Michelle's paintings are autobiographical metaphors that decribe her experience growing up with a mentally ill family member. She favors a tightly controlled photorealistic style at odds with the chaotic subject matter. Her work celebrates our ability to liberate ourselves from our own prison. See her paintings here. And now on with the Q &A!
How did you develop your painting style and How has it changed over the years?
I was classically trained with oil paints in college.
I went through the process of painting from life, and after the first course, I started using my own subjects.
Painting from life was enjoyable enough for me, but the subjects that I tended to be in the mood to do were always impractical for me to try and paint while sitting in the classroom or on my kitchen floor. So, I got into the habit of using photos on my laptop.
Using today’s technology has helped me capture the perspectives I’m looking for. What helped me keep the details in my work sharp was having a grid put on the photo and the canvas, and transferring the details with a pencil first. This was before I really had access to a projector.
Now, I typically sketch my ideas first, do my own photo shoots and/or use references in photos I find and incorporate parts of it into my own paintings. Sometimes I’ll even use Photoshop to patch together an idea I have. Then I project the image on the canvas.
Of course, a photo will only take me so far. My objective has always been to utilize the sharp detail I find in the photo reference and also breathe life into it with the paint.
Before college I never really picked up a brush and painted, but what I did do a lot of as a kid was draw.
By the time I reached college I could draw people or anything else put in front of me with disciplined accuracy. I was able to transfer that attention to detail into my paintings almost immediately.
What I had to develop more over the years was a stronger understanding and love of color. I also changed my subject matter.
Initially I painted things that I was more or less emotionally detached from. I had it in my head that I could become a successful artist by painting things that didn’t say much about my personal life. My talent alone would drive the work.
And maybe that course would’ve led to a measure of success for me. But what I found was that my work wouldn’t have had as much heart that way. By painting things that involve my past and current experiences, and exposing my very personal fears and desires in my work, I have a chance to make work that will actually mean something to people. What people really respond to most in my art is honesty.
Where are the concepts for your paintings born? Can you tell us about how you came up with " The Hundredth Time " ?
My way of painting is very slow and methodical. By the time I’m wrapping up with one I have the next two ideas already sketched, photographed and ready to go on the canvas. These ideas are usually from moments of reflecting on a specific feeling I want to focus in on. This could be from something I dealt with in the past or something I currently dwell on.
The painting “The Hundredth Time” is a good example of a past experience I chose to examine.
For starters, I grew up with a mentally ill family member. I was told from a very young age, from people close to my family and knew the situation, that I would have to take it upon myself to leave. Sooner rather than later.
That family member had a schizoaffective disorder that was frequently left untreated, and as a result they spent the majority of my childhood in and out of the hospital or otherwise in great distress. It was even suggested a couple times by adults close to me that I emancipate myself from my parents, the climate at home had gotten so bad.
The reality was, I didn’t feel like I really had anywhere else to go. And I loved my family very much, I knew they loved me. So, I spent all those years looking for the opportune moment, and eventually I grew strong enough to be able to leave without the consent of the mentally ill parent.
That being said, I’ve grown attached to painting birds over the years as a symbol of freedom. To me, an origami crane is the perfect combination of creative energy, hope and freedom. They also remind me of childhood, when I would fold paper planes in class as a creative outlet. There’s always hope you can get yourself out of bad situations if you just put your energy towards positive change, instead of focusing on the problems.
What artists inspire you?
Goya’s work always fascinated me, even when I was little. He dealt with topics involving mental illness, and he captured a darkness I understood and gravitated too.
James Neil Hollingsworth is an artist who I’m also inspired by. He is self-taught and he does these extraordinary, sharp, realistic paintings.
Teresa Elliott is another painter I love, particularly when it comes to her figurative work. I could pick out a painting of hers in a lineup, and not just because she paints a lot of cows! The warmth that radiates in all of her work is so palpable.
And, of course, Chuck Close.
Any advice for aspiring artists?
My advice for an aspiring artist would be to build up your body of work before making any serious moves. If you choose to do what I did, and move to an expensive city like San Francisco as soon as you graduate from art school, you'll wind up working two jobs and you'll barely have time to do the thing you moved for. If I could go back, I would've maybe spent a year working just enough to cover my cheap rent, focused on my art, and moved with a large selection of paintings, instead of with nothing.
At the time, I was of the mindset that if I didn’t leave immediately after I graduated, I would inevitably wind up in a relationship with someone that wouldn’t want me to leave or be able to go with me. Or I would get a regular job and be too comfortable to leave.
But a year wouldn’t have killed me, and I would’ve been a little more prepared. That being said, I made it work in the Bay Area by being extremely disciplined and single minded in my goal to establish myself as an oil painter, and by getting a significant amount of help from friends and family who believed in me… but it was a challenge.
In theory you can paint anywhere and just send the work in the mail to different galleries all over the world, but to get to that point you need to network, and that includes going to the galleries shows, fostering relationships with the gallery owners, and connecting with other artists. All of which for me happened by moving to a place where those things happen in abundance.
Can you tell us about how you came up with the concepts for "Let Me In" and "Gather Round?
With “Let Me In”, I wanted to paint a story of vulnerability.
There are two plates and glasses full of bullets on both sides of the table. It’s essentially the setting of an impending battle, two people are ready to come to blows.
The mask left on the table represents a wall that went down. Either it was someone’s guard, or pride, or whatever.
But my point is that relationships can’t move forward if either person is unwilling to be truly vulnerable.
The couple had essentially left the scene to make up after the mask came off.
Also, I grew up with a mother that preferred to keep her mask on, and wanted to appear perfect. She refuses to acknowledge that she has an illness because to her it means becoming less perfect, and it’s destroying all of her relationships not confronting it.
With “Gather Round” the idea was pretty simple. I wanted to paint a community gathered around a fire, sharing stories and making food. That’s how I’ve been able to survive, the support of my friends.