Art has always been a part of who I am, from the time I was a child in the wilds of Alaska, sketching a lone barren tree soaring above the towering green swath of forest that stretched as far as the eye could see. Whether I was coloring in Dover coloring books, making paper dolls or illustrating stories my sister would write, I was always creating.
It was a lonely existence, since my four siblings, parents and I lived off-grid in a floating house away from the nearest little fishing village, Meyers Chuck. But when I was creating, I never felt alone; I would immerse myself in the art. From drawing mermaids and their treasures under the sea to painting hidden fairy houses, I always had a fantasy world of my own making to live in. Perhaps this is why to this day I still love everything fantasy and wild, and my art is very much a world of my own, even when inspired by actual places … hence, why I call it MAD Wonderland.
I always dreamed of being a full-time artist as a child, but as I got older, I thought that was unrealistic. So, I set my sights on becoming a lawyer instead. Even so, something was always missing; and whenever I got the opportunity to create, I felt whole again and wished that I could just disappear into my own little creative world. Alas, it was not to be for many years.
I ended up leaving Alaska and headed off to college in Hawaii. I was there for two years and then ready for a change — this was where my secret nomadic passion began. I spent a month back home in Alaska with family before my big move, and then flew to Seattle with $150 in my pocket and from there took a bus across the country to Orlando, where I didn’t know anyone and didn’t have a place to stay but was unfazed. I found a sweet lady who took me in as her roommate, found a job and enrolled back in college. It was shortly after this I met my future husband (now divorced) and became pregnant with my only child, Aroon Melane (yes, I named her after my middle name).
After Aroon was born, I realized being a lawyer was going to take too much time away from her and decided I would teach instead. I went on to get a master’s degree in political science from the University of Central Florida (UCF) in 1999 and had a four-month stint as a high school teacher and quickly decided that was NOT for me. I then worked at UCF as an assistant editor for two prominent political science journals. Eventually, I ended up working alongside my husband building custom homes after becoming a Florida-licensed residential contractor. All the while dreaming of spending my time painting the hours away.
Finally, after years of being discouraged from painting by my husband, with the threat of divorce always hanging over my head if I should choose to not be a contractor anymore, I was able to paint a little every day. The need to create has always been such a force within me that once I allowed myself the time to focus even a little bit on it, I couldn’t hold back the floodgates any longer.
In the early 2000s, I started following other artists selling on eBay and listed my first painting, an abstract landscape. I listed the painting, and nothing happened for six days and 23 hours. Then, the bidding war ensued. I got one bid, then another and another. I kept refreshing my browser, the excitement welling up inside. I realized absolute strangers liked, and wanted to pay for, my art! This was the moment that changed everything.
From that point on, I would list a painting whenever I could. But I didn’t become a full-time artist until 2008, when we moved to Alaska for three years to avoid the housing/construction downturn that would come with the recession. Surprisingly, art wasn’t something people stopped buying, and I was creating sometimes up to 11 paintings a day to meet the demand! It was during this time that I also discovered art licensing, and my art has ended up on hundreds of different products, from home décor and phone cases to pet products and more.
My art was featured on “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Good Morning America,” along with magazine features in O, The Oprah Magazine, Good Housekeeping and even the cover of Interior Design. Products with my art could be found at Urban Outfitters, HomeGoods, Nordstrom and more.
My art life was at an all-time high, but personally, I was a tortured and tired human being, needing to get out of a bad relationship and find myself again. I finally did in 2017 and moved to Miami, where Aroon was living. We lived together for a year as I worked on getting my life back together. I didn’t do a lot of creating at this time; I had savings and licensing royalties that would get me through the next few years.
I instead threw myself into my other passion … mountain biking. This was honestly the best year of my life. I was freely creating art with no pressure, and cycling and racing all over the state of Florida. I hadn’t a care in the world and was thriving like never before. I had a mountain bike race team that was sponsored by my cycling apparel line that featured my art. It was the best of both worlds, being creative and athletic. Life was on a high that I never wanted to end. But, as we know, things don’t always turn out the way we plan.
April 1, 2020, the pandemic lockdown began. I was in Miami when everything around me came to a screeching halt. There were no more artsy events to attend, all the mountain bike races were shut down, and the world as I had known it was over. Thankfully, I could still paint and ride my road bike, but it was never the same, even after the quarantine orders were lifted. I raced a couple of races, but my heart just wasn’t in it. And I was dealing with some nagging fatigue issues that were preventing me from training properly. Due to the supply chain issues, I was also not able to order any new apparel for my cycling brand and had to put an end to that, as well.
For a year, I was just floating aimlessly, riding my bike for health and painting, but I felt I needed more in my life, that something was missing. Then, one day in August of 2021, it hit me: Why not live the nomad life I’d always felt drawn to?
The van lifestyle was all the rage at the time, and I had been avidly following many of those nomads … envious of the freedom and adventure. So, I sold almost every single belonging I had and bought a van (aka the MAD Warrior). By the middle of September, I packed what I had left and drove across the country to Washington state with my 1-year-old snowshoe kitty, Mikee, the ultimate van life companion and studio assistant.
I have close family in Washington and stayed with them as I converted my van into the whimsically cozy little home studio it is now. I worked tirelessly through the winter months converting the van, soaking up everything I could online about solar systems, carpentry, cutting holes in my van for windows, plumbing and everything it would take to make this into my cat Mikee’s and my tiny home and studio.
There were a lot of ups and downs, moments where I didn’t think I could do it, and plenty of tears shed — some of frustration and some of amazement at what I was able to accomplish.
Finally in March of 2022, I was ready to hit the road. Mikee and I traveled down the coast to Santa Barbara and then back again after six weeks so that my daughter could take me on a 10-day trip to Europe and Morocco. It was yet another affirmation that travel is in my blood, that the nomad life is for me.
I spent summer in Washington, exploring Olympic National Park, and then, in September of 2022, I was off to live a full-time nomad’s life.
It is definitely a change of lifestyle on the largest scale; I went from a 1,500-square-foot loft studio/home in Miami to a tiny 50-square-foot home/studio on wheels. But it surprisingly works! I have even been able to paint 36-inch-by-36-inch paintings in here, although I set the van up to be able to paint on surfaces that take up less room, mostly paper and my wooden puzzle pieces. I custom-built shelves and drawers specifically for all my art supplies that blend in seamlessly with the decor — lots of color, with the paints on display.
Some of the other logistics of living this lifestyle I get asked about all the time are: how I stay safe; where I find places to camp; how I get internet; where I shower; etc. After a while, it all just becomes routine and a part of the lifestyle; plus, having grown up in the remote bush of Alaska actually made this an easier transition, since I grew up without any modern amenities or conveniences. For safety, I have numerous “tools” around the van — they’re easy to access, and I know how to use them (I even posted a fun little video on YouTube of me showing my machete skills, haha!).
The main rule is: If I ever feel uncomfortable, in any situation or place, to immediately leave, and so far, I’ve never had any issues. Every couple of weeks, I head into the nearest town to fill up on water, groceries and gas; do laundry; run to the post office to drop off art and pick up packages; and then head back out on the road to visit more amazing places.
For internet, I originally was just using my mobile hotspot and only going to places that had cell service. I mostly use the iOverlander app and Campendium, which give me the best locations for free/dispersed camping and have details from other travelers about the actual sites regarding cell service; if four-wheel drive is needed (which I don’t have); how crowded it is; how to get there; etc. But my dear daughter bought me Starlink for Christmas, and what a game-changer!
For those who don’t know it, Starlink is a division of SpaceX and is a satellite dish service. They just last year came out with a version for RVs, and it is super small and portable — perfect for van life. So far, it has given me internet everywhere I need it, even when there is no cell service. And since I prefer to be as remote as my van will take me, it allows me to still be connected to the internet and get phone service through WhatsApp … so my daughter always knows where I am!
Day-to-day life is a little different — for instance, showering. I don’t have the room in my van for a built-in shower. I initially had thought about putting one in, but ultimately it didn’t make sense for me, and I used the space for art supplies … and my bike. I do have a solar camp shower that I put out in the sun, and it heats the water up; I’m almost always where there is lots of sunshine.
If I am in a town or staying at a campground, I will take showers there or at rec centers and gyms. Even truck stops have nice showers for a fee. A big part of this lifestyle for me is about living more sustainably, so adapting to all these changes fulfills my desire to live more like a minimalist.
I never thought I would paint the places I visit in my van life journeys, as I’m not a realist artist. But then I realized: I don’t have to follow the path of anyone else. I’ve always created my art on my own terms and fully embraced painting all the places I’ve visited … in my own whimsical, colorful style. And so far, the inspiration has been next-level — from Lake Tahoe to Saguaro National Park and the Grand Canyon.
When I am traveling, I use iOverlander and Google Maps to plan out a route; sometimes, it’s to determine if I will be visiting any national parks and other sites along the way to the parks. Other times, it’s to simply find a place to hunker down for a bit and get some painting done, inspired by the places I’ve previously visited.
I usually stay in one place for two weeks to get work done, explore the area, ride my bike and save on gas … trying to be as eco-friendly as possible. I actually very rarely see people at the remote locations; the camping sites are so spread out that I will only see someone off in the distance, and most people keep to themselves. Even when I stay at campgrounds and I’m working/painting outside, the other campers tend to keep to themselves, other than a friendly wave and hello.
There is so much more to see and do, and I can’t wait to be inspired by all the new places the nomad life will take me. My biggest travel plans for this year are to work my way up through California and Oregon back to Washington state, my home base, if you will — visiting as many national and state parks as I can on the way — where I will stay for a couple of months visiting family while still living in my van. And then, if all goes as planned, I will work my way across the northern-state national parks, maybe all the way to Maine/Acadia, and then down to Florida for a couple winter months.
But I know plans don’t always work out, and being flexible is key to enjoying this lifestyle and getting the most out of it. … So, we shall see where the next few months take me on this creative journey I’ve chosen for the foreseeable future.