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Meet Our 'Lost' Illustrator: Melissa Lee Johnson

It is a tradition at CreativeMornings to work with an artist in our community to create an illustration for the monthly theme.

A monthly theme inspires new conversations and ideas that we otherwise wouldn’t think about. At our events, speakers are invited to share a story around the theme and what it means to them. After a month, we are excited to see the talks and inspiration that are born out of the theme.

The global theme for November is Lost.

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Given that these monthly illustrations are at events all around the world, it’s only right that we get to know the illustrator.

Meet Melissa Lee Johnson

Melissa Lee Johnson is an artist, illustrator, graphic designer, and occasional tattoo-giver based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She currently designs and illustrates for the design studio Three-Headed Design.

Some fun facts: Her two Chihuahuas, Bambi and Sparkle, are her pride and joy. She’s a Virgo through-and-through, but you better watch out because her moon is in Aries. She loves to dance to Talking Heads and thinks everyone should see Stop Making Sense at least once. Pickled beets, coffee (with coconut milk), and podcasts fuel her. Also red wine.

She graduated with a BFA in Integrated Studio Arts from The Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design in May 2016, and was a finalist for a Mary Nohl Fellowship in 2017. Some of her favorite freelance clients include Milwaukee Film, Macmillan Publishing, Parents Magazine, and The Quarto Group.


Did you have a single a-ha moment that you decided to become a professional artist? What was your journey like in choosing it as a career path?

As cliché as it sounds, I’ve been making art as long as I can remember. Of course everyone makes art as a kid… I suppose most people stop as they get older.

I don’t know if it was puberty or something that happened in my brain, but when I was eleven years old I remember beginning to take art seriously. I started viewing it as a skill that I could practice and refine, starting simple with graphite on paper.

My first goal was to learn how to draw faces realistically, which is funny to reflect on. Realism is low on my list of priorities these days!

I always knew I wanted to be an artist, and so that’s what I did. I just never stopped.


What were some of your biggest creative influences in your early days?

I had this book about watercolor that fascinated me as a kid. My dad bought it in the 70s and I loved the entire aesthetic of the thing. It taught you the importance of using unexpected materials to create interesting textures — things like shaking salt onto wet watercolor to create speckled textures. I think about that book all the time and wonder where it went.

In high school, I somehow found out about the Austrian artist Egon Schiele. His rather explicit figure drawings were incredibly fascinating to me and they have undoubtedly influenced my figure drawings over the past ten years.

Oh! I was also a total book nerd and loved to illustrate covers of some of my favorite books — the first one to come to mind is Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. As you can imagine, being hired to illustrate my first book cover was a dream come true!

Wow, that’s amazing. I see that you’ve illustrated for packaging, album art, and a whole slew of other mediums. Would you say book covers are your favorite still?

What a perfect segue. Book interiors and covers are still definitely my favorite because it speaks to my younger self. Beer packaging is pretty cool too though! You get free beer out of it!


At a glance, your work generally feels joyful and playful. How did you go about interpreting the global theme of Lost?

The body of work I produced during college was actually much more angst-y than what I’m currently doing, so I’m no stranger to darker themes. I’ve always loved juxtaposing form and content. It creates layers of meaning that people can connect to in my more nuanced way.

Being lost is also about being found. It’s about being able to laugh about it in hindsight while also knowing you could be lost right now! It’s a tragic comedy, you know?

Did you have a time in your life when you felt ‘lost’ about something? How did you navigate or process it?

I’ve certainly felt lost in my life. If I’m focusing on my professional journey, I can point to the period right after graduating college. Totally classic, I know. I had a very difficult time seeing my path forward. Although I had a general idea of what I wanted to do, I didn’t know how to get there.

What I’ve learned is this: I only have control over each individual choice, not the entire journey. I’ve always tried to keep taking the next logical step towards my goals, not fully knowing if I was going in the right direction. There were times where I thought I had steered my ship in the wrong direction, but eventually my focus paid off.

I’m definitely not saying that I feel like I’ve “made it,” but I’m definitely not lost. I can see the path forward and I trust the journey!


What’s the creative scene like in your city or region and how has it impacted you?

I’ve lived in Milwaukee for seven years and I love the art and design community here. It’s kind of a secret gem. While I’m not always the most social person, I feel like I have a real community here. I’ll admit that the weather isn’t my favorite though!

What’s something in your industry that deserves more attention?

This is a difficult question. My answer depends on my mood, the day, and what’s on my mind. Recently, I’ve been thinking about the relationship between art, design, and illustration. I have a lot of experience in all three areas and maintain the belief that the barriers between them are…kind of dumb. In my most negative experiences, artists view illustration as selling out and designers view illustration as ornamental or even childish.

I’ve noticed in recent years that illustration in marketing is being embraced by large businesses like Apple, Mailchimp, and Dropbox, which is absolutely amazing. However, not everyone is there yet. Illustration is a beautiful mode of expression that’s incredibly versatile.

I’d like to hear more conversations about the role and purpose of illustration in both the advertising setting and the gallery setting. Illustrators deserve their place in both worlds.


What’s something that you recently learned or was inspired by that’s influencing your work or life these days?

I’ve recently started working for a design studio called Three-Headed Design, and it’s impossible not to be inspired. I work with talented designers who are also hilarious. It’s one of the biggest developments in my life lately and I’m really happy about how it’s impacting me creatively.

Tell us something about yourself that we can’t find on Google.

I’ve been mountain biking as long as I’ve been drawing! That tends to surprise people, but my dad is a cyclist so it’s something I grew up doing. I really wish I could do it more — it’s both an adrenaline rush and a zen/nature experience.

Explore more of Melissa’s work on her website and Instagram.

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