Michelle Dunaway’s portraits capture palpable, honest human emotions
By Gussie Fauntleroy
This story was featured in the April 2013 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Order the Southwest Art April 2013 print issue, or get the Southwest Art April 2013 digital download now…Or better yet, just subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss a story!
Michelle Dunaway has a photo of herself at age 5 in a wildflower-filled meadow with sweeping vistas of Alaskan wilderness behind her. She’s twirling, arms flung wide, her jacket lifting in the air as she spins. The picture is taken from a distance, and no one else is visible in it, giving the impression that this joyful little girl has found her way alone to a secluded spot in the middle of nowhere. In a way, she had.
The only child of an engineer and his wife who were older than most by the time she was born, Dunaway grew up in Anchorage encouraged to be independent and creative and to think for herself. Her father often took her on forest hikes, and each time they encountered a fork in the trail, they deliberately chose the path that was less well trod. Once during such a hike, her father stepped back and invited her to go first. After several turns leading to increasingly overgrown trails, she began to doubt herself and wonder if she had chosen wrong. Then, suddenly, the trees opened up, and a magnificent meadow appeared. The little girl ran far into the tall summer grass, smiling and twirling in delight.
Thirty-five years later, the photo has an honored spot in Dunaway’s studio in the foothills of Albuquerque, NM. It’s a powerful reminder of the wonder of unexpected discoveries in life and in art. “It can be like that in painting,” she explains, gazing warmly at the picture. “You have an idea for a painting and an idea about how to navigate, but often, halfway through, you’ll doubt yourself. Then there’s that same feeling I had in the meadow: You figure it out, you discover something new, and your artwork goes to the next level. I equate it with that hike.”
If a studio is a “visible record of an artist’s soul,” as Dunaway puts it, then hers reveals much. A deep love of nature and fond memories of Alaska are evident in a cherished handwoven Alaskan basket and her collection of feathers and rocks. Artwork by Richard Schmid and Jeremy Lipking pays homage to two of her most influential mentors. A passion for reading is manifest in shelves of volumes on art and just about everything else. “I love books on quantum physics. It’s about how expectations can shape things. It’s everything I’m exploring in painting, too,” she observes. Large northeast windows offer indirect light and mountain views, while through southwest windows a hawk, nesting in nearby cottonwoods, sometimes perches on the balcony and fixes it gaze on Dunaway as she paints. In prominent spots around the spacious studio are inspirational quotes, such as this from Henry David Thoreau: It’s not what you look at that matters; it’s what you see.
What Dunaway has always seen, even before she could walk, are human faces whose ever-changing expressions captivated her. Her mother remembers visitors being unnerved by the baby who pulled herself up in her playpen and stared intently at their faces for seemingly unnatural lengths of time. Dunaway’s first memory, from age 2, is of being enthralled by an enormous (in her eyes) coffee-table book of drawings and paintings. When someone closed it and said she was too young, she remembers an overpowering sense of needing more of what she had seen. By the time she was 3, drawing had become an obsession. Repeatedly tracing her fingers over faces and hands in comic books, she would pick up a pencil and let muscle memory re-create those images on paper. When she was 7, her mother—a stay-at-home mom whose creative talents came out in painting, woodcarving, and stained glass—encouraged her to draw in charcoal. Using shading, the budding artist was learning to capture subtlety of expression even then.
After high school Dunaway studied with artist Lou Maestas at the Art Masters Academy in Albuquerque, where the family moved when she was 13. It was her first exposure to sculpture and to drawing and painting from life. From there she enrolled in the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, intending to pursue a career in illustration. While the experience gave her a strong foundation in figure drawing and anatomy, after two years it became clear that computers were honing in on that field. She left the school and returned to New Mexico.
When she was 24 years old, the artist was commissioned to create a bronze sculpture of the late Latin singer Selena. She spent six months in Philadelphia working on the project and, while there, visited New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art for the first time. As she walked into the American wing she found herself facing large portraits by John Singer Sargent and Cecilia Beaux. “When I saw those paintings, I knew that’s what I would devote my life to,” she recalls. “I could see all those things you don’t see in paintings in books—the color, the brushwork. Seeing Sargent’s brushwork was probably similar to tasting sugar for the first time,” she laughs. “It’s so luscious! I need more!”
Ironically, a book would provide the next stepping-stone in Dunaway’s career. She spotted it on a table after returning home from the East Coast—Richard Schmid’s Alla Prima: Everything I Know About Painting. In it she found validation from a master for painting the way her eyes see. “I wanted to do impressions, vignette-style faces. But in art school, because it was for illustration, I was told a painting always had to be finished out to the edges and the figure had to be doing something. What I saw in Richard’s book was an artist painting the way he saw the world, his authentic way, with such beauty. It gave me permission to listen to my own voice.”
At that point she knew she had to listen to and learn from voices of experience to gain the skills she needed. Within a few months she took the first painting workshop ever offered by Morgan Weistling, followed by the first offered by Jeremy Lipking. She perceived Weistling as merciless in his critique of her efforts in class. But afterward, he told her she should be painting professionally. Signing a copy of a book for Dunaway, he wrote: “You’re going to be a force to be reckoned with in the art world.”
And she is. Widely collected and in galleries around the country, now she, herself, is a teacher, at the Scottsdale Artists’ School. In 2010 she was a top finalist in the Portrait Society of America’s International Portrait Competition, earning an Award of Exceptional Merit for KATIE AND JENNI, a portrait of Jane Seymour’s daughters. The artist and actress met when Dunaway was teaching at the California Art Institute, and Seymour, also a painter, requested private lessons. The two became good friends. During a painting session with Seymour, Dunaway, and other artists, Katie and Jenni modeled in vintage clothing.
In her own painting and with students, Dunaway emphasizes the importance of connecting with the subject’s humanness and translating that “sense of breath and aliveness” onto canvas. “It’s not just a series of shapes, it’s a person. Having respect and awe for that means allowing yourself to be immersed in that experiential moment, being attentive and appreciative of what’s in front of you,” she explains.
That can happen even without a paintbrush in hand. Once during a long lunch break at a painting session with Richard Schmid, the elder artist was informally expounding on his artistic philosophy and other subjects. Dunaway wanted to paint his face, half-lit from a window behind him. For an hour she painted him in her mind, mixing colors and imagining brush strokes as he talked. At one point she discretely took a few photos for reference. But it was her intense attention and memory—which she describes as semi-photographic—that captured a deeper essence of the person she saw.
Similarly, a thread of emotional memory created a sense of communion between subject, artist, and painting in REMEMBERING HOME. The model was a young Russian woman, and during breaks one of the other artists in the group asked her about her childhood home. Her face lit up, and the words poured out. For Dunaway, childhood memories of Alaska created a powerful connection with the model’s experience and imbued the portrait with a poignancy well beyond what was visible in photos.
Lately Dunaway finds herself increasingly interested in painting people and places that hold personal significance for her—the better to move beyond physical likeness to the subject’s subtle realm of expression and the artist’s honest emotional response. Yet even with people she’s never met, that connection can be there and expressed in paint, she believes. “I’m fascinated with the fact that as human beings we all have such different and equally beautiful visual aesthetic qualities. Yet internally, we all traverse the same inner emotional journeys. We all have a desire for hope, love, happiness. We all endure sadness and challenges and experience the overcoming of these things. I’m interested in finding that connection and capturing that truth in paint.”
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