Meet My Art Friend: Melissa Lakey
Welcome to the first edition of Meet My Art Friend! You can expect a new interview with a fellow artist every month or so, right here in this newsletter.
I’m thrilled to share my conversation with artist and illustrator Melissa Lakey, who I first met in a painting workshop and since have had the privilege of meeting and drawing together. Read below for our chat about sketchbooks, freezing up when we have too much time, and preparing for gallery shows.
Meet Melissa Lakey
CYOO: When and how did you first decide to dedicate yourself to your art practice?
I wanted to grow up to be an artist when I was younger. In my teens I tried to get more serious about it—I showed at some coffee shops and such, but I found that I wasn’t making art for me. I was more so making art because people told me I was good at drawing.
I stopped making art throughout my twenties. Once I moved to the desert around age thirty, I got back into my practice by doing #The100DayProject. The first year I made plein air paintings in watercolor. I wanted to challenge myself to get outside every day and be in nature, and combine that with art making. The next year I did all digital art since I had just gotten an iPad.
From 2016 to 2019, I did the 100 day project each year and didn’t make any art the rest of the year. But in 2020, I had more time since my husband and I weren’t shooting many weddings. [CYOO: Melissa is also a wedding filmmaker!] I kept making art after the 100 days and things grew from there. I found illustrators I really liked and started working in a more illustrative style. I took Lindsay Stripling’s Yellow Brick Road and a few other creative voice classes and found my way into my process around fall 2021. Since then, I’ve been full on embracing art.
How would you describe your art?
It’s hard to describe! Working on my artist statement I realized now I can share art without feeling too embarrassed, but talking about or describing it feels embarrassing.
I make colorful and playful art inspired by the desert. I used to work realistically and now my style is more faux naive or primitive.
Anyone following you and your work knows how integral sketchbooks are to your process. How many sketchbooks do you have at a time? How do you organize them?
I have a bunch to use on the go. I have one for sketches, thumbnails, and written ideas for paintings. I have another for on location drawing. Then I have a “ugly” sketchbook for experimenting, making bad drawings, and color swatching.
I used to have everything in one sketchbook, but I’ve found it useful to keep things separate especially if I want to flip through painting ideas instead of mixed in with my experiments. It’s nice to have one dedicated to a trip so I can look back and see everything in one sketchbook.
How often do you look back on your sketchbooks? Are there certain ones you look through and others you don’t?
I didn’t expect to look back on the “ugly” sketchbook, but I have! I did a drawing in there that I didn’t like and then I painted over it with some random bird shapes. Yesterday I worked on my first wood cutout for my upcoming show. I blew up one of the bird images that I had drawn in my bad sketchbook just for fun, which is now becoming my first cutout.
I try to remember that experimenting is good. It’s hard to make time for it especially when I have a show coming up and feel pressured to make work for the show. On that day where I didn’t feel like doing anything but make bad drawings, one little piece of that became a finished piece.
You mention sitting down and dedicating time to make work for your upcoming solo show, and also creating pieces organically. How has it been to balance the two processes?
I knew I was going to find it hard to make dedicated work and freeze up, so it didn’t worry me too much when it happened. A lot of my work is intuitive—I make it and have fun. I make a bunch of stuff and some works out and some doesn’t. But when you have a show coming up, it doesn’t feel like you can make the works that don’t work out.
I have a few ways to trick myself. In fall 2022 I did an open studio, so I told myself the work I was making for the open studio didn’t have to be amazing. Some of my favorites for that I saved and put in the solo show. I have a few shows coming up, so I say if a piece doesn’t work for one show, it might work for the other one, or for the next open studio.
I had one week in December when my husband was going to be away and I had a free schedule. I had a whole week in the studio where I could play and work for the show with so much free time to enjoy. I got almost nothing done! I was in the studio every day but feeling like I couldn’t make anything. Why do I make art? What is life?
You were in the pit of despair!
I kind of knew that when it happened but I thought I would come out the other side sooner. For me it was on the last day of the week when I could start making stuff again. I’ve made more work in the little in between times around other work and priorities than when I had the whole week to make my work.
That reminds me of Make Your Art No Matter What by Beth Pickens. In that book she mentions a lot of her clients who don’t work and have lots of free time feel the most paralyzed in making art. It’s ironic because it’s the artist “dream” to have all the time and space in the world.
Exactly. That week I even thought about what you wrote about the pressure to have fun while making art.
My artist statement mentions how art is all about having fun and such. During the open studios, people commented that they could see how I had a lot of fun while making my art. When I was making work while not having fun I thought, “Everyone’s gonna know when they look at this painting that I wasn’t having fun while I was doing it!” But I don’t think people will know.
I don’t think so. But there is something interesting about your process because it is so intuitive. There’s a certain pressure with shows and having a lot of work to make with limited time. You can’t completely freeform that whole process.
That’s what I struggle with in illustrating based on a brief. Most of my stuff is “oh I made this and it came out”. But to make a sketch and then finalize that sketch, it feels hard.
You have several shows coming up. Tell me more about how those came about.
One is a group show at the Nahcotta Gallery in New Hampshire, where I’m showing six mini paintings. That show has around 200 mini paintings by a bunch of different artists.
I have a solo show at Hey There Projects (Joshua Tree) in March. I’ve been in that gallery for about a year as part of their group shows and gift shop. When they were putting together the calendar for 2023, they invited me to do their show. They asked if I wanted to be paired with someone or do a solo show, and I said, “Anything! Sure! I can do a solo show!” After saying that I made three huge paintings just so I could show myself that I could do it.
Then I have a show in April with my mom in Borrego Springs, California. I remember writing that email to their coordinator and proposing a show while I was procrastinating on something else. She wrote back an hour later, and by the end of the day we committed to a number of pieces we were going to do, made a title and description, and the show was listed on the website! So sometimes procrastination works out.
How do you know how many pieces to prepare for each show?
The Nahcotta group show had a minimum of six pieces with a max size, so that one was straightforward. The show my mom and I are doing is in a gallery with multiple exhibitions and movable walls. I’ll probably be doing 20 paintings of various sizes, while my mom will have ceramic pieces throughout the room.
For the Hey There solo show, I have to fill the room in whatever way I want. I’m not sure how many pieces I’ll need so I’m making more than I need and narrowing it down later. I’m doing works on paper, works on panel and canvas, and plywood cutouts of different shapes.
What’s been the most challenging part of working towards a solo show?
Not freezing up! What I like about my favorite pieces of art is that they’re wonky, but it’s another thing to be okay with that in my own work and put it up on the walls. I want to make the art I want to make and be confident in that rather than tightening up and fixing things. The urge to fix things is especially strong with making plywood cutouts, because it feels so final!
I want to make the art I want to make and be confident in that rather than tightening up and fixing things.
We met in Lindsay Stripling’s Yellow Brick Road class, then took a Small Fry Collective class together afterwards. What online classes or resources have been most vital to your artistic growth?
There’s so many! The last two years I took so many long form and short form classes online. It gets me going and it’s exciting to meet people and make friends.
The class we met in, Lindsay’s Yellow Brick Road, and her second class on making a body of work helped me make the leap in my art practice. The work I made in that class helped me get into Hey There Projects.
I also love Emma Carlisle’s Patreon which is all about sketchbooking. That got me back into art big time, seeing how fun her process is. I grew out of only working in sketchbooks after a while, but whenever I feel uninspired I rewatch some of her videos.
Any plans after the art show? Where do you see your art taking you?
I tend to paint the same cowboy guy. This year I want to expand my characters, add a cowgirl perhaps! I also had a loose idea over the summer of making art related to road trips and summer vacation.
But things are really exciting right now. Having an art show is something I’ve wanted for a really long time. I’m not exactly sure what’s going to be next! I’m excited to have space after these shows to play and experiment.
A huge thanks to Melissa for chatting with me and for sharing so candidly about her journey and process! Here is her website and Instagram where you can see even more of her wonderfully colorful and intuitive work. Also stay tuned for any future workshops she may teach—you will learn so much from her intuitive, experimental markmaking.
If you’re in California or in New Hampshire over the next few months, make sure to drop by one of her shows listed below!
March 3 - 31: The Enormous Tiny Art Show #33, group show at Nahcotta Gallery in Portsmouth, NH
March 11 - April 6: A Desert Made of Dreams & Other Tall Tales, solo show at Hey There Projects in Joshua Tree, CA
April 8 - 30: Our Imaginary Desert, mother and daughter show at The Borrego Art Institute in Borrego Springs, CA
I love this interview! Multiple sketchbooks -- yes! Wonderful idea. Thank you Carolyn and Melissa!
Ooh the tip about keeping multiple sketchbooks for multiple things is so eye opening! I might try that out since I can never find the right sketchbook to fit everything, maybe I’ve just been approaching it wrong!