Michelle Dunaway first became interested in art when she was very young. Her first memory of art, her first inspiration, occurred when she saw some of Michelangelo’s drawings in a book. Although she initially went to school to be an illustrator, one of the pivotal moments in her life occurred when she visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for the first time when she was 24.
“I walked into the American wing and it felt like I was walking into my mother’s kitchen, like I was home,” she said. “Seeing John Singer Sargent’s and Cecilia Beaux’s paintings for the first time, I knew at that moment that I would be focusing on fine art painting.”
Dunaway grew up in Anchorage, Alaska. When she was 13, her family moved to New Mexico where she lives today. It was in Alaska, though, where she first learned to observe and appreciate the nuances and complexities of the natural world, and the untamed wilderness of her surroundings – observation being an important quality that she calls upon as an artist today.
“Even though I lived in the city, I could see snow capped mountains from my bedroom window as a kid, particularly Mount Susitna, which looked like a sleeping lady--the snow became a white dress cascading down the mountain,” she said. “The colors in Alaska were so varied and beautiful, even the fireweed cat tails that grow along the roads used to capture my attention with their magenta and orange color.”
When we view Dunaway’s paintings, which are quiet, nuanced, and emotionally rich, we find ourselves wondering what she sees and feels as she captures the expressions and feelings of her subjects. How does an artist translate what they observe into a painting, and how is the process of observing important?
Observation, she explained, is the foundation of art.
“We paint because we see something in life that moves us,” she said. “We must see beyond the surface to the structure, to lay the foundation to build upon.”
Dunaway believes that learning how to observe and really see takes practice, especially when attempting to translate it into paint. Hers is an incremental process of building what she sees from the foundation up, including the anatomy, through the final and complete expression of her observations.
“It goes even further than that though,” she said. “To capture an emotional resonance in the work, you must observe that hint of emotion in your subject and intentionally put that into your work. I always try to tap into a universal emotion in a piece while at the same time capturing the unique characteristics of the individual.”
What is it about human expression and emotion that captures an artist’s attention? What do artists see in faces, expressions and body mannerisms? Dunaway has always been fascinated with facial expressions and how a mood can be conveyed through the eyes or even through the movement of a person’s hands or body language.
“I love noticing the subtle emotions that pass across someone’s face even in a moment of conversation,” she said. “I look for those things while painting, to catch a glimpse of the story of the person I am observing. Often when I’ve noticed those instances in everyday moments, it is what inspires me to create a painting.”
One of Dunaway’s very first artistic influences was her mother. During her childhood, she often recalls seeing her mother focused and working on something creative—woodcarving, painting, or stained glass.
“When I would watch my mother create, I noticed her focus coupled with her joy,” she said. “It’s something I see in artists Richard Schmid and Nancy Guzik when I paint with them now. My mother found such joy in creating and would always put her best effort into her work. I would watch her create with her hands and long to create in the same way.”
If some paintings can be seen as complex, others can certainly be seen as quiet. By all accounts, Dunaway’s paintings exude a thoughtful and meaningful sense of quiet. Her subjects, mostly women, seem contemplative and deep in thought. They are often on their own in an environment chosen by Dunaway, yet—if we are free to lend a story to her scenes, we get the distinct impression that her subjects almost prefer it that way -- at least for the moment.
Dunaway says she has always been a quiet and introspective person. She spends a lot of time in nature observing, listening, and just taking in information. How is the quality of quiet important to an artist’s process and their paintings?
“The world is so enchanting and there are often moments, which we all experience as human beings, where we find ourselves lost in thought or attaining a deeper wisdom or new revelation,” she said. “Usually this happens amidst stillness, where the world opens up and you gain new insights. I love those moments and enjoy painting them.”
In addition to painting, Dunaway also teaches and does demonstrations around the country. Many students have been the beneficiaries of her encouraging spirit and generous and talented mentorship.
“I’ve been blessed to have learned from some of the most amazing artists around and they are so generous in the sharing of their wisdom that I believe it’s imperative to pass on that wisdom,” she said. “One of the things I love most about teaching is seeing a student have an ‘ah-ha’ moment, when something that has eluded them takes root and their work reaches a new level. It is also a great joy to meet so many beautiful souls who are enthusiastic and striving to be better at expressing beauty and putting it out into the world.”
Michelle Dunaway was a top finalist in the Portrait Society of America's International Portrait Competition in 2010 where she won the Award of Exceptional Merit for her double portrait of the daughters of actress Jane Seymour. Michelle was featured in Southwest Art magazine’s "21 under 31" issue as one of the twenty-one emerging fine artists of the United States.
Her paintings and drawings have been featured in Art of the West magazine, American Art Collector magazine, Southwest Art, International Artist, and American Artist Workshop. Michelle’s drawings are included in the book Strokes of Genius 2: The Best of Drawing Light and Shadow.
Michelle is represented by The Legacy Gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona and Jackson, Wyoming; Sage Creek Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico; M Gallery of Fine Art in Charleston, South Carolina; and InSight Gallery in Fredericksburg, Texas. Her work is in numerous private collections.
To learn more about Michelle, or to view her paintings, visit her website at www.dunawayfineart.com.
Photos above, from top to bottom (all are oil on linen):
“In Her Thoughts”
“A Walk in New England”