Folktales and Faerie Stories-An Interview with Melissa Mary Duncan

By Alyssa Laube


About: Melissa Mary Duncan is a Mythical and Faerie Artist living on Canada’s West Coast and working in the northern European tradition of Faerie Tale and Celtic Myth . She is delighted to be taking part in this year’s Art World Expo at Telus Science World, in Vancouver. She looks forward to welcoming you to her inner landscape


Your mother taught you to paint. Was she an artist? Was her style similar to yours?

Mom painted in oils and taught painting to children. She tried to interest me in painting but I was a most recalcitrant student preferring the wild out of doors to the inside of her studio or the classroom. And my style, subject and use of medium are nothing like hers.


Youve been influenced by Celtic legends and Brothers Grimm. Are there any in particular that had a lasting effect on you?

Celtic Legends are an interesting mix of oral history, hero tales and magical happenings. They are different than Fairytales in that the stories are believed to have happened. The characters are varied and often rather intense in their passions and motivations. I would say that my love of history and traditional Celtic Music drew me to Celtic Mythos as much as my passion for a damned fine yarn.

My favourite tale from the Brother’s Grimm is “ Hansel and Gretel”. I have always delighted in a good wicked witch and who can not be charmed by spunky little sister Gretel. The children best this witch not through any use of magic but through their own pluck and daring. I think that if the material in Hansel and Gretel was taken as the plot line and produced straight-up, as a film, it would be terrifying.

What is it about fantasy and folklore that fascinates you?

Fantasy can be a very effective vehicle for metaphor. I like my fantasy with real world sociological, historic and anthropological roots. I am very traditional in that regard, although having said that I must admit to often painting narrative Faerie tales based on noting more grounded than a collage of fay, mythic and human beings interacting in the twilight world, as if we, the viewers, have suddenly stumbled upon this motley collection of characters and interrupted them at their own foxy, magic and mysterious business. That kind of fantasy, at first glance, can be just for fun. I am a romantic at heart but I do not always expect or even enjoy a saccharine happily ever after. I use the fantastical as a metaphor for life, the sacredness of the environment and to make sense of our mortality. I also use it unashamedly as an escape.


When and how did that fascination begin?

It started during childhood, as a child with a love for good old-fashioned bedtime stories and a wonderful song about a Dragon with Thirteen Tails. I was a sickly little girl often confined to resting indoors and I remember my father and our local librarian engaged in a heated discussion about what I was and was not allowed to bring home from the library. I had set my heart on a gilded late Victorian edition of The Tales from The Arabian Knights translated into English by Sir Richard Burton. Now, you need to understand that these were not the tamed down nursery versions of Aladdin and Albi Baba with which you might be familiar, but Adult Folk tales which begin with an invocation to Allah. These stories informed the reader not just of a King with supreme power over the life and death of his wives but life in a harem, of monsters and seduction and … Well, you catch my drift. The librarian was scandalized. My father held fast and I brought home Sir Richard Burton’s volume. Faerie tales, the stories of Aesop and The Lays of Marie of France, Shakespeare’s 12th Night, the Opera Turandot seem to have always been part of my life so I suppose my fascination began with my first lullaby.


Are there any places that youve been to which have inspired you or had a fantasy-like atmosphere? Are there any here in British Columbia?

In British Columbia we are blessed with beauty. We live in a very scenic part of the world. Take me to the woods. Take me to the sea shore . Take me down an old narrow alley in Victoria’s China Town, or on a bus or to the supermarket. In every human face there is magic. In every aspect of the natural world there is the wondrous. In every vestige of civilization or ancient building there are the echoes of “Once upon a time…” I love the Lady Chapel in St. James Cathedral, in Vancouver. In that sacred space one can feel the tradition of prayer that has gone before and hear the echo of song from the choir singing in the Victorian Romanesque main chapel. As Fantasy is a product of human intellect and imagination it is inherent in ourselves. It is informed by the mechanics of the natural world and sprinkled throughout with superstition. It grows in traditions and in the fascination with the obscure. Fantasy is a product of the exotic and of wishes. It is the cousin of hope in the face of our own mortality. It is all around us because we carry the seeds of fantasy in our subconscious.

Your book, FAYE ~ The Art of Melissa Mary Duncan, came out in 2013. How do you feel about having a book dedicated to your work? How did it change your life?

It got me Nominated for the Canadian Aurora Award as Best Artist of 2014 for illustration and cover art…Dead shock! It was a labour of love. It taught me a whole lot about the craft of making a book. And it sold, which again, was rather a surprise to me.


You had a bit of a challenging childhood. How did those challenges help you grow into who you are today?

I am a Polio Survivor. Despite the fact that I draw Faeries and fantastical beings I am very pragmatic. I seem to possess most of the typical character traits of a Polio survivor in that I am a bit of a workaholic. I feel that Folktales and Faerie stories took me out of myself to other worlds when it was not so easy for me to go into the world. I think that is also why I find life so wonderful.


Your artistic career started with your membership in the Society for Creative Anachronism. What was it about this group that encouraged to to develop your work?

Ahh . . . The Society! I am smiling as I write those words. The Society showed me a different kind of art from what my mother tried to teach me. It introduced me to the magic of the manuscript, the delicacy of ancient music, and the earth, body and spiritual morality of the Miracle play. It gave me encouragement and a place to try ancient craft. It let me experience through doing and that gave me a visceral hint of what I might have experienced had I lived in another time and place. That is what the SCA gave me and still gives it’s members.


How did your graduation from Emily Carr affect your artistry?

 Emily Carr did not teach me what I expected it to. It taught me other things which I did not know I needed to learn, like most college experiences. It was both a positive and a negative experience for me. I was almost afraid to paint and draw what interested me most because it was so different from what the staff and the other students were pursuing. It was really long after Emily Carr that I returned to my love of Magical Realism. I think I would just have confused them at college painting Faerie tales and witches with due diligence – and minus that Disney gloss.


Explain your interest in strong female archetypes and the importance of character.

I come from a long lineage of strong women. My mother used to tell me stories, which now, as an adult, I have come to realize were fabrications about my grandmother, a woman I never had the privilege of knowing. According to Mom, my granny was one of those suffragettes who chained herself to the fences of the Houses Of Parliament, in England, to help women get the vote. Mom used to tell me another family yarn about her great aunt, who had been the last woman in Wales accused of witchcraft. With that as an example of female empowerment, how could I not be fascinated with strong women? My mother was certainly a strong woman, as well as an unrepentant teller of tall tales. I too have a certain reputation for strength of character. My husband calls it stubbornness. So do my daughters. The apple’s not falling far from the tree. I think my mother, in her own way, was trying to give her sickly daughter positive strong female role models. She succeeded.

For me, some of the best characters in ancient tales, are those of women: King Leer’s daughter Cordelia, Titania the Queen of the Faeries, Queen Guinevere, Mother Holly, and Queen Mauve of the ancient Irish…they’re inspiring women ! Having said that, all of my subjects are character-driven creations whether they are women, men or Mr. Bunny Rabbit Esquire. Character, I hope, gives them believability and makes them more engaging and thought-provoking.

What is your favourite medium for creating art?

I love egg tempera made with pigments I have ground or concocted myself according to medieval recipes and used on real vellum. Labour intensive? You bet!

How does your family – in particular, your husbands job as a landscape architect and Fantasy Author – affect you and your work?

Family and friends often end up modelling for me. Bless their cotton socks!

My darling husband and I often bounce ideas off of each other. He will read me a little taste of his latest story and I will ask him if he thinks that a figure in my latest drawing is positioned well. He will tell me if that is not how a long sword is held, take up his long sword and assume the correct position. He is a bit of a Western Marshall Arts aficionado. I get going with my pencil and correct the drawing. Then I will tell him that the woman in his story would never react that way, and explain how I would react if I was set upon by barrel-shaped aliens in a Victorian steam punk world. He then considers my statements and sets to typing. In short, we trust each other and care about helping to facilitate each other’s success. We share a passion for history, myth, and fantasy and have the same love of nature.

You will be helping AWE design their flyer this year. What are you hoping to incorporate into this design?

Any depictions of Faerie should be alluring and somewhat familiar, like putting on a comfy old sweater. They should also be just a little bit uncomfortable, like those moments when you awaken from a deep dream and can not quite tell if the dream is done. A flyer should bring that out in the public. It must be engaging, informative, memorable and an accurate depiction of the event you are creating.

I hear that you love hats. Do you have a favourite one? 

I could cheat out on this question and say the hat that I am wearing . . . Ta-da! But that would be fudging. In truth, my favourite is an old rumpled hat. It was, when new, a work of craft and art, made of soft wool felt in Italy. It is a wide-brimmed, black Fedora and it was my mother’s.