Monday, May 18, 2015

Painting for a Cause

It's interesting to me to pick the brains of those who have artistic capabilities. How they analyze color and light, how they pick their subjects, how they tackle a project, and where their inspiration comes from illuminates their unique views of the world such that I can't help but be fascinated. For this week at VetWrite, I had the privilege to speak with Michelle McCune, DVM. A veterinarian and painter, Michelle's many visits to Africa have inspired her art and her connections to wildlife conservation.

"Royal Repose" by Michelle McCune, DVM
Michelle's first visit to Africa was in vet school. "When I first went to Namibia, it was the first time I had even left the country," she says. "I went to a country I'd never even heard of." After inquiring about free-ranging wildlife programs, Michelle found herself working side by side with Dr. Laurie Marker within the Cheetah Conversation Fund (CCF).

"At that time, it was a start-up organization out on a farm," she says. "My main job was entering data for the cheetah stud book." During her Namibia visit, Michelle would go on walks, enjoy the wildlife, and take photographs. "It was such an inspiring place to be. CCF does conservation from a very problem-solving direction. They don't go out as bleeding hearts and say: don't shoot the cheetahs. They work a lot on farm management and education. The education really ties in a lot of aspects of veterinary medicine. It really opened my eyes to how conservation can be accomplished successfully."

When Michelle returned state-side, she finished her DVM degree. Settling into small animal practice, Michelle, her husband, and growing family traveled back to various African countries and each time, Michelle would return with stories and photographs. Although Michelle was an avid artist in high school, her other talents for science and math drove her toward veterinary medicine while her sister was the art major. However, after being invited to an art class once while in her vet practice, Michelle found herself drawn back to her creative roots.
"Nathan's Koi" by Michelle McCune, DVM
"I started with still lifes and sketching and I ended up looking for things that inspired me to paint," Michelle says. "I found I was going back to photos I had taken in Africa and that's what really motivated me. I was really excited about that and it really refreshed my memory about my trips, so I started picking more and more of those photos to paint."

Michelle then explains how she got it all--veterinary medicine, her love of wildlife, and painting--to meld together. "From a veterinary perspective, obviously I had a passion for animals. I always wanted to do more for conservation. I am in small animal practice and I enjoy working with the patients and educating clients, but I felt something was missing. I kept thinking I have had these really cool experiences but I'm not doing anything with them. So I started looking for a way to really tie it all in together and discovered a group called Artists for Conservation."
"Watcher!" by Michelle McCune, DVM
Artists for Conservation is a juried art group. Michelle applied in 2008 and was accepted into their juried show. "It was really amazing and I was incredibly humbled," she says. There, she met other like-minded artists who shared her passion for wildlife conservation. Since then, Michelle has attended numerous workshops with the group. The money she earns from her paintings goes back into wildlife conservation.

"I think with my art and my being a veterinarian, I'm really interested in the interactions between the animals," she says of her two vocations. "A lot of what I do is almost portraiture because I am really trying to capture the personality of the animal itself. You know from practice that one dog isn't another isn't another and the same goes for animals in the wild. It's watching their interactions and trying to bring out the emotion and actually identify with the animal--that's what I try to bring to my art."
"Meeting of the Minds" by Michelle McCune
Every one of Michelle's paintings has a story behind it that she originally captured on camera from her trips. While some artists are drawn to pet portraiture or other ways of capturing domestic species, Michelle's focus is solely on wildlife.

"I've got one piece that's a close-up of a Cape buffalo. It's called Mbogo, which is the Namibian word for buffalo. These buffalo are cranky, nasty, very temperamental, dangerous animals--not your domestic water buffalo. They are usually portrayed with oxpeckers in their ears and snot coming out of their noses--they are really portrayed as ugly. I was trying to find the beauty in the beast. This is one of my favorite paintings because you see the power in the animal--it's not about snot coming out of his nose. It's about his eyes and his expression."
"Mbogo" by Michelle McCune, DVM
Michelle frequently helps fellow artists on various anatomical details, given her background. "My anatomical knowledge also helps me watch myself to make sure I'm portraying things accurately."

Frequently, Michelle's art compels an education for the viewer. For example, her piece "Birds of a Feather."
"Birds of a Feather" by Michelle McCune, DVM
"This piece shows a bunch of oxpeckers on the back of a zebra," she explains. "This zebra had been attacked by a lion. It had big wounds on its sides and when it came up to the watering hole, the birds were cleaning its wounds. You don't see these birds on zebras very often. You see them on giraffes, Cape buffalo, and rhino."

Although Michelle finds paintings that contain lots of stripes or spots to be visually challenging ("They make me dizzy and I have to take breaks," she says), she finds scaling down her large, expressive strokes into smaller pieces difficult. "I find I am drawn to painting large," she says.

Michelle's enthusiasm, however, seems to happily be her biggest challenge. "I just get so excited that sometimes I just jump right in without thinking what I'm doing and I end up with bad colors or bad values or edge work that's off. These are things that I have to go back and fix later. I just really need to control my enthusiasm! I never have a lack of inspiration."

Currently, Michelle practices small animal medicine part time and is able to paint during the remainder of the week in her studio, Vanishing Visions.

Please join me for my next post, Monday, June 1.

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