If you ask artist Michael Ashley about his vision of wildlife and nature, he’ll tell you through the etchings of his pen. A rhino lazing on the ground, the piercing eyes of a mountain lion, a moment of stillness from a jaguar, the last crimson leaves on a shedding tree—they’re all moments that can be erased faster than we’d like to admit.
“The direction of our world is not a harmonious place right now,” Ashley says. “It needs to change, and I strongly feel that as an artist with some ability to depict wildlife in a gentle way I can deliver a subtle yet very important message concerning environmental conservation and habitat recovery.”
That includes the charismatic duo of Bishop the dog and a polar bear. Ashley was inspired to create the series after seeing a photograph of a hunter over slain polar bears; he wanted to reclaim the creature through lighthearted, anthropomorphic themes.
Although his pieces are packed with symbolism, beauty and sublime detail, Ashley surprisingly does not have decades of experience tucked into his artist’s kit. For decades, he worked in human resources, sales and accounting around the country, his dreams of being an artist a faraway thought after he left art school. But for his second chapter, Ashley has been living a nomadic lifestyle, reacquainting himself with his skills as an artist.
“I can’t imagine myself going back, and I will stick this out,” he says of his new life. “When the creative vision flows freely and your hand follows your heart, it’s like magic.”
When he was growing up, Ashley’s days were spent riding on dirt bikes, playing sports and being shuttled to art classes at the Cleveland Museum of Art. It was when he was in high school that he realized he had a special affinity for art and could pursue a future in it. One of his teachers, painter William Martin Jean, encouraged him to take his craft seriously. Ashley earned a slot at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where he met students from around the country and the world and was challenged by his instructors. But he yearned for a different life, eager to work and make money. He dropped out after his first year. “I jumped into life,” he says.
It’s a decision that Ashley regrets, but it set him on the path that brought him to acclaim today. When he gained a sales position with a roofing company on the coast of Maine, where he later made his home, he discovered that many artists, musicians and actors were hiding behind the doors he knocked on. While he was breaking sales records, art was tapping on his shoulder, beckoning him to return.
“I was meeting all of these people, and it just kept pressing on me that I really wanted to be that person answering the door instead of knocking on it,” he says. “I really started thinking about my art again and thinking about the lost opportunity.”
So, Ashley hit the ground running—he picked up an ink pen and began illustrating for the first time in years, creating a large 24-by-36-inch wildlife piece called Strength, rediscovering his style and his passion for conservation art. He sold his house and has lived a nomadic lifestyle, hopping from friends’ homes to campgrounds, from Ohio to Montana, and meeting gallerists in between. While in Charleston, he connected with Mary Martin of the Mary Martin Gallery, whom he considers a mentor and friend.
“There’s no question that the last two and a half years have been about trying to get reacquainted with my passion, to understand what speaks to me creatively,” Ashley says. “I will continue to work hard and grow in style and in medium. I’m going to do everything I can to be successful in this creative journey.”
Works from the Mary Martin Gallery are also on display at the Andell Inn, The Vendue, Hotel Bella Grace and The Harbour Club in Charleston.
Christiana Lilly is a freelance journalist in Pompano Beach, Florida. See more of her work spanning the arts, community news and social justice at christianalilly.com.