Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Hello, I'm Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to, or watching, Radio Maine today. I have with me an artist who I've interviewed before, but in the midst of COVID, and therefore from her house, this is Missy Dunaway. Thanks for being here in person today. 

 

Missy Dunaway:

Thank you for having me Lisa.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

The last time I believe we spoke about things like chickens. And was it a cat that we also had a conversation around at your house? 

 

Missy Dunaway:

Yes, Thomas. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

But you've moved on to animals of a different sort?

 

Missy Dunaway:

That's right. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Yes. In fact, we have an example of this right behind us. And these are of the avian sort, I guess, are they technically animals? We put them broadly under the animal category.

 

Missy Dunaway:

Right. Or creatures. We could say.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Creatures. Okay. Very good. And these are related to Shakespeare?

 

Missy Dunaway: 

Right.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Tell me about this piece. 

 

Missy Dunaway: 

So I am currently on the road to painting every bird mentioned by Shakespeare. There are about 64 species, but that number is subject to change. And I've currently completed about a quarter of the whole collection. So it'll take me several more years, but the idea is that each painting offers information for the viewer as much information as possible about natural science facts about the bird, and then also literary interpretation of how Shakespeare uses it as a symbol in his world.  So yeah, behind us, we have the Paragon Falcon which, even though Shakespeare, I think it's pretty safe to say that he was a falconer and had a lot of experience with falconry specifically, the Paragon Falcon is only mentioned one time in Romeo and Juliet 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

In order to decide well, in order to go through and kind of create a map for yourself, did you read all of the works of Shakespeare? 

 

Missy Dunaway: 

So I'm currently in the process of reading all of the works. I'm almost there, but luckily my project is heavily based on researchers before me. So James Edmond Harding wrote a book called the birds of Shakespeare in 1871. He was a pretty well known English, ornithologist and naturalist. And so he already did all the hard work for me in locating the birds. And his book is one of the most valuable ones in my research. That's where I started with this project partially because that's where I got the list. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So how does one get interested in this in particular? It seems like a very specific thing that you're doing, which is kind of similar. You've done a lot of very specific things. You have kind of a diversity of interest, but you, you go broad and go deep. 

 

Missy Dunaway:

Yes, that's a good way to put it. I suppose that the project started or the root of it was in college. I had taken a Shakespeare course just to fill an elective.  I wasn't even all that interested in Shakespeare. I just thought, you know, since I'm going to college, when I graduate, I wanna be a well-rounded person and therefore I must know something about Shakespeare. And I really was surprised. I was constantly surprised by how much I connected with his work, how it was so entertaining and insightful. And after my class, I would often get lunch with a computer science major and we would argue about Shakespeare and one day he was like, it's just so overrated. I don't get it. I've never seen a Shakespeare play that I connect with. 

 

Missy Dunaway:

And instead of trying to convince him about the value of the themes or the artistry I instead grasped at numbers that could quantify Shakespeare's talent.  So as an average American college graduate, my vocabulary is around 16,000 words and Shakespeare just in his 39 plays, I think 39, demonstrates a vocabulary of over 30,000 words. He was also a word chemist. Like he made new words, he used slang, what he contributed to language in general, anyone could appreciate and admire. And so I said to my friend, I was, was talking about his vocabulary and I said just look at birds. He mentioned 64 different types of birds and that's just birds. Tha's when I thought, oh, that'd be a good painting. So I kept it in mind. 

 

Missy Dunaway:

And then the first time that I tried to paint on this topic was as an artist in residence at Vermont Studio Center where I had this huge studio space. So I was able to lay out an eight foot piece of paper and I made feathers from every bird mentioned in Shakespeare. And I was really proud of that piece and still proud of it. And it found the perfect home at the Folger Shakespeare Library. But over the years, I mean, I did that piece when I was like 22. So ever since then, you know, I learned a little bit more about birds and along the way, I've just found inaccuracies in my paintings of the feathers because I didn't know that much. So for example, a kestrel if you see just a picture of it in the sky you know, in a Google image search, which is what I was using pretty much, kestrels look like they're huge, like Hawks, but they're actually the size of a pigeon. 

 

Missy Dunaway:

So in my painting, the kestrel feathers were huge and other big birds have small feathers, things like that. So I always thought I really wanna redo that painting with greater scientific accuracy about, you know, adjust the feathers in the rendering. COVID presented the opportunity. My whole schedule was cleared and I thought now's the time I'm gonna redo the Shakespeare painting. So I redid it and it was sold through the gallery. Thank you, Portland Art Gallery. And when it was done, I felt kind of, not disappointed, but maybe just a little bit like, is that all there is like it's such a good idea. I feel like there's more here. I don't want it to be over. So then I thought, okay, if I wanna expand it, the obvious answer is to do one painting for each bird. That's the long story behind it. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: How many birds are you at this point? 

 

Missy Dunaway:

17, but I think I'm gonna redo the magpie. I hate to knock myself back to 16, but. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

How long does each of these pieces take you? 

 

Missy Dunaway:

So that's kind of a more complex question because the actual rendering of it I'd say would take between 50 and 70 hours. It's about two weeks to actually paint it. However, the research behind it and revisions after it's done always take up time. I'm not an ornithologist or an avian ecologist or a Shakespeare scholar by any stretch of the imagination. So instead I've had to make up for those shortcomings, I've assembled a bit of a team of three different advisors to fact check the anatomy of the birds with an ornithologist and a botanist to check the plants. This painting doesn't have any plants, but most of them do. Also a Shakespeare scholar, who's double checking you know, to make sure I'm interpreting the text correctly. So all three of those advisors always have edits and revisions for me to make. So that adds on time. So I'd say yeah, each piece takes maybe a solid month of research and writing and discussions and then painting. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So if you were a scientist, this would be the equivalent of publishing an article every time, the amount of work that you're actually putting into each of these pieces, these are your visual articles it almost seems like.

 

Missy Dunaway:

Yes, that's exactly how I would describe my carpet series that I did as a Fulbright in Turkey. I was a researcher, but my findings were communicated in a series of paintings instead of written articles. So yes, exactly. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Which is actually more of a thing now that qualitative research is including more visual pieces. So just sitting here, talking with you, it's very interesting that the different fields are coming out from different directions, but encouraging the same sort of approach. 

 

Missy Dunaway:

Yes. I agree. And I like that because I think it makes  the information more accessible because you're reaching more people. I don't think that you would have to under, you know, even know the English language to look at my painting and learn a little something about how Shakespeare writes about birds or learn something about the bird in general. So that's definitely the idea I think of using a visual form to communicate information is that it makes it more accessible to everybody. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Yeah. That's a great point. 

 

Missy Dunaway:

Or more people I should say.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Yes. Some people will probably resonate with it. Other people, it may not resonate as much with them. But I think about the number of children, for example, who go to museums or who engage with art and because they don't necessarily have word expertise yet, but they do already have eyes that sort of kind of creativity that's being built in their little brains. I just find that really appealing. 

 

Missy Dunaway:

Yes. The first time I read Shakespeare, I mean, he's not meant to be read. You're supposed to be watching it on stage. And I was just leading up to the moment in high school when I was first introduced to Shakespeare, I thought it was literature because he's taught as literature, the plays are taught as literature. And I remember my high school teacher just having like really pumping us up about Shakespeare. Like you want romance? He's got it. You want action? He's got it. I was like, yeah, I'm so excited. He's like, okay, let's flip, open the books. Now let's start on stands of line, whatever. And I'm looking at it. I was like, what am I looking at? It's just, this is just dialogue. I was so confused and it immediately turned me off. I wish maybe that the first introduction would've been to actually go see a play. I think the visual form would have been more relatable to me and accessible to me at that age. And even then I'm not sure because some time when I was in high school, I did see a Shakespeare play and the language still felt inaccessible and I had no idea what was going on.  But in a painting hopefully the language is put into a very immediate form. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

You've done a lot of work with realism and in particular you've worked with one of our other artists Rodney Dennis. It takes so much work to do the realistic paintings and the realistic pieces that both of you do like hours and hours and hours. Tell me about that process.

 

Missy Dunaway:

You know, I love the hours and hours and hours. At first I thought there's no way I can do this, but I really wanted to get better at drawing. It's always been my weakness as an artist. I have a pretty good sensibility for color, but my drawing is just pretty weak. So the Academy of Realist Art where me and Rod met as students, that's what they focus on. But you have to be prepared to put in several hundred hours into a single drawing. One drawing will command an entire semester and you just have to go to a different place when you're doing it. It's very meditative. But actually I was like crushing podcasts on Shakespeare. So it has also been handy like research time because you're just devouring you know, audio news and podcasts. 

 

Missy Dunaway:

But anyway I really feel like the way that technology is going and social media. I mean, we talk about it so often, like how information's just getting cut up into smaller and smaller soundbites. I just found myself craving long form deep dives. And I have found that at the Academy of Realist Art and it was nice because sometimes I was worried my attention span was permanently damaged by social media, like I can only listen to a song if it's under three minutes and things like that. Nope, that's definitely not the case. You can get your attention span back. It takes a little bit of practice, but you know, me and Rod were not even. I mean I'd say there's so many students that have come to that school that had no background in art and might not have at first had the attention span to do it or the patience I should say, but it's a skill that you can exercise and once you're used to it, it's really rewarding and relaxing and so refreshing.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I'm thinking when I look at this piece that you brought today, which I know we're gonna show online for people who are watching the video version of this podcast, that to put an entire, I guess semester perhaps is that how much time it takes into one piece and have that be your one final thing that is unusual for someone who's working in art?

 

Missy Dunaway:

Correct. I guess it may be unusual ever since I don't know, maybe impressionism, like I think up until now impressionists were really the first to break out of the studio and go outdoors because one of the technological advances of the industrial revolution was tubed paint. So up until that point, you're just grinding down your own paint in your studio and then  you know, there's a lot of gear, it's just, it's not a transportable hobby or career. So when tubed paint was created, people could go outdoors and then they're studying natural light and then you have to paint fast cuz you're keeping up with light changing.  Then of course with expressionism the artwork just broke free, like especially with photography that came around, why labor over doing something that's super realistic when you can take a photo, artists were liberated to explore all these different things to express and to capture. Oh, I've lost my train of thought. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I think you were talking about working on one piece for a semester, which it sounds like I can guess where you're going, that this maybe used to be a thing. And then with these new technologies, it became that you were able to do more things in less time.

 

Missy Dunaway:

Thank you. Yes, exactly.  Culturally today putting that much time into a single piece is unusual, but I think in the grand scheme of art there was a time when it was the normal thing to do. And there's a pretty big comeback of realist painters like contemporary realist painters right now that I'm just loving. I think time investment you know, it's, it's different from artist to artist. Sometimes I'm really surprised, especially at the Portland Art Gallery, there's such an array of styles and occasionally I'll be speaking to an artist that has a pretty minimal approach. I assume that wow, they probably get this done in one day and then I find out it, no, it takes like a month and a half. Like the image itself could be very deceiving to the amount of work and time that goes into it. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, that's similar to say medicine where somebody can say, Hey, can you look at this mole? Oh, that's only gonna take you two seconds, but it took you the two seconds to look at the mole but it took you all of the years of education that brought you to the place where you can look at it and say, oh yeah, don't worry about that. Or you should have that looked at further. So I do think you're right, that you can never really know what brings someone to a place of creating a piece and how much time that is taken. 

 

Missy Dunaway:

Right. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

It's a hard thing to kind of understand the backstory. 

 

Missy Dunaway:

It's true. Especially with a piece like the Shakespeare project I'm working on now, like when the brush is actually touching the paper, I could probably whittle that down to maybe 65 hours. But then when I think about the planning and the compositional planning and the research that just adds on the time 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

And you're not just doing the birds, you are engaging in multiple different things at once. I mean, I'm just amazed by the array of projects that I've seen you work on and you just came back from  Kenya not too long ago. So how do you keep your mind kind of simultaneously on all of these various tracks and moving them all forward? 

 

Missy Dunaway:

I think it's the only way that I can stay focused on so many different things is by researching so many different things because it keeps it fresh. You know, there are definitely days where I'm like, I cannot look at another bird and think I don't wanna paint another feather for the rest of my life. And then you know, I'll spend six weeks in Kenya and do art residency or I'll do a school assignment, painting a cast sculpture or you know, work in my sketchbook. That's very freeing and I can do whatever I want. And then after enough time I'm like, okay, enough of this, I'm ready for a feather again. So I think it does actually keep me very engaged to bounce around that way.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Tell me about Kenya. 

 

Missy Dunaway:

Oh, well, so I was there for six weeks. This was an artist in residence program that I was accepted to back in 2019.  My goal has always been to do one artist in residence program a year because it's a pretty economical way for artists to travel long term. So I get to stay for long visits. There's great cultural immersion. You also meet other artists while you're there. So it's great networking and making friends. It just really has everything that I want out of travel in one, you know one opportunity. So yeah, the Olepangi Farm is the name of the residency I was in, in Kenya, in Laikipia county, just at the foothills of Mount Kenya.  And I had to defer it for COVID twice. So I had been waiting to go for, oh excuse me, between when I was accepted and then had to defer it was three years of waiting and yeah, it was, it was funny because I had originally applied for a site specific project.

 

I wanted to add a new chapter to my visual journal, my visual travel log, which is available at the gallery.  It was published in 2021 the traveling artist to visual journal. So originally Kenya was gonna be another chapter in that book, but because it was deferred with COVID it ended up being that the book was published before I went. So I ended up going to Kenya and kind of having this really nice opportunity to revisit this project that was kind of over. And it was really nice cuz I hadn't painted in my travel journal in several years and I haven't traveled and it was really refreshing and nice to sort of bring that project back to life. And now I have it in my head to maybe do a second volume. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So as I'm reading the work that Susan Sherril Axelrod created in the Art Matters blog and remembering my interview with you early on in the podcast and having spent time with you over the last few years, since you've worked with the art gallery, I've really been struck with how driven you are as an individual. I mean you create goals, you set a path forward with your goals, you follow through on them and you also are working at the gallery and making sure that you're making a living. And I know that your husband, Joe, is working on his MBA and I mean you just have so much going on. Did you have a sense when you were going through your undergraduate degree that you were gonna have all these various interests? Were you already that driven and did you already know what direction you wanted to go in? 

 

Missy Dunaway:

I think when I was an undergrad, I thought that I was always very driven to create ambitious work and just keep creating. I never put off assignments. I was usually just painting all the time and if I was done with an assignment, I was painting again for my own pleasure. So it, I think I've always been sort of assisted by the fact that I'm happiest when I'm painting anyway. So I mean, there have been times when I thought this isn't working out, I'm not gonna make it and I'm never gonna sell another painting and I'm ready to quit. And then I'm sort of liberated like, oh, well I have so much free time now. All right, well, what am I gonna do? I guess I'll go paint. It's just always a thing I'm doing. So I just figure if I'm gonna do it either way. 

 

Missy Dunaway:

I might as well continue putting my work out there and you know and then a painting does sell eventually or I get a new opportunity and it moves me along. But yeah, I think that is partially what keeps me driven is just the fact that I feel happiest and most natural when I am creating. But I don't think I really anticipated how I'd have to cobble together an income from so many different sources. As soon as I started asking professional artists who were out of college, how do you do it? And how'd you get into your first gallery? They all had a very different meandering story that all the one similarity is that they all had to do it, you know, by, through several different sources and several different meets. 

 

Missy Dunaway:

They either had a part-time job or they did it on the side or they were teaching at the same time and illustration plus gallery sales. So I think you know, the more and more people I ask, I've always been very conscious of how little I know and never shy away from asking advice from someone more experienced than you. I mean, it's by the third person you ask that you just get the gist of like, okay, this is what it's gonna take. Sometimes it does kind of feel like, I don't wanna say last man standing, but just continuing to stick with it. And it will eventually, it's only a matter of time. And even when I was applying to my first residencies, I was rejected over and over and over again. But I just thought, you know, this is the game of numbers and eventually one of these is gonna accept me. So I always had it in my head, like apply to a hundred and you'll get at least one and I never had to apply to a hundred. I applied to about 20 and I got one and that just kind of encouraged me like, okay, yeah. Just think of this as a game of numbers, increase your odds by doing a little bit more than you think you have to and something will come through.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I mean, it really is fascinating to listen to what you've put into your career because I think you, as an artist, you're putting out works that there's no guarantee they will sell. There's a there's I like doing this work. I'm gonna plan to do this work. I'm gonna work really hard, but I don't know. Maybe it does. Maybe it doesn't. So there is an act of faith involved in all of this as well.

 

Missy Dunaway:

Yes. But it makes it more rewarding when it's not a guarantee and it does sell sometimes I think of Great Expectations and I'm like, how nice it would be if there's some secret admirer out there who's just buying up like every single piece I have, like in that book or the movie. But then I guess in the movie he's an artist. I mean, because at the end of that story, he's so disappointed to find out that all that time he was being propped up by a single person. I haven't read this since high school, so I should, I might be getting this totally wrong. But yeah, I sometimes feel that way, I don't have a benefactor where it's a guarantee that it's going to sell and I'll be supported, but that means everyone who buys my work really has the choice not to and they choose to acquire one. And so that must mean something to them and it makes it more special to know that they didn't have to, you know? 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: Yes. That's, I think, also a really great point that somebody looks at what you've created and says, yeah, I value that and that's such an important feeling. And to know that that piece is going to end up back in their office or their home or wherever they end up putting it. So maybe there's also in addition to making money off of the pieces, it's always the sense that, you're creating enjoyment for someone else in their life, in the future. 

 

Missy Dunaway:

Yes. I'm in a very unique role being a staff member and the represented artist because I've put up a painting of my own. Emma Wilson does the selection actually. So maybe there's a piece that's up that I love and people walk by it. They don't notice it at all. And it's like the invisible painting and one after another, after another. And, and you start to think like, oh, I really thought I had something there, but I guess I didn't. And then someone will stop and it's like, they met their soulmate and they're so wrapped up in this painting. And it's almost like what I had said about applying to something: it's a game of numbers. It is the same with viewers, sometimes a hundred people will walk by and not pay any attention, but one person, it will mean a lot to them and it's really special and beautiful. I'm so happy that as a staff member, I get to see that happen. Because it really, it makes it all worthwhile as an artist to keep creating, even if the audience as a whole generally is not connected with the work. When you get that, when you see that one deep connection, it's really profound. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, Missy, you have inspired me. I think just to keep working hard really, and to have faith, I'm not a visual artist, but I think there are parallels that many of us can draw in our own lives. And I think you're right. I think sometimes if you're worried about external validation, then it's easy to get discouraged. But if you just keep kind of tapping back into what drives you internally, then you keep moving forward and then maybe you do get the external validation, which is nice. But it sounds like that's not the entire thing for you. So I've really enjoyed this conversation. 

 

Missy Dunaway:

Thank you. I have too, Lisa, thank you so much for having me back. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I've been speaking with artist, Missy Dunaway, who you can meet if you go to the Portland Art Gallery because not only is she a represented artist, but she also is a staff member.  I certainly do encourage you to look into the work that she does. I mean, it's quite varied. You'll find birds, you'll find tapestries, you'll find other really wonderful pieces. And I know that we're gonna see a lot of great things out of Missy Dunaway in the years to come. Thank you for joining me today. 

 

Missy Dunaway:

Thank you.