To say Joan LeMay is “a breath of fresh air” would be an egregious understatement. This big-hearted, ebullient artist is more like a jet stream—10 minutes in her company is enough to propel you through the rest of your day with a smile on your face and an uncharacteristically can-do attitude. She’s Prozac in person form, which is fitting, since she has a knack for painting people’s fave prescription meds. It’s not surprising that her penetrating warmth and positive energy comes across in her paintings and illustrations. LeMay is a gifted medium, channeling her distinctive personality into the art she produces. The resulting work is pure, unfiltered, and utterly contagious. Just peep the Mister Rogers portrait she made for us. Instant and intensely good vibes. Follow her on Insta so the internet can administer you a semi-regular dose.
You can imagine why we desperately wanted to see where the magic happens. LeMay recently relocated from Santa Fe to Portland, OR, and her new studio occupies the attic floor of the rental she shares with her husband. It's a big New Beginnings™ moment for LeMay, who filled us in on the ways the move has opened the door for her to re-evaluate her routines. In her In the Studio interview below, she also delves into why she’s drawn to portraiture, her indirect path to an art career, and how she first found art as an asthmatic kid hooked up to half-hour nebulizer treatments. She goes on to unpack the importance of professional lighting, the perfect pair of coveralls [Editor’s note: she has since acquired such a pair], setting work-life boundaries, and so much more. And did we mention she’s hilarious? — Team 20x200
Where's your studio?
My new studio is in the attic floor of our rental house in NE Portland. I have never had a studio outside of the home. I really love just getting straight to business in the morning.
What's your favorite tool in the studio? (Mayyybe it's a new drafting table?)
I just purchased a boatload of Actual Artist's Lighting for up there, and holy cannoli, has it made a difference and changed the game for me. The lamp that is making the largest difference so far is a clamp-on neutral LED light that looks entirely medical and illuminates what I'm working on evenly without distributing a bunch of weird warm or cool shadows. I also purchased some big ol' clampy daylight bulb lamps for larger works. I'm putting together that drafting table tomorrow!
What do you wear when working in the studio?
I really want to get a pair of coveralls that are just for painting. I like the idea of having a dedicated outfit that signifies the start and end of each painting session. Andy Dixon, a painter whose work I am bananas over, talked about having a studio outfit in an interview and I want to make it happen for myself. Maybe this week. I'm starting fresh! FRESH, I SAY! Usually and currently, in the studio, I will wear either what I slept in the night before or whatever I'm wearing that day, sometimes with my paint apron when I'm being smart about it. Most of my pants and lots of the right sleeves of many of my shirts have at least a little paint on them. Some of my underwear even has paint on it. At least, I hope that's paint. It'd better be paint. It's paint. It's paint.
What's on your in-studio playlist?
The vast majority of the time, I paint to either community jazz radio or podcasts. Lately, on account of having the very real crush I've had on extreme genius Kevin McDonald for over 25 years reinvigorated after reading my pal Paul Meyers's excellent Kids In The Hall book, I've deeply loved re-listening to the brilliant and hilarious Kevin McDonald Show. I've also been listening to KCRW's masterly Lost Notes, which is a music history storytelling podcast expertly hosted by my friend the great Jessica Hopper. I love Rick Steves's podcast and listen to every episode. I also listen to painting and art-making podcasts like Art for Your Ear, I Love Your Work and The Savvy Painter; also any art history podcasts I can find. Unless I'm intentionally painting expressively or working on a patterned background, I can't listen to the music I'd usually listen to because it affects me too much to not end up in the piece--I listen to XRAY.FM's Strange Babes show when being affected is okay. I am fascinated by and pretty sensitive to the relationship between immersive music listening and making things. I could talk about it for a long time. I will shut up about it for now, though.
What's the first thing you do when you arrive at your studio?
I actually have no idea what the most common first thing is that I do, but I probably usually make some sort of screwed-up face and squint my eyes and sigh and survey what needs to be done on a piece or figure out what needs to be done in order for me to get ready to start a new one, and I get to it. I get very mono-focused very quickly when it's time to get down to business.
What's your work style? Late nights? Intense creative bursts? Slow and steady wins the race?
Just having gone through the disruption of a cross-country move, I'm now re-establishing what my daily work routine is. In my 20s and 30s, I was largely a late night creative burst-y painter. Now, I'm a big believer that you need to just show up and do the work every day, no matter what. The masterpiece fairy isn't going to come and smack you on the head otherwise, and neither is the decent ideas fairy or the career success fairy or the hit-your-commission-and-illustration-deadline fairy. I vastly prefer to wake up, have coffee and a food item, and then go into the studio, close the door, and work completely uninterrupted until it's time to stop, whatever that entails. I'm working on making boundaries around that more ironclad, because protecting that time is really important to me. Hey, look! Two goals have already been identified in this interview: getting coveralls and holding stronger boundaries!
Whether you’re painting pets, people or prescriptions, it’s clear you’ve got a penchant for portraits—and a unique perspective on the genre at that. What is it about portraiture that gets your engines going?
Thank you so much for those kind words! Ever since I was a kid, I've always been drawn like a magnet to portraiture--I will zombie-walk across a museum floor towards a Neel or a Sargent or one of Hockney's portraits, and I will stay in front of it for an uncomfortably long period of time. Rothko and Twombly and Frankenthaler and Mitchell and DeKooning and Brancusi all make me swell up and cry, too, but. Portraits. An effective portrait on your wall exudes something that is both of the subject and the artist; there is power in it, there's communication that happens in a very immediate and familiar and, often, specific way between the viewer and the piece. It's such an exciting unlock, when you're working on a painting and you really GET someone, or a pet, or even the energy of some thing with meaning like a prescription or a beloved houseplant. Now that I'm back in Portland, surrounded by a ton of fascinating people I love, I want to paint them all. There are lots of people I haven't met that I want to paint, too. Good portraits should honor something innate in the subject. My new studio space will allow me to paint in larger scale, and to work on more than one or two things simultaneously. I have a pressing need to do more portraiture work for myself.
Talk to us about those bright, exuberant background patterns. How do you decide on the right background for a given subject?
In my commissioned work, I ask clients to tell me everything they want to share about the subject I'm painting, and I then use that information to come up with things that make up the background of the piece. Sometimes, clients come to me knowing exactly what things they want to have in the background (i.e. their dog loves tennis balls and steak), and other times I'll pitch symbolic botanicals like birth flowers or state flowers that can help tell the subject's story in some sort of meaningful way.
What's your favorite way to procrastinate in the studio?
Twitter and Instagram and cleaning and researching residencies and grants that I then give up on applying to takes the cake. I'll be like, "Oh, time to answer a few emails! Doo doo doo doo doo," and then it's an hour later and I have ten tabs open in Chrome and it's a sad trombone sound all the way. It's hard to regain momentum when you've farted it away.
Whens, Hows & Whys
When did you first realize you wanted to become an artist and how’d you get there?
I've had asthma since I was a kid, and when I was young, it was so bad that I had to do half-hour nebulizer treatments throughout the day. My earliest memories of me drawing and writing are from when I was little and hooked up to that thing. I've always been allergic to cats and dogs, and I started drawing them as a kid as a way to be close to them; that still continues. Sometimes, I paint people as a way to be close to something within them, too. I always drew and painted here and there, and didn't take it seriously or start showing my work until my friend the great artist Derek Erdman encouraged me to in the early aughts. I truly never considered that being an artist could be my full-time job or began to primarily identify myself as a Capital A Artist until just a few years ago. Mostly, that's because I was a music (and briefly, sometimes comedy) publicist for 17 years (first with the aforementioned Jessica Hopper at Hopper PR, then at Sub Pop, and then Riot Act Media, which my friend David Lewis founded and passed on to me--I ran it for eight years and passed it to the fantastic Nathan Walker), and so forever, music was my world. It is still a huge part of my life; the vast majority of my friends are from the music universe that I was a part of for so long, so I strongly identified with that over identifying with my own art that I was making, and was used to shouting about other people's creative accomplishments instead of thinking about cultivating my own skills. I also love interior decor and design, and started my one-woman firm, Fifth House Interiors, about five years ago, a couple of years before I retired from the music business. I truly assumed and intended that interior decor work would become my next career, but quickly, it turned out that I got as much work painting as I did doing interiors--and everyone in my life told me I needed to be painting, and my gut and soul told me I needed to be painting, and as of now, aside from doing a very small amount of decor work here and there when it's asked of me and I feel like it, I am indeed doing nothing but painting. I remain shocked and amazed that I get to do this. I, of course, owe so much of where I am now to the unwavering support and encouragement of my amazing husband Matt, whose own hard work ethic and creative curiosity is a beacon. I also owe a ton of it to the writer Hazel Cills, who put me in touch with editor Laia Garcia and Lena Dunham about painting illustrations for the now-defunct Lenny Letter; illustrating things for them really, truly was a big deal in my career and opened up lots of opportunities for me, and I am very thankful to them.
How do you get over creative blocks?
Just sitting down and getting to work and trying to grit my way through painting or drawing SOMETHING almost always gets things going, or at least makes me feel better because I've tried. So does visiting galleries and museums, or traveling, or looking at other artists' work online, or watching an art documentary. It's hard to be patient during those times, and even harder for me to not be a dick to myself during those times, but I know that they're fleeting and usually a result of me not doing what I should to take care of myself generally. I'm not a dramatic person whose brain leaps to feeling like it'll never come again, thankfully, so I don't have THAT problem, but I certainly have others.
What do you like best about 20x200?
It's been a dream of mine for a long time to work with 20x200--you are truly the pioneers of making museum-quality editioned fine art prints by working, living artists accessible via the internet to everyone. Your motto, "It's art for everyone", says it all--enjoying art and collecting art and having art that means something to you around you is something that anyone with $25 should be able to do. And working artists should see a good chunk of that $25 that gets paid--and 20x200 takes care of their artists. Museums should always have free days and have family discounts; galleries are free places to see art--art IS for everyone, and it should be democratized in as many ways as possible, and that democratization structure should have built into it ways for artists and art business workers to be paid as well. The idea that consuming, enjoying and owning art is for the elite--for trust-funded "art world" people--is such horsecrap. 20x200 has always fought the good fight, and I think Jen Bekman is THE VERY BEST, and that so is everyone else at the company.
Which artists' 20x200 collections do you most covet (and why)?
I'm very lucky and thankful to know a handful of other 20x200 artists and have their work, both original and editioned, in my collection--Jenny Kroik, who I collaborate with monthly--Jason Polan and Lisa Congdon, to name a few. I'm a big fan of Mark Menjivar's photographs of the inside of refrigerators. Talk about a very very smart way to take a literal snapshot of a very personal but universal part of people's lives and tell a story! The first time you're in someone's home, you don't just head right to their fridge and throw the door open and see what's happening in there. That would be madness, and you would get yelled at. It's a very intimate space, actually, the fridge. Right now, my fridge contains a six pack of IPA, a bag of salad that I purchased aspirationally that has now gone bad, an unopened new jar of mayonnaise, and an unused six pack of eggs. Oh, and the dregs of a thing of almond milk. Nothing else. That says a lot about what's happening right now in our home.
Why do you think it's important to have a dedicated work space for your art? What advice would you give to artists looking to build a creative work space?
When you devote any space in your home or anywhere else to something, it lends that thing a gravity and tangibility and importance and presence that it may not otherwise appear to have in your life. If you want to read more, create a reading nook in your home. If you want to pay attention to picking out matching shoes in the morning, make sure all of your shoes have a place in your closet where you can see them. If you want to draw or paint or make collages or fiber art or write scripts or books or play bass or work on pottery every day or with any regularity, you have to make space for that. You have to have a place--even if it's just the corner of a room--where you can leave all your shit out, and where you can be alone with your shit, and where other people in the home know that when you're there, you're working on this thing that's important to you. It's crucial to devote as much of your full attention as you can to your work while you're making it, which can be and usually is impeded if you're working in a non-dedicated space. Having all of your shit out is crucial also because the number one easiest excuse ever to not work on your creative endeavors is "I'd have to get all of my shit out, then put it back afterwards." Nobody wants to do that. Nobody. If you are an artist who hasn't built any creative work space for yourself yet, I urge you to start one after you read this. All you have to do to start is look at the room you are in, find a spot in the corner of it or along a wall, clear whatever is there away, and put all of your stuff-making shit there. If the action doesn't feel real enough to you, write "MY STUDIO" on a piece of paper or directly on the wall, and consider it anointed as such. As the days and months follow, you will tweak and expand the space to your liking. It will always change, and it is never wrong as long as you are making work in it.
The 411 on Joan LeMay
Joan LeMay (American, b. 1979 in Houston, Texas) is a portraitist and illustrator who is interested in pattern, gesture and Byzantine halos. She loves painting people, animals, plants and things (a kind of anthropomorphic approach to portraiture) in equal measure, and packs referential objects, color-based symbolism and other subject-specific elements into the busy backgrounds of her work in order to reflect the soul and life of the subject depicted. She is currently focusing on work that celebrates what soothes us (and what soothed her in her childhood)--over-the-top portraits of beloved TV and pop culture personalities and public role models, food,... fellow artists, and portraiture of medications. The medication work is also designed to help those who rely on medications to celebrate the existence of treatments instead of feeling stigmatized for having to take anything in the first place. She also takes pet portraiture and memorial portraiture very seriously.