Over the past couple months, there have been new announcements for established conventions and the launch of a few brand new ones to hit the city in the next calendar year. For some, that may be viewed as overkill, but for others they see it as an opportunity to get more convention floor time to show off their geeky merch. One of the names to make a major splash over the past year has been The Cheeky Whale, the moniker of illustrator Melissa Phillips, who has been producing various types of paintings, designs and photographs for people to purchase. Today we chat with Phillips about her creations and thoughts on local geek culture. (All pictures courtesy of The Cheeky Whale.
Gavin: Hey Melissa, first thing, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I was born and raised here in Utah. I'm 33 and live in Cottonwood Heights with my husband Jarrod and my two kids—Mae 8 and Sawyer 3. I love doing anything outdoors, antique shops, old houses, old music (Ella Fitzgerald, The Andrews Sisters), vintage art, and I'm realizing I sound like I'm 73, not 33.
Gavin: What first got you interested in art and what were some early inspirations?
Honestly I really just have always loved creating in just about any way
since I can remember, but drawing was always what I loved the most. I entered the reflections contest in the 1st grade and won first prize, which was a picture in the newspaper and a silver dollar. (SCORE!) My earliest and ongoing inspiration is Walt Disney. I know, it's very cliche, but those early films like Snow White
and Sleeping Beauty
had a big impact on the way I viewed art. Anytime there was a "making of" I was glued to the screen. In high school when I really got into it and realized it's what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, I went through an intense Salvador Dali phase. I found his work hauntingly beautiful. Picasso, Van Gogh—if you look at my work from high school you can see where I tried to imitate their style. Other inspirations are Mary Blair, Edward Gorey, Tim Burton and Jim Henson.
Gavin: What were some of your earliest creations like during school and in your free time?
It's interesting to look back at my work from high school until now. There is a wide range of subjects, styles and mediums as I explored what felt natural to me and developed my own style. One that really stands out in my mind is a pastel piece I did of a girl looking in the mirror. She is beautiful, blonde, putting on red lipstick and looks confident. Her reflection in the mirror is sad, tears running down her face, blue tones. Those years in high school were really a time that I felt like I didn't fit in, felt like I just didn't know who I was. That piece reflected that.
Gavin: Did you attend college at all or were you mainly self-taught?
I've always been really interested in a lot of things, so college was very sporadic for me. Besides art, I wanted to do photography, zoology, nutrition, personal training, singing—I really had a hard time focusing on just one thing. My parents were great in the way that they didn't pressure me to go to college, and they said if I did, to take a bunch of classes in the subjects I was interested in to really find my true passion, so I did just that. Over time, I realized that it always came back to drawing and photography. That is what I could do for hours and lose track of time. I don't have a bachelors, but I had the opportunity to get my associates from the University of Phoenix in Web Design for basically nothing, so I did that. That's as far as my education goes. Really, my art skills come from techniques that I've picked up over the years from different teachers and just doing it a lot.
Gavin: As an artist you cover illustration, design, and photography. What made you decide to go across multiple disciplines rather than focus on and master one?
Being creative is just in my bones, and while illustration is my main focus and what really makes my heart sing, I like to venture out in other creative ways as well. Photography is rad and I love doing it, but after doing it as a business for a while, I realized I hated sitting in front of the computer for hours editing photos. I just wanted to do it for fun and not worry about that being my main source of income. With design, I figured that as an artist it's good to have some design skills and ended up getting a pretty cool job for a magazine called TheHomeMag
where I designed almost the entire magazine each month. Same story as photography though, I really just wasn't happy sitting in front of the computer all day. So now if I do design or photography I'm able to pick the jobs that interest me.
Gavin: How did the idea come about to start up your own business, and where did the name come from?
I've been doing art just for fun and some freelance for a few years, but not until a few months ago did I really have the guts to just go for it. My husband is a huge support and for months had been encouraging me to quit my job and do it full time. I was terrified, but I realized that I didn't want to spend the rest of my life building someone else s dream and getting paid nothing to do it. I believe our purpose here is to live an adventurous passionate life. And 9-5 didn't do it for me. I thought of the name "The Cheeky Whale" because whales are my favorite animal and "cheeky" seems to describe my personality pretty well.
Gavin: How was it for you just starting out and breaking into the SLC art scene?
I'm still confused about it all! Really I'm just taking it one day a time. The first "real" show I did with my art was the Salt Lake City Comic Con: FanXperience in January. My husband does Business Development for them. We got engaged at the Bruce Campbell panel at last September's Salt Lake Comic Con event. Go watch it on YouTube. It was awesome. So, I had a booth there. It was really fun and I picked the other artists brains for ideas and advice. I'm getting involved in other art shows and will have a booth at the September convention. (Come say hi!) I'm just trying to create every day and put my work out there.
Gavin: What do you primarily draw influence from when creating different works?
It really depends on what I'm doing. Commissioned works obviously have a subject already in place for me, so I just take that subject and make it my own. I take influence just from subjects I love, like animals, vintage items, pop culture. Its always changing. It's a very intuitive process.
Gavin: For the photographer side of you, what do you shoot with these days?
I still use my Nikon D-10 which I've had for eight years. I have two lenses I switch between and rely on natural lighting. Nothing fancy. I love urban exploration and abandoned places.
Gavin: What's the process like for you when creating a new piece, from concept to final design?
I'm really kind of all over the place. I'll start with a really rough sketch, but my brain doesn't work in the way my art teachers would have preferred. It's almost impossible for me to do a complete sketch before starting to paint or add detail. When I'm drawing a portrait, I don't do the entire face then start shading. I start with the left eye, complete it, then go to the right eye, then the nose, then the mouth, and so on. I go by feeling and intuition rather than how it's "supposed" to be done.
Gavin: Do you play around with your creations a lot or do you try to stick to the original plan?
I hardly ever know what my painting will look like when it's done. I have a general idea in my brain then it just comes to life as I go. The thought of drawing every detail before starting to paint makes me anxious.
Gavin: How has it been for you seeing your work be published and purchased as your portfolio grows?
Amazing. I love what I do so much and I really just love it when people enjoy and appreciate my work. So much of your soul, time, and energy goes into it and it's such a personal thing, so to have that appreciated is just rad.
Gavin: Now that SLC nerd culture has started to boom, you've now started catering more works toward those types of buyers. What's the general reaction you receive from that audience?
That crowd is something else, and I include myself in it! I grew up loving Star Wars (especially the "Ewok Adventure" movies), Evil Dead, Labyrinth, Batman, etc. Creating artwork that is targeted towards that audience is fun because I'm actually creating stuff I would buy myself.
Gavin: Are there any other areas of art you'd like to branch into and incorporate into what you're doing now?
I'm always coming up with new ideas. I would love to do a shoe line, a comic book based on my dads shenanigans as a kid—there's always something!
Gavin: For those who are interested in getting something custom or personal, what do they need to do?
They can take a look at my website or email me firstname.lastname@example.org
. I'm also on just about every social media site under "thecheekywhale."
Gavin: What can we expect from you and The Cheeky Whale over the rest of the year?
Oh man, the possibilities are endless. I'm so excited about so many projects I've got up my sleeve. Expect a lot of fun new pieces, maybe a shoe line. It's such an adventure, not knowing quite where my passions will take me!