. And when they were discovered there was paintings commissioned of them as a way to document them. I guess it might've been just before they were started using photography so much for preservation.
Missy Dunaway: So when I'd heard about paintings being commissioned of these really old carpets, I just felt connected to that story because that's what I had been doing you know, to document the carpets of my childhood home. So I devised this project to create paintings that were hypothetical depictions of lost carpets from that time period, because they're very rare. There's only about 18, I think that exists. And so that's what I originally went to Turkey for, but when I was there I really wanted to inform my work by learning how to weave. I thought that was very important. So I was learning Turkish at the time and jumped into some weaving classes by this master weaver in Istanbul Mussa Bossran who was so kind to give me complimentary lessons. And then I became more interested in village weaving practices and how women weavers can incorporate their own creative vision and expression into designs. Again, there's always that division between craft and art. Textiles I would firmly put in the art category because there is so much personal expression communicated in this designs. That's not just a utilitarian decorative object
Dr. Lisa Belisle: For you. The story is also very important. And in fact, you have a book coming out, I think fairly soon. Is that not true?
Missy Dunaway: Yes. So during my Fulbright fellowship, I was I doing all these paintings that were realizing my research findings, and they were very academic in their focus. But I was also going through this really exciting personal journey because I was traveling abroad and living alone for the first time actually. And just experiencing this whole new place. And it was an exciting time in my life and I needed some place to express that personal journey. So I started painting in my moleskine sketchbook, landscapes and cityscapes and portraits that just documented my daily life. It was very much a visual journal or a visual diary. And keeping a visual diary became a real passion of mine. It's now my longest running project. And after my Fulbright concluded, I scheduled consecutive artist-in-residence programs so that I could keep traveling around the world, staying in each location for a couple months at a time. And my journal documented the journey along the way. And it's now getting published. So it's a visual travelog of 80 paintings, 80 of my favorite paintings from the pages.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: It seems as though you've simultaneously kind of launched and then remained fairly grounded with your connection to Maine. You go away, you do work and then you come back and you're connected with the Portland Art Gallery. Why has it been so important for you to maintain this grounded-ness and this connection with the state of Maine?
Missy Dunaway: So I moved to Maine just five years ago and I had never been here before. And when I was traveling, I'd do an art residency and then maybe I would just crash with a friend or a boyfriend, or my parents for a couple months and then head back out again for another residency. And I got to the point where I was getting really tired of staying with other people. And I wanted my own landing pad. And before going abroad, the last permanent residence I had was in New York City. And it was way too expensive. I could never possibly leave for a couple months at a time and maintain an apartment there. So I thought, well, what's a smaller city that has natural beauty, that's inspiring to me as an artist with a really nice standard of living where maybe I could afford to have my own apartment that I could leave for a couple of months at a time.
Missy Dunaway: And I, I just thought, "Oh, Portland, Maine, I've never been there before." And the more I read about it online, it seemed like a great fit. And I came up to visit for a weekend. And yes, so it was a total love connection when I came here the first time. And so I just packed my car, drove up, checked into a hotel hopped onto Craigslist, found a job within a couple of days as a receptionist at Satori Hair Salon, and then found an apartment like a couple of days later. And that was it. It's been it's, it was a good decision. That's exactly what I wanted it to be just a really solid landing pad that's beautiful and a really nice community and enriches my art, even when I'm not traveling and I'm at home.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You've also had the opportunity to continue working not only as an artist with the Portland Art Gallery, but with other artists at the Portland Art Gallery and be part of the process of bringing art into people's homes who visit the Portland Art Gallery. How has that changed your perception of being an artist of sort of someone who practices or craft, but also someone who is aware that in order to have art be a livelihood that you have to have an awareness of the business side of things?
Missy Dunaway: You know, I thought working at an art gallery, I had shown in galleries before, but I'd always been on that side of the table. I was always the artist, never the person working at the gallery, interacting with clients. And working in a gallery has been so good for my art practice and really heartening for watching the acquisition process from start to finish. Because when I first, I guess before I was working at the gallery, I really assumed that a lot of people purchase artwork because of the investment quality. And you know, I'd read all these books about the curious economics of contemporary art in my art school in college. We talked a lot about that. And I, you know, it's almost a cynical way or cynical reason to acquire art, just in the hopes that it'll make you money in the future.
Missy Dunaway: But for some reason, that's, I guess those are the conversations that I had had up until that point that I thought that that's really why a lot of people do it. And so when I first started working at the gallery, there was quite a few times that someone was looking at a piece and I'd say, "Oh, this artist is a great investment. They've been acquired by these institutions and they've won these awards". And I had one person just flat out say, "I don't buy art for that reason. I'm not interested". And from that moment, I really, I noticed that people didn't respond when I would mention that kind of stuff. And I ended up stopping talking that way because people who come to the Portland Art Gallery are just looking for that soulmate connection with the painting and they buy art because they love it and they want to live around it. They have no intention of selling it. They, you know, they want it for themselves to love and enjoy. And it was the best possible thing to see as an artist. Because that's the hope, that's why I want someone to acquire my artwork. So it's been a really nice experience and sort of restored a lot of my faith in the business side of art.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: I have a piece in the studio with me and it's obviously a Paris with the Eiffel tower, so beautiful with all the different streets everything lit up and then the dark blue. Tell me about the experience of visiting Paris, this sort of iconic city that's so well known across the globe and trying to capture it using your art.
Missy Dunaway: I was lucky in that I got to stay in Paris for four months. Three months consecutively, and then I went away to an art residency in Morocco. And so then by the time I went back, my Schengen visa had restarted, so I got to stay another month. And I think a lot of people, a lot of the ex-pats I met who lived in Paris for a long time, when you stay anywhere for a long time you get to see the good and the bad. You enjoy the beauty of the city streets and the food and the language, but then you also have to deal with paperwork and visas and it can be incredibly frustrating. And luckily I didn't have to experience any of that. So my time in Paris was very much a honeymoon period. So I think I really got to view the best parts of it.
Missy Dunaway: It was a really beautiful time. And I have to say, I guess that scene behind you with the view from an airplane when you're either departing or arriving in a city is always such a special moment because you have that rush of you know, arriving, I've made it and looking out into all of those little lights and wondering who lives there and what's going on and seeing the flow of traffic you really get that sense of how a city is a live organism with its own personality and heritage and history. Paris, especially, it's so old, of course. And so yes, I think that that view from an airplane, when you get to see the city as one entity, it's always a very special and magical site,
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You were supposed to go to Kenya last summer, and obviously there were travel restrictions in place due to the Coronavirus. What has this meant to you as someone who seems to have this ongoing wanderlust to be grounded for a more significant period of time than perhaps you might've chosen?
Missy Dunaway: One of the reasons why, another reason why I decided to move to Maine and put down some roots and start staying in one place so that I could start working bigger. For the longest time I'd been living out of a suitcase and so painting in a sketchbook and keeping the travel journal was one of my only options. The paper paintings behind me, I could roll up, so that was doable, but even still quite cumbersome and difficult. And so I have to say this past year of being cooped up indoors has been really good for my art because I finally got to invest all my time and attention into creating larger pieces. And you know, art can really take you back mentally to that place. Like, it's a great time to just reminisce and return to your favorite memories because you have to recreate it line by line, plane by plane.
Missy Dunaway: So you end up spending hours in a location as you recreate it and paint. So in my imagination and through my art, I was still traveling. And so it was still a very fulfilling year. And I think you know, even at a time, like right now, my priorities are shifting a little bit. I just got married. I love my job here. I love Maine, I'm working bigger. I'm getting to be more and more content with having more of a stationary lifestyle, but that interior wanderlust than spirit is always with you. And it manifests in different ways. You don't physically have to be on the move, even through your imagination, you might still be traveling. And I think a lot of people who are travelers, even if they had one period of their life where they're traveling a lot, decades later will still consider themselves to be travelers for that reason. It's always with you.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You also mentioned to me that you had acquired some chickens as part of a pandemic kind of project. What caused you to go in that direction?
Missy Dunaway: So I always want to ducks. I love ducks. I think they're so cute and funny and friendly. And our neighbors across the street, we're going to get chickens. And so it was this sort of joke. They'll get chickens and we'll get ducks and we'll trade eggs. But when they got their flock of chickens, they had one that was the runt of the litter and all the other ones were picking on it. And if anyone listening, or you Lisa, if you're familiar with chickens, if there's one weak link in the flock, they will try to eliminate it permanently. And that little chicken was also the favorite of the family. They have two little kids and they loved Carrot, the chicken, they didn't want to give up Carrot. So my husband, Joe, and I offered to adopt Carrot so that she would just be across the street and they could come over and visit any time and it's still their chicken. But then when we did adopt Carrot, we realized that you have to have a flock. You can't have just one. So then we had to get two more and now we have three and I still want ducks. So it looks like this is going to get out of hand very soon. But they've been very entertaining and I know more about chickens than I ever wanted to know, but they are very entertaining, like I said. So it's been fun.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You have a Cat named Thomas, is that right?
Missy Dunaway: Yes, Thomas.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: So how does Thomas the cat feel about Carrot the chicken and Carrot the chicken's colleagues.
Missy Dunaway: So he's obsessed with our backyard songbirds that flit around the house. And so we were really nervous about chickens. He's an indoor cat, so they never really had to meet, but we were kind of curious. And one time we did bring Carrot into the house. And Thomas just sort of looked at him and walked away was totally bored, not interested at all. So yes, it was Thomas that was disinterested.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: So everybody's living kind of a peaceful coexistence is if that's what I'm hearing.
Missy Dunaway: Yes. For the most part, until a raccoon or a fox causes trouble. For the time being, things are very peaceful. Let's hope it stays that way.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: We've recently seen an uptick in interest in the gallery. People just seem to have a pent up, need to be present in a space. Obviously the Portland Art Gallery has done a lot of work with virtual openings and with online sales and reaching out to people really around the world, but now people are back. They really want something beautiful in their homes. Tell me about some of the things people are sharing with you as they've come into the gallery to look at art in person now.
Missy Dunaway: Yes, it’s been an exciting time because I think a lot of people if maybe they had to cancel vacations this year and they had that saved money, we're able to acquire art for the first time. So I've met a lot of first time art buyers which is always a really exciting step. And I think people are also realizing how important a beautiful space is. Or just a comforting space that's inspiring. And having real original art on the walls makes a really big difference. And just like what I had said before about investment versus love. Why does somebody buy art? I definitely hear people you know, they just want to be around something that inspires them, that they love, that improves their day, that helps them return to a different place. I know a lot of people love to buy landscapes of Maine because it reminds them of their favorite places and just, you know, being able to mentally travel to a cherish location.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Was there anything different about the approach you took to this month's virtual opening as one of the presented artists in contrast to past openings that were in-person?
Missy Dunaway: You know, I actually, I think I approached it in the same way, which is nice. I was really focused on just the physical presentation of the work, how it would look in the space. The Portland Art Gallery has been so sophisticated in how they film and present their location and their space that even if it's through a screen, it very much is like you can visit and walk around at your own pace and see the interiors. So it's so effective and convincing that other than mingling with people face to face at an open reception, I thought that the exhibition experience is quite true to the usual. Which is nice. I feel like so many things this year has been different, but having a show, getting it framed, installing it, inspecting the space, making sure the flow of the artwork from one piece to the next makes sense, that was the same. And it was very it was nice to have that.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Have you received any feedback from your fellow artists about what it has felt like to have a virtual versus an in-person opening in the space at the Portland Art Gallery?
Missy Dunaway: People have all been very, very positive. The other artists at Portland Art Gallery, they're just the nicest group of people and so inspiring. And I do think at the very height of lockdown when things are closed and that temporary time when we had to close the gallery doors, at least just physically, online we were always present. But I really missed talking to all the artists and seeing their work because it is food for my soul as an artist. Another thing, I guess, my first impression of working at an art gallery when I was first brought on was that for some reason I had it in my mind that artists can have big egos and that I might clash personalities with people, but I don't know if it's because they're all Maine based or maybe that's, that's a really outdated or untrue stereotype of artists. But there are no big egos at Portland Art Gallery, all the artists are so supportive, so nice, so down to earth and grounded. I never feel that sense of competition. Everyone's very supportive, so yes, feedback has been very positive and it's hard to put yourself out there with work you know, online on Instagram or your website. You have to put yourself out there every day, but then also to get all the work together and put it out into a physical space, it takes a lot of guts. And it's easier when you have a nice community like we have at Portland Art Gallery.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Missy, tell me about the painting that is in the studio behind me.
Missy Dunaway: In addition to the large paintings that are in my favorite pages from my travel journal that I've expanded to a large scale, I also have a couple of the greatest hits from previous projects, including some of the final paintings from my textile project that I did in Turkey from 2013 to 2014. And that's a limited series because it was a research project that I was conducting onsite when I could be advised by weavers and I was learning Turkish. And so I really want to keep that project true to what it was all about. when I was there able to research carpets in Turkey advised by Turkish weavers. And so there's only a few paintings left from that series some are very small, like the one behind you and 15% of sales from that series are given back to women weavers through Turkish philanthropy funds, a nonprofit I've been working with for a few years now.
Missy Dunaway: It's very important to me that the artists who inspire me are acknowledged and compensated for their contribution to my project. And in addition to the textile project, the final paintings from that series, I also have a small collection of paintings of fishing flies that I created in Montana as an artist in residence at the Taft Nicholson center, learning how to tie flies. So the projects on display are those two. And then of course the main feature of the show are the large paintings of pages for my travel journal.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Thank you so much for taking the time to have a conversation with me about your art today, Missy Dunaway, and thank you for being an artist at the Portland Art Gallery. For those who are interested, you can see Missy Dunaway's work on display in this month's virtual art opening at the Portland Art Gallery, www.portlandartgallery.com. This is Dr. Lisa Belisle Belisle and you have been listening to the second episode of Radio Maine. Join us again as we continue to have fascinating conversations with interesting people from around the state of Maine.
Missy Dunaway: Thank you very much for having me. This has been a delight.