Melissa May is an artist with a lifelong love of animals. She combines her passion for nature with her skill as a painter to create stunning portraits of wildlife. Her work “Contemplation,” a detailed painting of a gorilla, has been chosen to be featured in Jane Goodall’s exclusive exhibition in Vienna this fall. The proceeds from the auction will go towards conservation.

My first question is about your background. What drew you to painting?

When I was in high school I used to draw quite a bit and I was really interested in it, but I didn’t know or didn’t feel as though I could create a real career out of it. It was something I felt that would just have to be a hobby. I’m sure plenty of people feel that way as well, so I just got busy with life and I ended up opening a store because I always had this drive to be creative. It was with design and home improvement. We sold paint and DIY supplies and that sort of thing, but I still took things to another level. Even there, I would have people come in and say “gee,” because I would do a technique on the wall and they would say “that actually looks like real wood. That’s a little bit over the top.” So I was like maybe I should keep trying to push that a little further, so I had bought some acrylic paints and I just decided to start playing around with them. I sent a picture to my mom and she was all excited and said, “you need to keep going.”

My next question is about your education. Are you self taught?

I am self taught. I’m not formally educated. It’s really funny because I actually was going to go Emily Carr. I actually went to the university and toured it and everything and chickened out. I was too afraid to go so far away from home so it ended up not happening. I ended up getting (an) education more (in) computer business and going that route, which is nice to have because I have the business side of things…You can be very creative, but if you don’t have the business side of things it will not really evolve.

What kinds of things have you been inspired by lately? Is there anything in particular?

Well, I’m inspired by a wide variety of artists that I follow on instagram. I’m really interested in realism, but I love impressionism. There’s no real limit to any art that I like. I love it all. Wildlife and nature (are) a passion for me. I really love it, anything I can do outside. Being (in) the outdoors and nature is super inspiring to me.

You paint a lot of wildlife?

I do, yeah. Not to say it will end there. I hope to continually change, but that is probably the foundation of where I’m going…I would love to be a little more, like I say, impressionistic. I would love to do that, but I don’t feel as though I feel comfortable with it. I feel much more comfortable doing the details. I get super hyper-focused on it, so it just feels natural to me to do.

Do you think going forward ArtsLink will be able to offer helpful resources for you?

Absolutely, it’s been very helpful. I borrowed the camera and the lights and used that to get familiar with taking pictures of my own artwork. Then I ended up actually going out and buying my own when I felt like “oh, I think I can do this.” It was a good experience doing that. I see there’s a lot of different things that I would really love to draw from. It’s really, really informative and I feel like there’s so much I don’t know, so (it) definitely could be great for me.

What kinds of things would you like to accomplish in the next five years?

Well, some of the things that I’d like to accomplish…I would like to have a solid clientele for my artwork. I would love to develop my style even more than I currently have. I would like to have multiple series. (That is) my goal. That’s why I’ve stuck with the animals for now because I’m trying to stick with a series and really master that, with the different types of fur, different types of eyes, and all the things that can go with it. I would like to have this permanent full time experience. For me, it would literally be a dream come true and if I can raise funds in order to help conservation and wildlife and all of that in the process, that’s my goal. That’s my driving force.

It’s so wonderful because when I was a kid I always wanted to be a vet. I wanted to be involved with animals because I just loved them so much, but the older I got I realized I’m not sure if that’s for me because there’s too much sadness in there. It’s not my thing, but I would love to help. I thought well, maybe photography, but photography’s not my thing (either). Luckily, art seems to be my thing so I can incorporate the two together which is something that’s special.

What’s been a highlight of your career so far?

There (have) been so many in the short career I’ve had. I would say getting notified that my artwork’s being exhibited in Jane Goodall’s exclusive exhibition in Vienna. That’s a pretty big deal to me. There (are) seventeen artists, so being one of the few seventeen there will be pretty exciting.

It’s all international artists?

International. There’s at least one other Canadian going, as far as I know, but there’s a wide variety. It’s not just painters. There’s sculptors…There’s also fabric artists. They make beautiful artwork out of fabric.

Do you know if this is an annual thing?

Well actually it isn’t. I don’t think they do this all the time, but I know she has auctioned off artwork before. I do suspect that this may become a trend for them. I’m not sure. But right now it’s kind of a mystery to me. They haven’t really disclosed a whole lot, but I think I’ll find out more when I go because we’re supposed to meet as a group of artists.

How have you been most challenged as an artist?

I would say I find it challenging when I’m doing commission work, as I’m sure a lot of artists do. That’s a challenge because I spend a huge amount of time on those pieces and I find that I’m really critical of my own work. I get up close with it and I feel like I’m terrible. I find that really challenging until I finally get to the end and I take a step back and it’s actually turning into something and I feel happy about it. It’s been a challenge to put myself out there and face that fear. It’s really putting your heart and soul out there, but it’s been so well received, now I feel differently about it. I’m not as fearful. I feel like I take a lot of pleasure in it myself, so if you like it great (and) if not, I realize there’s a wide variety of tastes out there. You can’t please everybody.

In your opinion how do you think things like location and culture influence artists and the art they produce?

I think location and culture do impact. I think just from being in different places in the world and seeing the art that’s produced from these areas, It’s sometimes really distinct as far as the colours and subject matter. I think being in Canada and surrounded by wildlife and nature and the great outdoors and all of the beautiful things that we have here, I think there are a fair amount of artists choosing similar aspects that I’m choosing for that reason. I grew up outside. I spent a lot of time outdoors so that is a huge inspiration to me as far as what my passion is, verses someone else that grew up in a big city and they’re not surrounded by that.

Did you grow up in Saint John?

I did. I lived outside the city, in the country for a few years and then we ended up moving to Quispam which is still pretty country. It’s not so much now, but you’re still surrounded by plenty of deer. I spent a lot of time rescuing animals. We’ve rescued many dogs and cats, but also raccoons and pigeons and nothing’s off limits. I will rescue them and try and help them and get them to safety if we can. I think being out in the nature…you’re introduced to it a little more…I feel as though (I’m) a little more compassionate towards all wildlife and nature.

I went on a little trip, this might have nothing to do with this, but I went on a trip to Mexico. I know a lot of people swim with dolphins, but I didn’t feel comfortable doing that with them so I ended up finding a biologist. What she does is…take you out into the ocean. They teach you a course and the proceeds all go towards conservation. It’s quite exciting and it’s much more adventurous because you’re jumping in with wild dolphins. It was really amazing because she had built a relationship with them all. She knew their names. It was really something. It was extremely exciting and it felt so good to do something that was helping the place we were going to rather than somehow hurting it. I think there (are) all sorts of different things we can do in life to better our surroundings somehow if you just look a little bit.

We stayed across from the zoo and I wanted to visit the zoo, of course. I love the animals, but it was disturbing to me walking through this zoo. Some of the animals were in tiny cages. They had these little baby tigers and they were in a cage separately. You could pay to hold them, but…they were breeding these tigers, taking their babies, and then just using them to hold. I don’t know what they do with them afterwards, but they don’t stay at the zoo. They’re separated from their moms early on and I was like “I’m not holding them.” That just keeps that going. There’s a lot of misinformation and ignorance out there, especially with these travel type situations. People don’t know, they don’t realize the harm, but it’s really harmful.