Many artists have painted while traveling, but filling every page of an entire sketchbook? Missy H. Dunaway captures an inner light through her brushstrokes, from country to country, abroad and at home.
Since 2010, painting in a sketchbook has been a part of Missy H. Dunaway’s daily routine. When she traveled to Turkey on a Fulbright Fellowship to study Anatolian textiles, her portable art became the foundation for her creative work while traveling. Since then, Missy has filled five Moleskine notebooks with paintings throughout her time spent in eight countries. Her sketchbook has encouraged her to break language barriers, communicating with strangers as each unique, colorful page is born.
One thing Missy has taught me especially:
Even when we feel the most alone we’ve ever felt in a new place, art can lessen the divide between our differences. Throughout Missy’s work, we find the vulnerability in a single leaf to the emotion in a small crease of the hand. We engage in her art and are suddenly less afraid to be ourselves.
Here, we asked Missy about all things regarding art and travel, as well as the challenges and rewards her sketchbooks have given her. From Istanbul to New York City and Paris to central Turkey, travel around the world with Missy and her unconventional canvas filled with brilliance and most of all, hope.
Q: Was there an event or moment that sparked your creation of these travel journals?
Keeping a sketchbook was mandatory for art students at Carnegie Mellon, so the practice began there. I kept it up after graduation, and over the years the sketchbooks naturally took on diary-like qualities with daily use. Subject matter became increasingly autobiographical and the sketchbook slowly evolved into the visual journal it is today.
The book’s small surface was convenient in my college dorm room, then in my first shoebox apartment, and then when I started traveling in 2013. It was easily packed away and carried abroad, so the paintings recorded the journey along the way.
Q: What medium did you work with while creating these pieces?
I paint with acrylic-ink, a pigment ink medium with an acrylic resin to improve color permanence and thicken texture. It can be diluted with water to create translucent washes or applied heavily for opaque color. I love its versatility.
Q: Has the spine of the journal caused greater difficulty in connecting artwork on two pages into one picture, or has it caused greater creativity? Has the small size of the journal paper felt limiting or freeing at times?
The centerfold of the journal has never bothered me. It’s surprisingly easy to ignore once I start painting and get into a creative flow. However, paint often seeps into the crease and spills over onto previously completed pages, damaging them. I usually find these changes beautiful and don’t repair them, unless they alter a portrait. I choose to paint inside of a book so I accept that the medium is subject to wear and tear. I like to think these elements set the journal apart from usual 2D artwork.
At first, the small scale of the journal was very freeing. It allowed me to continue traveling without compromising my desire to create. But after five years, I became so accustomed to its small scale that I became intimidated by large surfaces. I’m currently in the process of getting back into large-scale artwork, to break out of these habits. I want to paint in a journal because I want to, not because I have to.
Q: Did you ever have a piece of art in the journal that got damaged during your travels? What did you do?
Oh, yes! One time I embarked on a night from Fes to Erfoud in Morocco. There had been severe flooding that night, and the bus had to wade through deep pools of water as we lumbered south for seven hours. Halfway through the ride I remembered with alarm that my journal was rolled away in my backpack, stowed in the undercarriage of the bus. The book, which was already filled with 25 complete paintings, was submerged underwater and soaking wet.
When I arrived at my destination, an artist residency in the Sahara Desert called Café Tissardmine, I immediately emptied the contents of my soaking luggage and seized my journal. I aired it out in an open window and let the pages flutter in the hot desert breeze. It did the trick, and there was no harm done! Acrylic ink is water-resistant when dry, so thankfully none of the paintings were damaged or altered. Now my journals are always immediately by my side, never in checked luggage.
Q: Did you paint these scenes after seeing specific places or people, or are some of them imagined? Are any based on photographs you took?
I work from a mixture of memory and photographic references, but nothing is purely imagined. Throughout the day, I snap reference photos and jot down short, descriptive poems. I retire to my studio in the evening and select a scene to paint. I usually choose events from that day, but sometimes I look back to the previous week, month, or even a year.
Painting not only captures how a place looks, but also how it feels. I am not a gifted photographer, nor do I have professional equipment. Night scenes are imperceptible, colors are washed out, and scale and details are lost. All of these things can be corrected—and exaggerated for effect—with a paintbrush.
Q: Do you have a favorite piece of art in your travel journal? A favorite story? A stranger that you will always remember?
There are two memories that stand out in my mind. I often think about when I first moved to Istanbul. The Fulbright Fellowship is pretty self-guided, so I had to find an apartment, learn the language, and conduct research on my own. Istanbul has over 15 million people, so finding an apartment wasn’t easy, especially since I had never been to Turkey before. Through the guidance of expat forums and Craigslist I found a studio in Harbiye, a mile from Taksim Square.
It was a really hot day when I moved in, so I opened all my windows. I was mopping the floors when the Call to Prayer blasted into my studio. I was on top of a hill, and the neighborhood below had a dozen mosques that projected the song through megaphones. It was so powerful and mesmerizing. I miss hearing it and reference it a few times in my artwork. Getting that fellowship and moving to Istanbul was a far-fetched fantasy for a long time, so that was a moment when everything sunk in, and I was amazed by how unpredictable life can be and how far away it can take you.
The second memory is from a six-week art residency in Cappadocia, a region of central Turkey known for its surreal rocky landscape. Ancient cave dwellings are carved from tufa limestone and “fairy chimney” rock spires project from the earth. Beneath are underground cities that hid Christians from Romans and Byzantines as far back as 8th century BC. It was such a gift to spend six weeks there. I was one of two artists at the residency, so it was a very quiet month. Each evening I ate dinner alone on a veranda that looked into a gorge where swallows hunted for mosquitos, so I’d get to watch a hundred of them swoop in graceful arcs while I ate. There’s a lot to love about Cappadocia, but having dinner in the company of swallows every evening is my favorite memory.
Q: How do you decide to paint words or leave a piece without words?
Throughout the day I snap reference photos and jot down short poems in my phone. Usually, the poem is a variation of what I thought at the time of the scene, so the words and image are closely related. In the painting, I want the words to either give the painting some context or exaggerate the mood, so the viewer can experience the moment as I did, at least emotionally.
I usually place the text somewhere on the page that is quiet, or where the composition is lacking.
Q: How has your artistic view changed over time in terms of audience?
For the longest time, I never thought about my audience as I painted. My journals are very personal and self-indulgent. They’ve always been a safe place for me to reminisce about whatever I want, and paint whatever I want. I try to protect that feeling as much as possible, but social media has made it difficult in recent years. There’s a lot of pressure on artists to share the studio process with viewers, engage with commenters, and post on a daily basis. It’s difficult not to think about my audience and what they like, especially when they are a part of my daily life. I’m trying to find a balance, but it’s difficult. I think social media is invasive by nature, so there’s only so much I can change while still participating and enjoying its benefits.
Q: What advice would you give to travelers who want to create art on the go?
You can certainly do both! I have packing supplies down to a science involving duct tape, Tupperware, and Ziploc bags. Setting up a workspace for my journal is quite easy since all I need is a table, chair, and a window for natural light.
The difficult part comes when I want to work large, as I also make full-scale paintings. With every move, I make one trip in search of Masonite hardboard, which I cut into a heavy 5×4 foot panel. I pin paper to the board and lay it on top of my desk to fashion a larger, second worktable. In Istanbul, a friend and I transported one home by way of a tram for an hour, walking half a mile, and pulling it up a winding staircase with no handrail. My point is: if there’s a will, there’s a way!
Q: What have you learned from traveling the world? What have you learned is difficult about traveling, and what is rewarding?
The biggest reward is learning. I learn so much when I travel—about other people and cultures, history, art, cuisine, language, and myself. I can’t zone out or disassociate while traveling. I have to stay attentive to make sure I don’t get lost, or because I’m talking to someone new, or practicing a new language. When I’m that attentive I naturally retain information. Artists are naturally observant, but I feel I’m hyper-observant when I’m in an unfamiliar place.
There are some drawbacks. First and foremost, the artist-in-residence experience is emotionally taxing. Artists are thrown into a living experience with seductively like-minded people for one to three months, grow close as a family, and then we depart abruptly and permanently. I have close friends scattered all over the world, but I sadly recognized I will never see most of them again. Meanwhile, the permanent relationships in my life were neglected while I was traveling. Years passed without seeing old friends, and I missed significant weddings and funerals. Romantic relationships were perpetually long-distance and short-lived.
Despite the challenges, I derive a lot of pride from traveling alone. I never knew how independent I was until I was navigating a new culture, attempting a new language, and making new friends, all while completing art projects. Not to mention tackling the never-ending obstacles thrown in the way of travelers, such as food poisoning, frozen bank accounts, cancelled flights, missed connections, and dead cell phones.
Q: How would you describe “home” when traveling?
My definition of home is a little unconventional because I grew up in a Navy family, so moving has always been a part of my life. For me, the concept of ‘home’ has always been tied to things, rather than a place. I always take my favorite knick-knacks with me to decorate my temporary living space and make it feel like home. If you remember the early scenes of Titanic, when the elderly Rose arrives with a suitcase full of personal keepsakes to decorate her guestroom, that’s an exaggerated version of what I do. I wouldn’t travel with a goldfish, though. That’s a bit much.
Music is also a great comfort. It has a way of manipulating atmosphere and creating mood. It can help make an unfamiliar place feel familiar.
Q: How has traveling alone as a female shaped your story as a human and as an artist?
I get asked a lot of questions about traveling alone as a woman, and the questions are usually colored with concern and worry. My dad had a career in Homeland Security and my mom has helicopter tendencies, so both are natural worriers—professional, in my dad’s case. I was always taught to be ultra-cautious because I’m a woman, and that the moment I let my guard down is the moment catastrophe would find me.
But from my personal experience, I learned if there’s one person who wants to take advantage of you, there are ten others nearby who want to help you. At times when I felt uncomfortable, good Samaritans always offered help and saved the day. Traveling has given me a more positive world-view. Traveling has made me more trusting of people, not less. As a result, my artwork has shifted from focusing on things (feathers, carpets, and fly fishing), to focusing on people (as seen in my travel journals).
Q: What is it like thinking about your journals years later from the original creation date?
I don’t flip back very often—just once or twice a year. When I do, I notice changes in myself. My themes and subjects change, as does my technical skill and style. I see a shift from painting about the past and dwelling on heartbreak to looking outward and painting about my environment. Over one hundred pages I see a progression from inward melancholy to curiosity and joy.