One-on-one with Melissa Dow

Today Boneshaker Press presents you Melissa Dow, illustrator and visual development artist living in Portland, Oregon. In her younger years she wanted to be a doctor or work for the FBI. You can track down Melissa with her Website , and other social accounts (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr).

What’s your background?

I attended the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design for graphic design back in the Dark Ages, right out of high school. But I really wasn’t ready for college yet and it took quite a few more years of figuring my priorities out to finally settle down and get serious about art again. I majored in traditional painting for awhile at Portland State University and then transferred to the Pacific Northwest College of Art. I graduated from PNCA in 2007 with a BFA in Illustration and have been fighting the good fight ever since.

What got you interested in the arts to begin with?

I know it seems like the cliche artist answer, but I honestly can’t recall a time when I wasn’t interested in art. It was just always there, ever since I could pick up a pencil and scrawl on something. There was a strong inner drive in me to draw. I was encouraged to be creative growing up, so it was a very natural progression and a constant part of my life really from the start. I was always one of the ‘art kids’ in school, so that became a large part of my identity. I can’t imagine my life without art.

When did you decide to dedicate yourself to art?

At some point in my early 20s I felt a little burnt out on art, since being an artist had always been the thing I had expected to do, so I sort of rebelled against the art thing for while, which is pretty funny since it’s usually the other way around for people. I’m interested in a lot of other things like writing, history, medicine and criminology, so I dabbled around in other subjects for awhile. I discovered that I just don’t have the mind for hard sciences and I lacked the scholastic focus to get too serious about pursuing anything else to a professional degree. Ultimately it always came back to art, not just because that was what I felt like I was best at, but because I was compelled to do it, despite my best efforts to sabotage my artistic path. It’s all a little bit silly when I look back on it.

Odd Couple

Do you remember your first piece of art you were really proud of? The one that made you say yes I am an artist!

It was actually my mom who really made the connection between what I was doing with all of those crayons and markers and my artistic potential. I was about five years old at the time and liked to watch the various art shows that were aired on public television. There was an episode about drawing a clipper ship, so I sat there and watched and drew the clipper ship along with the show’s host. When my mom walked in on me finishing the drawing, she was floored. The drawing wasn’t perfect, but it was a pretty accurate copy of what the host had done. My mom had the drawing framed and hung it in the hallway where it stayed for my entire childhood. I remember being really proud. It was art supplies every Christmas from then on out.

Do you collect anything?

‘Collecting’ is probably a much classier way to categorize my hoarding habits, but I do compulsively buy books and t-shirts; so, so many t-shirts. I literally have enough t-shirts to probably wear a different one for each day of a full year. I also have a thing for sketchbooks and pens, although lately that has expanded into all forms of pencils. I have shelves of geeky toys and knick knacks lining the walls of my studio. I also really like hats. I had a lot of really weird collections as a kid; troll dolls, glass dalmatians and rocks, so I figure I’m just refusing to grow up.

What kind of creative patterns, routines or rituals do you have?

Daily sketching has become a very important routine for me lately. Not only is it great for improving draftsmanship and observational skills, but it’s so fun and a huge form of stress relief for me. I make an effort to draw at least two hours every day, sometimes longer. It also gets me out of the house, which is a huge mood booster. Music is also an essential part of the creative process for me, so that is pretty much on constantly when I’m working on anything. I like to be comfortable in my own space, surrounded by my own things and my dogs, and crank the music or watch one of my favorite movies and get to creating. That ritual is one of my truest happy places.

Sketchbook Highlights

What sacrifices have you made on behalf of your art career?

At the risk of sounding overdramatic, I would say I’ve sacrificed more than I ever thought I would. I try not to think about the fact that I could be making a lot more money doing something else and as I get older it becomes harder to ignore that fact. But I also have come to realize that I would rather be happy with what I’m doing than out there making more money in a career that stresses me out or isn’t my true calling. After I was laid off of my job about a year and a half ago, I purposefully took a low stress, work at home, part-time job that allowed me the time and freedom to really pursue my art dreams. Because of that, I’ve been able to take a lot of amazing classes that I otherwise probably wouldn’t have been able to. Of course, the trade-off is that I’m in the most financially strapped position I’ve been in since I was in my early 20s and it’s a state I know I can only maintain for so much longer. But that drives me to work just that much harder because I have to believe that the sacrifices have been, and will be, worth it.


Do you ever feel like giving up and doing something else? If so, why and how have you overcome that feeling?

All the time, sometimes even daily. Because it seems like it could be the ‘easy out’, that I could become what society deems as successful and productive. But then I think about what it would really mean to give it all up and do something else entirely and I realize how strange and uncomfortable that would be for me. It would be like living somebody else’s life. At the end of the day I would be so unfulfilled. All I have to do is mentally put myself in that place for a few minutes and I quickly overcome the feeling. That doesn’t mean that the feeling doesn’t come back, but I also am self aware enough of my moments of self doubt now to be ready to remind myself that it’s my life to live and I am in control of my own happiness.

Rumpel – Painted props

How do you measure your level of success/achievement?

I have a long, complicated relationship with measuring my level of success and one that is still a pretty big psychological obstacle for me to work through. There are times where I feel a lot of shame for not being a full time, professional artist. With social media it can seem like everybody is getting work all of the time and it’s easy to get down on yourself because of that. I have to keep in mind that we all have different paths to take in our own time and what worked for somebody else may not be what is going to work for me. And everyone’s measure of success is also different. Sometimes I feel like I would be perfectly happy just making art as a hobby, but I also know that there is a larger part of me that is highly driven to make something more out of this art thing. That might change in a few years, but right now I feel very focused on a professional art path and if I’m being totally honest with myself, that is how I’m currently measuring my own level of success. That said, I feel like I’ve already accomplished so much and I have to remember to be proud of that too.

What themes/ideas do you pursue?

My BFA thesis was focused on The Outcast, and the themes I love, and those I keep returning to, haven’t strayed much from that. I’m drawn to ideas of non-inclusion, strangeness, oddness and rebellion; dusty, quirky, macabre stories of ramblers and grifters and anti-heroes. I’m obsessed with the idea of exaggerated reality, not full on fantasy, but some hyper-stylized version of the world we live in. That’s why I love the music of Tom Waits and Nick Cave, and the films of Tarantino, David Lynch and the Cohen brothers so much, because they do that brand of fictional reality so well. To some degree I’ve even purposefully patterned how I dress and physically present myself after that idea.

Ruffian Grandmas – Rose

How has your practice changed over time?

I’ve gone through periods of very intense practice and periods where I didn’t practice at all. There were many years when I didn’t draw or make any art whatsoever. I like to call those my ‘lost years’ and I feel like I’m making up for them now. The past two years have been the most intense period of art practice in my entire life and it’s amazing how much I have learned and grown as an artist in such a relatively short amount of time. I feel like the older I get, the more intense my drive to learn and grow becomes. Right now I’m definitely the most focused I’ve ever been with my art and it would be hard to step back from that now that I’ve seen the results of hard work and dedication.

Rumpel - Painted barns
Rumpel – Painted barns

What advice would you have given yourself ten years ago?

Life is short. No really, it is. Be braver, seize the moment. Believe in you. Smile more. Don’t eat that chocolate on New Year’s Eve 2014, trust me.

How do you keep your creative spark? What keeps you motivated?

Rarely do I feel stuck for ideas or lacking a creative spark. If anything, I have too many ideas going at once. Sometimes it can be hard to stay motivated when it feels like I’m treading water or not making the progress I want, but I find the more art I’m making and the more intensely focused I am overall, the quicker I come back to being motivated. The world is a fascinating place. People are endlessly interesting. Music and movies create moods and realities that are constantly inspiring. Digging deeper and being true to myself always leads to a rejuvenated creative spark.

Professionally, what’s your goal?

To quit my day job to do art as a full time career and never go back again. That would be amazing. Short of that, I would at least like to be able to manage a part-time art career while doing other things that I enjoy to make ends meet. I see myself as mainly a freelance, independent creator type, not necessarily somebody who would work in a studio environment. That said, I’m interested in all kinds of projects, including: illustration, picture books, games, visual development and character design.

Daisy Mae Bakers Decoder Ring - Part of the “Sleepy Pine” Personal project
Daisy Mae Bakers Decoder Ring – Part of the “Sleepy Pine” Personal project

Would you eat the moon if it were made of spare ribs?

No, too stringy. But if it happened to be made of cheese instead, that moon would be mine.



2 thoughts on “One-on-one with Melissa Dow

  1. Debbie Black

    Dear Melissa! You are sooo gifted!!!! But that just doesn’t even say it! I can see your art in books and studios. And if I were a wealthy person, I would hang your treasures on my walls. But I don’t even own any walls, hee hee, cuz I rent!!! By the way, I grew up around the corner from your mom, the 3rd daughter in the Black family!!!!!! I will definitely be following your success!!! Debbie Black xoxoxo


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