Creative Conversations are interviews with artists, makers, and creators that strive to investigate each artist’s creative journey and process. This interview was originally recorded on March 30, 2022. Content may be edited for brevity and clarity. To watch the interview, click here.
Based in the Lake of the Woods region of Northwestern Ontario, Melissa Jean’s work transports the viewer to the lake on a warm summer’s evening, canoeing on calm waters, or dancing in the rain…. from walking along the beach and skipping stones, to the warmth of a campfire on a starry night.
Memories and magic moments are captured forever in textured paint and vivid colour on canvas.
I’m Gina Clark. I’m the founder of Gina Clark Creative where I provide creativity coaching and mentorship and I’m also…I hesitate to call myself an artist in the presence of Melissa! I’m here with my friend and neighbour Melissa Jean who is a wonderful acrylic painter.
I was lucky enough to be able to buy one of her paintings. My husband actually got it for me as a surprise and I love it. We’re here today to talk and I’m going to ask Melissa about her process, we’re going to take a look at her paintings, and just have a fun conversation.
Welcome here. Yeah, I think it was Picasso that said every child is an artist and the trick is to keep being an artist right? So, of course, you’re an artist. Don’t not call yourself an artist because we’re all at different stages and it’s a beautiful thing.
That’s what I tell the people I work with. It’s always in you, right? I mean you look at other people’s stuff and especially when you have something wonderful like Instagram.
And, it’s overwhelming and it makes you kind of think it can be done just like that, but, it’s not like that. It takes forever and it takes years and years to finish a painting.
Let’s unpack that.
Well, what I mean is it takes years to get to the point that you can actually do the painting the way that you envision it. The way that you want to do it. The same painting, if I would have tried to approach it 10 years ago, I probably wouldn’t have been able to do it. It takes years, it takes hundreds of paintings to get to a level where you can actually create something that you’ve envisioned.
You start, and you try and try and try, and all of the sudden one day it just comes together. And sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it takes another 10 years before it comes together again. So, time is not even a factor. It’s not even important. It’ll get done when it gets done.
I’m so glad you brought that up because I actually just sent something out to my email list. It’s a two-minute clip by Ira Glass. It’s an audio clip, and he’s talking about that gap that you have when you’re starting to become an artist or you’re trying a new technique or you’re trying a new medium.
You have this vision in your head of what you want to do and you have really good taste, which is part of the reason why you love art. And, you know that what you’re making isn’t measuring up to that taste. You can’t do it and you just have to keep going.
Yeah, absolutely. You’ve got to keep trying to try. For example, there are a lot of paintings here [in Melissa’s studio]. These are all for this show [Power of Place: Melissa Jean & Walter J. Phillips] I’m doing at the Muse [art gallery in Kenora, Ontario, Canada]. It’s been in the works since 2018. And these paintings have taken me a decade to really find the places he painted.
It’s all places that I found that Walter J. Phillips has painted on Lake of the Woods. I’ve gone there and created my own art based on that location. So, it’s been a long time in the works but it’s been on the books that we were doing this since 2018.
I started painting and then the show was moved because of COVID. I had to destroy many of them and restart two times over. Sometimes that’s part of it too. The time it takes to create from beginning to end really doesn’t matter because there’s so much before that, that comes into play.
I might have started one painting and then a year later I thought, no, that’s not what I was trying to say, that’s not quite right. It’s a very frustrating process especially if you spent a whole month on a painting and then you have to destroy it and start again. It’s awful. It affects your whole life and your whole family and the whole way you see the world.
But, then when it works out every song is a good song. Every day is a beautiful day. You can sleep no problem. It’s such a weird world that artists live in day-to-day. You have one day where nothing is going right and then another day where everything is going right and it’s just an up and down world. Every day is different. It’s the most amazing thing as you know. It’s really a process.
That reminds me of golf, actually. My husband bought me clubs about 10 years ago because he really likes golfing. So this was a way for him to get to golf more. But, whenever I’m making art I liken it to golf. It’s so parallel to me because when you start you’re horrible and the only way you’re going to get better is to play more because it’s very difficult. Your brain gets in the way a lot of times, overthinking.
You have to keep going out there and playing crappy in order to get better. And, you can go out and have this totally amazing game for you. I’ve had times where I’m like, okay, I know how to golf now. I know what to do. Then I go out there the next time and I’m total garbage. It always keeps you guessing but those times when you hit that great shot, it makes it all worth it.
It’s interesting because the next thing I have on my list, because I do custom commissions, is a golf course. It’s for a golf course that’s north of Winnipeg, but I’ve never golfed. But, I can see the golf course as an artist with the shadows and the small, very subtle hills. These are all very important to a golfer but as an artist, I’m going to see it in a totally different way than you would see it as a golfer.
Tell me about what you do to get yourself through those times. Those difficult times when things aren’t working out.
Starting is important. The starting is probably the most important thing. Mapping it out, layering, doing your composition and your design is so important, so day one is the most important. Your mindset has to be there. You have to be totally focused on the design aspects. Mapping it out, what are the lines, what are the key components of the painting, so you have to have a very clear vision.
I feel like that really improves the situation if you have a clear vision going into it. Sure things happen and then things change as you go, but if you have a really clear vision on day one, that is critical. Even if the first day was wrong because the lines are not lined up or the perspective is off and you say, oh, I can save it. It will never be saved. It has to be the right layout, to begin with. Of course, all kinds of happy little accidents can happen and it is wonderful.
If it didn’t start right or something happens on the way, your mindset is not there, or you’re not focused on and something goes wrong, I find the best way is to just start over. I don’t paint over it. I don’t try to cover it up because the essence of the wrong start is in that piece of canvas.
So, I take a knife and I just slash it. Then I take the canvas off and burn it. If I can’t burn it, I cut it into a million pieces and that releases the energy of the bad painting back into the atmosphere and I can collect the big, good idea and start over.
It’s like, especially when you burn it, like a sacrifice to the art gods. Often I can start again and it hurts but that’s how a sacrifice is supposed to be. You need to sacrifice in order to to get something out of it. So, if it’s not worthy, get rid of it. Start again.
Then it goes so much faster and sometimes takes less time than the first one because you’ve already worked out the things that you can’t do and the mistakes. From there it’s just a matter of not doing that again. You’re more focused on getting it right. So a clear start for me is the most important thing.
Then mindset. I come in here [the studio], this is my practice. This is my sacred space. I come in here and I light a candle. It’s kind of like a prayer to the art gods. I’m ready for inspiration. I just show up and then see what happens every day. That’s what I do.
I love it. It’s a very intentional practice.
It’s an ‘I don’t show up half-asleep’ kind of practice. I have to be present whether I start at 9 or 10 or 8 or 11 or whatever the time is. For me, the most important thing is to start with a clear intention to be open to the ideas that are floating around the atmosphere. To let them come into my head and just to be open-minded about the practice and then see what happens.
But, I have to be fully present. I can’t just show up, you know, on my phone. I don’t really know what’s going on in the rest of the world when I’m painting. It’s definitely a sacred practice for me, whether it’s two hours or 10 hours. The time you put in, it’s very important that it’s very intentional.
It’s beautiful. I believe so much that art is a metaphor for life. Showing up intentionally and being open to whatever comes to you. I mean, we could all do that a little bit better.
Tell me where rest or breaks between the art happen. Is that intentionally a part of your practice that you incorporate?
I try to. Sometimes I get so wrapped up in painting that I’m like, whoa, what time is it? It’s like 10 o’clock at night. That happens a lot. For me, just going into the forest here I come out a better person. So that and yoga, a little bit of meditation and friendship, of course, and social activities.
I try to get out. I don’t get out too often. But, when I do I really get out. In the summer it’s all about being on the water. Swimming, being on the dock, boating, whatever. You’re soaking in the inspiration that allows us to get through the winter.
By this time of year, I need to see moving water again. I really miss it. And, I miss that inspiration that comes from that. So, just taking little breaks that make you happy, doing things that make you happy, and try to avoid stress. My main stress is in my art itself. So, if I feel that stress coming on I’ll jump into the forest or talk to the animals or whatever, proactively.
Just release it again.
Yeah, try to get rid of it. But it’s so weird. When you have a bad painting or something you’re struggling with, it just it doesn’t matter where you go. It’s always with you. It’s in your head and you can’t escape it.
It’s in you. Then when you figure it out and release it into the world and start again, it’s like you’re floating in saltwater. It’s very relaxing. But, when you’re in it, it’s intense.
So it’s very physical for you.
It’s very physical. It’s all in my lower back and painting creates tension, that’s for sure. But, it’s such a rewarding thing to get over it. Just to struggle and try to make it to go up a hill and then make it to the top.
I’m glad you said that because going back to what you were saying before, maybe we look at other people’s work, or we look on Instagram, and it’s not just art, it’s all kinds of things. We think that for whatever reason, that those people didn’t struggle. They just somehow have some kind of natural talent, and, yes, people have natural talent, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t struggle involved.
Everybody goes through creative blocks in some sense, whether its feeling overwhelmed or having perfectionist tendencies, professional artists experience the same things. I think a lot of beginning artists think I’m not cut out for this or I’m not talented enough. So, I’m really glad to hear you say that struggle is part of the process.
Every single artist is in the same boat. We’re all students. We’re all learning. And, it’s interesting what you said about talent. I have no respect for talent. Talent is a wonderful starting place. But, if you don’t show up every day and do something with it, then it’s lost. You can be the most talented person in the world. But how far are you going to take it? Are you going to work for two days? Five days, six months, 20 years? 30 years?
What are you going to do with your talent is more important than if you’re born with talent. I was born drawing and doing all kinds of things. I learned to paint when I was 14. And, that was just something I did. But, I took it to the next level about 12 years ago, and I really pushed myself and I still push myself.
So, what I respect is people who struggle, who have the talent or don’t have the talent. The most important thing is the will and the interest in it. And from there, you can do anything. It’s great if you have both, if you have talent and interest and will, then you’re ready. Your tank is full of gas and you’re ready to go. But, you have to go. You have to drive. You have to go somewhere with it.
Love it. You said that you started to transition to full time painting about 12 years ago. What would you say to someone who’s at that point when they aren’t painting full time? What would you say to someone who lacks that time and they maybe have a few hours a week or day to dedicate to their art practice? Do you have any advice?
Yes. Find a space. It can be under the stairs. It can be in the laundry room, it can be anywhere. Find the space and go there. If you have half an hour, be ready, get yourself ready. Get your body ready. Get your mind ready, your supplies that you need, even if you can only afford the cheapest paint and canvases and just get ready.
Then go on your journey for half an hour or one hour, or, whatever. Set a timer, whatever time you have, so that you don’t have to think about the time. You just set it and go to that place. Leave your phone out of it and just create and see what happens.
Go not to make something that you’re going to keep. In fact, it might be a good idea to make things for a good six months and then keep throwing them away. Then you get to a place where the more you create, the easier it is to get in the mood for freedom, the easier it is to get in the zone. So just keep doing it.
Throw stuff away. Keep, keep, keep creating. The act of creating is what makes an artist. The act of creating is what is the important thing. It’s not about what I’ve made. It’s the creation and the act of continually creating. That is the essence of my life. That’s the essence of a creators life is the action. And, maybe you’ll get a few good paintings out of it.
I’m loving this conversation. When I completed my creativity coaching training one of her [Jill Badonsky’s] expressions is just go make something small and crappy. Or, big and crappy. You have sit down for five minutes and just play. Just see what happens. And then, it’ll start coming to you, the more you sit down. It’s like a habit right?
It’s a habit, but it’s not good to get into a habit of creating in the same way all the time. It is a habit to show up. Like you said before people have day jobs. I had so many day jobs. Oh my goodness, I had so many and they would last maybe six months. I just was not a good employee. I always wanted to be the boss, so this is the perfect job for me.
I had so many jobs and then I would create in the evenings because I had little kids. There might be a day where Bill [Melissa’s husband] would take the kids to the pool and then I could maybe have an hour. So, certainly, I was always craving more time and I totally understand that.
You just keep going and keep going and then all of a sudden, maybe there will be a transition in your life where you can put all of the time into your art. Maybe there’s a time where let’s say you get a month off your job or two weeks off your job and you just dive right into it. And, then it’s great.
For me, I had a couple of day jobs and then did this in the evenings. Then eventually I got a gallery. This was I think 2010 or 11 and I kept my day job and would still create. Then all of a sudden I was at my other job, that was the school actually helping out there, and I thought, “What’s on the easel right now?” I wanted to be there.
So I took the leap and I said, okay, I think it’s time for me to transition and a painting had sold at the gallery. Then the next week another went and then a year later I was in a second gallery. I worked hard and I still do. I work probably harder than if I had two jobs. I’m doing all the website, the pictures, ordering, and the management of the inventory through the different galleries.
You sometimes work until 10 and then the next morning you do stuff on the computer and it’s a lot. It’s not like once you get there you’re done. You have to keep going, you have to fight for your job.
That was my question. My question is once you start getting that, I’ll call it success, and you start having more administrative tasks that you have to bring into a creative business, how do you keep creating your priority?
That’s always a struggle. I’d say that you create different spaces for different things like I have my space for website, inventory, in the house, and then I have this space here in the studio for creating.
I come in here and it’s all about creating, nothing else is acceptable. This is only for creating art. It’s hard to juggle sometimes. If you can, I like to create every day a little bit in order to feel good.
I encourage people to go with what works for them in terms of timing. I would never want to say to somebody you should get to your creativity first thing in the morning. That’s not everybody’s time
Yeah, I mean, it’s different all the time. Like for this deadline for this show, I was working a little extra early, seven to eight in the morning until midnight or something. But, typically, I get going later and work the total opposite.
You’re a morning person. I’m an evening person. So, I will do computer stuff as I have my coffee and then get going around nine or 10. Then later in the day is more involved with creating. If it’s 10 to six, that’s probably ideal for me for creating or later in the evening, like after supper. But, every day is different, right? It depends on what’s going on.
This show that’s coming up I should mention again. It’s a public show from April 14 until July 9. There’s 12 paintings of mine, all paintings of Walter J. Phillips.
Tell us a bit about what you did for the show.
Phillips painted in this area and Lake of the Woods, different parts of Canada, but primarily Lake of the Woods from the 1920s to the 1930s-ish. He painted in different locations that he could get to with the modes of transportation that he had. So over the last, I think it started about 10 to 11 years ago, I started looking for spots on the lake that he painted just based on his paintings.
I would go there and also paint on location, set up my tripod and my easel and do a little painting there. That was kind of my summer hobby. And, then it kept going until this idea for the show came up where I would take those sketches and all the memories from the last 10 years and put them into a show, showcasing what I see because artists always see something different.
For some of them, I went to the place and then found something that I was attracted to and painted that. Some of them you can see clearly that is it’s the same spot and same way that I’m facing, and so on. It’s going to be a very interesting show.
Walter J. Phillips is probably the most well-known artist to paint on Lake of the Woods and that was about 100 years ago. So, it’s an interesting take on it. There are changes in the water levels and all of that, but I look for rock formations and horizon lines and try to line up channels and things like that. It’s been an interesting journey. So, this is a celebration show for me. This is a love letter to Lake of the Woods and it’s very special, very important to me.
I love it. It’s going to be amazing.
You said that you started as a hobby, so I want to pick up on that because it sounds like this was something sort of playful for you? You began and now it’s turned into this show. It’s an example of how you don’t know where your play is going to lead.
Exactly. I definitely spread this message around especially to my kids who are grown up children now. Follow your intuition wherever it leads. Follow your nose wherever it leads you.
Your intuition, your instinct, is telling you something and so continue on that path. See where it goes and see where it takes you. It could be the most interesting place, but nobody else has your own intuition. Only you have that.
You have to guide yourself. You can’t do what you should do, or what other people tell you to do. You look and you say what do I want to do, what is important to me right now, what is my intuition saying? What am I interested in right now? Then see where that takes you. It may not take you anywhere, but sometimes it takes you to the most interesting places.
Would you say that’s something that is natural for you, listening to your intuition? Or, was it something you had to develop or come to trust? I ask this as somebody who is learning to trust their intuition.
I’m definitely coming at this a lot later in life and it’s because I didn’t trust my intuition and went with the responsible choice. Thinking, you know, a career in art isn’t responsible. It’s not going to go anywhere.
It’s not responsible! It’s like a crazy lifestyle.
I would say that I’m definitely naturally strong-minded. No one can tell me what to do. I just do my own thing. Follow my own path. You can be born that way. Then you’re raised a certain way
Of course, I had all the shoulds as well. Societal pressures, especially when you have kids and you’re thrown into this world. Then you look at other people and you go, I can’t. I shouldn’t do this. I shouldn’t do that. That’s a very confusing decade, trying to figure all that out.
So, of course, I’ve been there too, and I didn’t really get going until I was 33. Even then, there were things I did that were the way things should be and that applies to art, too. How should you paint it?
Sometimes artists, and this is very dangerous, they look at other artists and they say, well, they’re doing it like that. I should do it like that. Don’t ever do that. Do exactly what you want to do. Even if it doesn’t make sense, keep doing it for a good year and then all of a sudden you go, oh, that’s why I was doing it!
Because art is about invention. You’re inventing something new that’s never been done before. It’s very important to keep that intuition in your work as well. Not only your life, but it’s important to keep it in your work in order to be successful. As an artist, you have to listen to yourself and invent new ways of doing things.
It’s pretty boring if we all make nice paintings that look like each others. That would be awful. So I would say yes, I was naturally like that, but then also had checkboxes of being a good person, a good mother, a good wife, a good society member, all of those things. Every single person has the same thing.
It’s important to break through and I think for whatever reason, I was able to do that. And, yay, right? I mean, that’s good because it feels good to do that.
You said you’re only starting now. That’s great. Everybody has a different starting point and a different rhythm, and you have to follow your own rhythm. You might be a bright, shining star for two years, and it might be very quick. Or, you might be a long slow burn. And it’s okay.
I want to pick up on what you said about your kids, just telling them to trust their intuition. Part of what finally pushed me was I wanted to be an example for my kids to follow what’s inside them and just not be that corporate person that does all the things they’re supposed to do. I can see it in your kids. Your kids are definitely following their talents. And, it’s awesome.
I love hanging around with them. Ruby is in visual arts at the University of Victoria. She’s decided to go to art school, not to have a piece of paper that tells her she’s an artist, but to go there, and this is her own words, this is not me saying it, it’s Ruby.
She said I want to go there to learn more about art and to be a better artist. To be more knowledgeable and have more skills. To have a tool belt with more skills. So, good for Ruby. She’s doing that and she’s always drawn since she was little and she’s always been doing stuff.
Then Jackson is a musician. He’s got that natural talent and he picked it up when he was really young. It’s just like breathing for him. The most comfortable thing is for him to pick up a guitar and play in the morning with coffee or whenever throughout the day.
They both have this intuition inside of them and it’s going to be interesting where they go with it. It doesn’t have to be a career. I told them that too. You can have a career, but you have to have something that makes you happy. If playing Atari makes you happy then just do it because it makes you happy.
At the end of the day, careers don’t matter. Money doesn’t matter or what you have. It’s the happiness you’ve created in your life for yourself and for the people around you. If you’re happy then those people will be happy. So I think it’s good that they’re both happy.
I love it. Those of us who are still working the nine to five, don’t retire to go read memos and go to meetings that are really boring. I think that’s why it’s important to find what’s inside of you at some point in your life. You’re going get to that point where your job’s done, your kids are out of the house, and then who the hell are you and what do you like?
Isn’t that scary? I’m dealing with that now because the kids are kind of doing their own thing and, it’s so quiet. But, I’m in here [the studio] more because this space is for me.
In the house, it’s for the family and then here it’s for me. If no one’s home, I’m in here. It’s fun, though. It’s a good life.
Let’s switch gears a little bit because I want to be able to show your paintings. I want to ask you about, I think we’ve sort of I think we’ve alluded to this in our conversation, but you clearly paint landscapes and a lot of nature, right? What drew you to it?
I like landscape. I do prefer nature as opposed to people but that’s just my preference. Ruby, my daughter, is completely into portraits and faces and she finds that incredibly interesting, but she doesn’t find landscapes so interesting. So, it’s just what I’m drawn to.
I love landscapes. I love sunsets. I love nature. To me it’s interesting and that’s why I paint it, but I especially like water. The main focus of my work is moving water. I love watching it and love swimming in it. I love everything about water. I drink so much water.
That’s another thing that I’m drawn to and maybe that will change in 10 years, but that’s what I’m into right now. I’m really into the way water moves and reflects and it’s so interesting to me. That’s why I paint primarily landscapes.
But, I’ve done all kinds of things like dogs and birds and butterflies, people, but I definitely am drawn more towards just nature without any human interaction, just as it is. I like the wild.
Let’s take a look at some of your paintings.
This is a 30″ by 60″. And, that’s Whitefish Bay. This is another one. This one’s called Silver Lining. I talked about that struggle where you go up and you go down. This was my mountain out of these pieces. It was the water because it had a very specific reflections.
I wanted that humid, rainy when the sun pokes out in the July, rain. You know what I mean? That July rain and the clouds are so low that it feels like a blanket over you and it’s wonderful humidity. I wanted the reflections to really just move with it.
When I was working on this one, I really had to say goodbye to everything around me and dive into it. When I was painting the water I couldn’t look away. I had to reach for my palette to really keep that focus because water is a very demanding subject. You have to be completely immersed in it or it doesn’t forgive you.
If you look away, come back the next day, it says start again. It’s a diva. So, for me, this is one I’m very proud of, the reflections and how they came out just as it was in my mind. That was a happy moment for me.
Not necessarily a long time but definitely an incredible journey. For me, out of all these pieces, I think this is the most incredible journey that I traveled on. I think this one here was probably the hardest to locate. A treasure hunt. Awesome painting for that, you know, but this was more about the process.
Are these ones harder to let go of? The mountains?
I believe that every painting should go out there because the person who’s going to buy it has a connection. I might create, I don’t know, 50 paintings a year. I don’t know how many, but let’s say 50. If I keep them they’re not worth as much as that one person who saved up, or for whatever reason, has found it and who’s taken it home and it’s now their treasure.
And, it will be treasured for years and their children will be enjoying it, and their children. So, for me, it lives better when it’s out there. I have the image and I have the memory. And, the most important thing I have is the building block to make the next one. This is a diving board. On to the next painting. Do you know what I mean?
These are some of the other paintings in the show. This one here is a pine tree. There’s so many interesting pine trees on Lake of the Woods, but this one spoke to me when I saw it. It was like a beautiful, elegant woman dancing. A strong, confident woman. Her arm is outstretched and she’s turning, she’s twirling with her eyes closed. arms outstretched to the sky.
It’s just a freedom because she doesn’t care what anyone else thinks. She’s dancing. She’s turning. She’s enjoying that last bit of sun. That’s what I was portraying with this one.
This is beautiful Split Rock. That looks like it’s going fall right in, but it’s hanging on there. Love it. And, I’m really proud of the of the texture and the color in this one.
It’s a very smoky purple.
It’s actually called Sailor’s Delight because of this expression. Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in the morning sailors take warning.
Then this one is Crowe’s Island. It was owned by someone with the last name Crowe in the 1900s. When the person who owned the island passed away he donated it to become a bird sanctuary. He ordered the boathouse be torn down, the cabin be torn down, and it go back to the wild which I thought was a beautiful story about the love of nature.
It’s still there. It’s a lovely island and there’s there are definitely a lot of birds there.
I lined up the rocks on the point but this painting is actually the opposite of that direction. I wondered if during the printing process things got reversed, but that was my take on it. So, that’s what I created.
I’m so glad that we were able to do this. It’s frigging amazing. Thank you for joining us. Tell everybody where they can find you and find your work.
For more in the Creative Conversations series see: