Artist Interviews 2022
By Julia Siedenburg
Melissa Lakey is an artist whose art carries a lot of happiness and love with it. Her colorful nature portrayals stuck with me as I scrolled past them and I had to go back to learn more about her and the story behind the pieces.
If it isn’t the desert lifestyle and daily influences of the local Joshua Tree painter that influence her pieces, it is the memories of her travels.
I am very glad to have had the opportunity to ask Melissa more about her motivation and her background.
And now you dear reader can learn about it too in the interview below. So please enjoy!
Your fun and vibrant paintings and sketches seem to be a door into your life, adventures, and experiences. Do you feel like art is better when it has a personal connection to the artist?
I love art that feels like the artist had a great time making it, where you can feel that happiness and energy in the artwork. I think most art is personal — the combination of your experiences, influences, things you love, and things you’ve seen all collect and come out in your art in one way or another, even if you’re not painting those exact things.
You are located in Joshua Tree, California so you do not need to venture far to get inspiration for your desert landscapes. Are those images inspired by your surrounding or exact replicas of the nature around you?
I never thought I’d end up living in the desert! As a kid, I hated the desert, but now I love it and it is a big inspiration for my work.
Many of the plants and animals in my paintings are loosely based on the flora and fauna here in the Mojave Desert but are not exact replicas. As well as the desert where I live, I also get a lot of inspiration from the Sonoran Desert, especially the area around Tucson, Arizona. I love saguaro cacti, which you don’t get natively here in the Mojave and I add them to many of my paintings.
Some of your sketches are based on your travels. How did you get the idea to make them and share them with the world?
In 2021, I did a lot of drawing from street view on Google Maps via MapCrunch, inspired by the illustrator Emma Carlisle and her great Patreon account. It was fun to be able to “visit” places and sketch during a time when we couldn’t travel.
As soon as things started opening up, I was eager to start sketching my real travels. So I took sketchbooks along on all my trips (I travel for work every few months) and did as much drawing as I could. Seeing other people’s sketchbooks is such a big inspiration for me and sketchbook tours are one of my favorite things to watch online! So I started to share mine as well.
From desert landscapes and animal pieces to humans and city sights, your work is a collection of so many different things. Is there a certain subject you like to paint more than others?
At the moment I’m inspired by cowboys and desert plants, animals, and wildflowers. I love to paint night scenes, they are a theme I’ve kept returning to ever since I did a 100-night scene painting project last year.
Most of your images are colorful but there are a few that you kept black and white. How do you choose your colors? Do you know from the beginning how the piece will end up looking?
I don’t usually plan my paintings much, or even sketch on the paper before starting. I just mix up some paint or ink and get going. Not quite knowing what is going to happen is part of what keeps it exciting for me. Things don’t always work out, so I often repeat themes and similar paintings to further explore an idea.
I love working in mixed media and the happy accidents that come from experimenting with materials. I usually work in a combination of gouache, ink, oil pastel, and colored pencils.
Over the last few years, I’ve narrowed the colors I use to the ones I love most. It shifts and changes from painting to painting, but overall I use similar colors in most of my pieces. I usually only work in black and white if I plan to digitize the drawing and turn it into something, like a screen-printed t-shirt.
Tell us a bit about your childhood and upbringing.
I grew up in Idyllwild, a small town in the Southern California mountains. My parents gave me lots of free time to play, explore nature, and read books and there was always plenty of art supplies around and craft projects to do. I took art classes with a few different artists when I was 10-12 years old and discovered a love of art.
Do you need to be in a specific mood to paint? Are there certain aspects that need to be met for you to be able to create art?
I don’t need to be in a specific mood to create art, mainly I need the time and energy. In the past I’ve done challenges, like a 100-day project, to push myself to create every day. Now I find I can be more relaxed about it, and just paint when it feels right. Often if I have a stretch of time that I can be alone in my studio I get inspired and make a lot of work.
Your pieces are part of the Hey There Projects exhibition and are available to be viewed on their website. Please tell us how you got to showcase your work there and have there been other places your work has been showcases before?
Hey There Projects is one of my favorite places in Joshua Tree — I’ve been going there for years to see the artwork they showcase and get inspired. The owners are both artists and always curate great shows! It’s been a dream of mine to one day have my art there.
Earlier this year when I had a stack of artwork I had been making inspired by the local landscape here, I thought it might be a good fit for Hey There Projects. I sent them an email about it and they invited me to bring in some work to show them later that week.
They liked my work and took several pieces to hang. It’s been exciting to see my work in my favorite gallery!
You created a T-shirt with your desert artwork on it for Everpress that’s only a limited time available. How was that experience? Are you thinking about putting more of your artwork onto clothes and such?
It was so fun to see my art on a t-shirt, I love the idea that art can be in the world in so many different ways beyond just hanging on a wall. Using Everpress’s pre-order model meant there was no extra stock or waste, which was a nice way to do my first shirt. I’d like to do more t-shirts in the future, and right now I’m working on a blanket design.
What is next? Are any new collections or any collabs planned?
Right now I’m preparing to have an open studio in October. Here in Joshua Tree, there is a huge artist studio tour event each fall, with over 150 artists participating over three weekends. People pick up a free catalog and map and then drive around exploring the whole high desert area, visiting different artists at their studios.
It’s been great having that coming up, as it’s motivated me to get a lot of painting done. I'm creating work in all different sizes (as well as some prints), so I’ll have something for everyone. It’s nice to be making work knowing I’ll be able to share it with people in person.
I’ll be showing my artwork along with my mom, Cher Townsend, at her sculpture studio in Yucca Valley. Our studio is #66 on the tour — if you’re in the area, stop by!