Megan Duncanson is living the dream, or as she likes to call it, the MAD life.
MAD Art Designs, short for Megan Aroon Duncanson, is her design and painting brand. Livin’ the MAD Life is what she calls her line of vegan, designer purses.
Duncanson grew up in the tiny bush community known as Meyers Chuck, where there were no roads or stores, and she had to take a boat to school every morning. She told all her siblings that she wanted to live in Miami, which was the set of her favorite show “Miami Vice.” Not only did this dream come true as an adult, but she realized her other dream: to become a fulltime artist.
She has found a great deal of success. Her art has been licensed to appear on numerous products, from shower curtains to dog beds, to more than 50 different companies, like Target, Macy’s, Nordstrom’s, and Urban Outfitters. She’s been featured in various magazines, from “Oprah Magazine” to “Family Circle.” Some of her paintings will be auctioned off for an upcoming charity event in Miami through Christie’s, one of the largest auction houses in the world, the same one which auctioned Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” last year for $450 million.
“I get these moments all the time with my art. … whenever an opportunity comes up it still shocks me that I’m able to do this, to live where I want to live and do what I love to do as a career,” Duncanson said.
Duncanson grew up painting and drawing, describing her family as creative and encouraging. She recalls winning a contest as a child where one of her paintings was featured in an Anchorage hospital for many years. She knew she loved art but she wouldn’t pursue it professionally for many years. She kept painting though.
“I’ve dabbled in all the different styles, so I’d do surrealism, realism, impressionism … and then it would just morph into my own really recognizable style. So people could go ‘oh that’s a Megan Duncanson painting.’ I like bright, colorful things. It makes me happy when I paint … always has. Maybe because I grew up in a rainforest in Alaska where every day is a little bit grey most of the year. Florida is a very colorful, tropical place anyways which is one of the reasons I’m here,” she said.
She graduated high school in Ketchikan, and knowing she liked the sun, moved to Hawaii for college, and then eventually to Florida in 1992. She has moved back and forth between Alaska and Florida either to have her daughter, Aroon Duncanson, or to visit her family in Meyers Chuck (one readers may be familiar with is Tara Neilson, writer of the Capital City Weekly column Alaska for Real; she writes about what life is like living on a floathouse in Meyers Chuck).
Duncanson had been painting off and on over the years, but in 2001 decided to try putting a piece on eBay. In five minutes, there was a bidding war, she said, deciding for her that she would finally pursue her dream of being a full-time artist. The internet was where she started and where she continued, painting three pieces a day and then selling them on eBay. Eventually she slowed production and began working on bigger paintings. She launched her own website to sell from directly and then began licensing her work to different companies.
She learned a lot from the experience, and recommends to other up-and-coming artists to cultivate “good business sense.” That means becoming well-versed in marketing, understanding how to use the internet to your advantage, creating a website, etc., she said. While her daughter Aroon assists her with the business side to free her up to paint now, in the beginning she had to do it all on her own.
“It’s tough for a lot of artists just starting out but it’s key to having it be a full-time job.”
What’s she up to now?
She and Aroon have launched Livin’ the MAD Life, a line of designer, vegan purses. They either upcycle vintage purses which Megan hand paints on or prints her designs on new purses. She has created a variety of symbols which she uses in her prints, meaning a variety of things but usually centered on female empowerment. Ten percent of all sales go to local charities, such as No More Tears which helps domestic violence victims or The Talkin’ Monkeys Project which looks after abused primates.
“When ladies carry around our purse it’s not just a bag with our artwork, it actually means something. We wanted to do more than say all these things but actually make sure that we’re doing our part in the community so we’re helping, giving back to women who are in these bad situations and we’re giving back to animals who are mistreated so we wanted to tie everything together, not just say it but actually put it into action,” said Aroon.
Last year, Duncanson bought an island in Meyers Chuck where she plans to build a cabin and an art studio. It’s called MAD Island. There’s even a sign and pink, plastic flamingos marking the spot. The cabin, Duncanson said, will overlook Clarence Strait.
“The sunsets there are just phenomenal and the whales literally, just feet away from the backside of the island which is where they go back and forth all summer long. They bubble feed there. They breach. It’s the perfect inspiration. The perfect getaway,” she said. “I like Miami. I like the vibe to paint and everything but just whenever you go from here to Alaska it’s an opportunity to refresh and renew and just get away from it all and really be able to focus on painting.”
She has a series of Alaska paintings she has in progress and hopes to continue working on them next year when her cabin and studio should hopefully be finished.
“You can’t take the bush girl out of me. I’ll always be an Alaska bush girl. I live in Miami, one of the biggest cities in the world, one of the most contemporary, metropolitan cities there is but I still always have to go back to Alaska. That’s where my roots are,” Megan said.
• Clara Miller is the Capital City Weekly editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.