Melissa Matsuki Lillie’s fine-art canvases demand a second look. And a third, or perhaps just one very long stare. That’s because these lively, organically patterned pieces offer so much to look at. A viewer may spot a tree—or is that a cloud?—but these largely abstract, canvas wall art pieces appear to contain multitudes and minutiae at once. We asked her about her subject matter and artistic process:
GreenBox: It’s hard to determine whether your canvases are abstracts or actual depictions of something. Can you enlighten us?
Melissa Matsuki Lillie: I generally do start with some sort of source material from everyday life. I always have a camera with me, so I incorporate some pictures I have taken. I also start with ideas and images that are scientifically based, like cell division or microscopic views of leaves or sand. Lately I’ve been finding microscopic pictures of rock and using that as material. From there it’s pretty intuitive.
GB: Do you actually reprint the photos onto your work?
ML: No, I do it all freehand. I don’t use a computer. I’ll draw something based on the source material and add and layer and incorporate images from other places that are of the same feel.
GB: Do you have a science background that influences your interest in scientific images and magnifications?
ML: No science background. I have a very natural-history heavy background.
GB: How so?
ML: My father was a zookeeper at the National Zoo for 30 years. Since he worked for the Smithsonian, we had access to all the various institutions. Wherever we went we were able to get into museums and even circuses. He was an elephant trainer, so he knew people in the animal industry and lots of other animal trainers. I have been to so many circuses! [laughs] So I have always had an interest in biology.
GB: Where did the art come in? Have you always had an interest in art?
ML: It’s funny when I think about it, but I guess I have. I have always been doing art since I was little.
GB: Do you have formal art training as well?
ML: Yes, I have a BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art.
GB: Were your parents supportive of your interest in art?
ML: My parents were very open to it. My dad has an art interest, so I think he wanted to cultivate that in me. They were OK with sending me to art school, which can be a big step for parents!
GB: Now that you are creating and selling fine art, how does it feel to know that people have your canvases hanging on their walls?
ML: Fabulous. I never feel that art should be exclusive. It’s for people to enjoy and it’s what you take from it that matters. If other people can take something from art I make, I think that’s great.
GB: What’s hanging on your walls?
ML: My husband is a painter, too, so we have our own stuff on our walls, plus a few art prints as well. We also have an object collection—vintage cameras, view masters and even bugs!
GB: Is it safe to assume, with your dad’s line of work, that you had a lot of animals growing up?
ML: Oh yes. My father raised guinea fowl and bantam chickens, and he showed champion chickens that won all sorts of prizes. And we ended up with random animals that people would drop off at the zoo. People think a zoo will just take anything—a flying squirrel, a snapping turtle that was found in the road. We had a peregrine falcon for awhile. It was injured and someone brought it to the zoo, but the zoo wasn’t set up for wildlife caregiving. With all the animals we got, tried to find the appropriate person to take care of it.
GB: If you could be any animal, which would you want to be?
ML: I don’t have a favorite animal. I am across-the-board fascinated by any type of animal. I can be transfixed by the littlest thing, even sea life or insects. I can’t narrow it down to personifying one type.