Fusing gothic influences with literary leanings, Melissa McDougall creates intense and haunting illustrations. Growing up in a bohemian household influenced by musicians and artists alike, Melissa spoke to us about her slightly unorthodox upbringing, her near miss with an athletics career and her passion for art...
Can you remember one of the first things you painted?
I remember painting rainbows a lot in the 1970’s. And cats and flowers. Cleopatra was also a common motif. But my most memorable artworks were drawings. One is an illustration of the Hobbit I did in 1981 (aged 10) which is pretty large and detailed. It has Gandalf in the centre with Bilbo Baggins, the Hobbit and these really gothic looking Orcs running down a hill toward the viewer. I drew them heavily armed and quite menacing! My brother Tihan owns the drawing now which is really lovely. The other drawing was an illustration I did of T. H Whites “The Once and Future King” when I was 11. It’s dated 1982 but I’m kind of amazed I did something so detailed at that age. I had very good eyesight back then.
To be able to look back on them and see how your art has progressed must be incredible. Is there a point in time you recognise as a shift from 'doing art' to 'being an artist'?
I think in about 1990 there was a shift in consciousness about being a working artist. As a child I always drew but most children do that naturally. I didn’t feel my work was ready for public exhibition at high school or Claremont Art School (1989-1990).
So, I think that my artistic career began properly the first time I exhibited in a respected venue. This would be 1991 when I exhibited at the Charles Gairdner Invitational in Perth. I was 19 and exhibiting with artists who were ten years older than me and whose work I loved. So it was a big deal to me at the time. It was a really good start.
It must have been intimidating exhibiting alongside older artists at just 19. Looking back what gave you the confidence to do so?
I was surrounded by art from an early age. My Mum was very artistic. Mum’s best friend Alan Muller was a big influence. The house he shared with his partner Scot was filled with his beautiful paintings. They were very dark and precise—almost photo-realistic. His portraits large and really powerful. In 1983 he painted me aged 12 in the dark wearing a red top and sitting at a table with red poinsettias. It was really strong and looked like a painting by Velasquez.
When I was 18 my partner Redmond introduced me to his circle of friends that included Western Australian artists and musicians. Richard Gunning always encouraged my work and basically came to every show I was in to show his support. I have always loved his work. Painter Thomas Hoareau invited me to my first group exhibition in 1991, and I also modelled for six of his paintings. He curated that show and told me not to worry so much! I also met songwriter David McComb at a party at our place in 1991—and he sent me mix tapes that were filled with eclectic music that he liked. Those tapes really informed my work, particularly in solo shows in the mid 1990’s. I feel very lucky to have had those friendships and opportunities. My partner Ray Spiteri is an academic specialising in Surrealism and we have been together since 1994 so I’m sure his work has also informed my work.
In our conversations you have often described your up bringing as unconventional. Did this give you more confidence to pursue a career in the arts or growing up did you want to be something completely different?
I think having two artists for parents has an influence and also living in a bohemian house where there was always music and art lends itself to creative endeavour.
I was born in Dunedin and I grew up in Pine Hill with Mum and Dad. I also stayed with my Grandmother Gwen in the early 70’s and she lived in a beautiful, isolated house on the top of a hill in St Leonards. She had a succession of billy goats which were all named Sampson. My Aunt Janie told me I used to dance to Jimi Hendrix at my parents parties when I was around 3 so I must have loved music and art. My Dad Ewan was also in a Dunedin garage band called Pussyfoot in 1970.
My parents moved to Melbourne, then Perth. From 1976 I lived mostly with my mother Suzette in Perth, WA. She was very artistic but also quite literary. She drew beautiful portraits and hand-sewed vintage quilts. Her books on Arthur Rackham, Helmut Newton, Gustave Dore, and the Surrealists were very inspiring. She also read me the Lord of the Rings and parts of the Gormenghast Trilogy when I was around 8 and 9 years old.
My extended family and an art teacher encouraged my art through school. So by the time I was 14 I had three choices in terms of a career. Athletics, Writing or Art and ultimately Art won out.
I can see writing and art going hand and hand but where did the potential athletic career spring from?
My parents were both good at athletics and actually met aged 15 at some athletics carnival in the South in the 1960’s. I really enjoyed 100, 200 and 400 metres sprinting, high jump and long jump. My school coach recommended a professional coach but we couldn’t afford one at the time so I shelved the idea of being a professional athlete. I suppose I loved the adrenalin rush of pushing myself and when I was running I felt free.
How do you think the New Zealand art culture has changed since you first started?
I’ve lived in Wellington for 12 years. However, I would say a lot has changed even in that time. There has been a blossoming of culture here and we have some great artists. The main difference might be that our musicians and artists are more Internationally recognised now. I’m proud of the talent this country produces in film, theatre, fine art and illustration. I think we have always had good artists and writers so it’s great to see some recognition.
There has been a definite shift toward recognising the value of artists, designers and writers in New Zealand. Which NZ creatives do you particularly admire or think deserve more recognition?
There are so many I admire and I think most are doing pretty well. I really like Seraphine Pick, Jane Siddall and Euan McLeod .. And I think their vision is uniquely informed by New Zealand. My friend Ebony Lamb writes beautiful songs and I’m really proud of her success with Eb and Sparrow. We worked on a project called Stars and Shadows a few years ago where she wrote poems and I illustrated them and I’m a big fan of collaboration with musicians and writers.
With art such a pivot part of your upbringing what does it mean to you? Is it therapeutic? An outlet? A compulsion? A hobby? A career?
I see it as a career. It is a lifestyle as well. And although I sometimes wish it wasn’t - it is also something of a compulsion. I tried once to give up my art career for practical reasons and it didn’t work. It was literally impossible. Because it’s just a part of you. I photograph things constantly. I collect relevant artefacts. I write down ideas and poems. I draw all the time. The creative process is just there and never, ever goes. Even if I want to rest…it is still there! So I just accept it. And try to improve my work and enjoy those good moments. At its best, art is very transformative and it is a wonderful way to connect to other people.
Looking back what advice would give your past self just starting to pursue a career in art? Or other young artists just starting off?
I would say working hard is really important. Always meet deadlines and be positive to deal with. I tend to say yes to opportunities rather than no.
It’s also a good idea to learn to separate your work from your sense of self because the arts (music and visual arts) can be tumultuous and prone to sudden changes.
If you have talent then never give up as persistence and hard work are the only other things you need. I would also look at the way other artists from the past have dealt with their careers and learn from that.
I love your advice on separating your work from your sense of self, I think a lot of us could benefit from separating our worth from our success. Do you think this belief makes you more willing to take risks as an artist?
I think that it can counter any fear you may have about trying new things. Being true to yourself is really important and that may not always match up with others expectations of you.
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