Mobile, Alabama / United States
Art Mums United is extremely proud to have had the chance to interview Michelle Jones, a visual artist who concentrates on abstract paintings with elements of nature, both beautiful and sinister. Michelle lives in Alabama together with her husband and daughter.
Michelle, you received your MFA in Painting from Massachusetts College of Art in 2005 and BFA in Painting from the University of Mississippi in 2002. When did you realize that you wanted to be a visual artist, and what was your journey into art like (brief bio/history/backstory)?
I randomly took art as an elective my second semester of freshman year at university and fell in love with the process of making. I am from a rural area and art was not offered at my public school, so I had had no formal exposure until then. Growing up I had always busied my hands - drawing paper dolls, working on giant cross-stitch projects while I watched tv, drawing in the margins of my notebooks during lectures, coloring way past the time when considered age appropriate - but I never considered myself artistic. When I took the Intro to Art class, all the creativity that had been latent in me, that had seeped out in whatever cracks it could find, had full range and permission to flourish. I found my passion and never looked back.
You spent 11 years in Boston where you focused on painting, quilting and handmade children's clothing line. What did you enjoy the most, and where did your inspiration come from?
I moved to Boston for graduate school. Once that program was complete, I needed to figure out a way to earn money. I began to make narrative small quilts to sell at art markets. The quilts were a breath of fresh air after the intense scrutiny of graduate school. I didn’t second guess my choices and the quilts reflected that in their whimsical style, possibility, and playfulness. So many people connected with the quilts, but not everyone could afford them, so the children’s clothing line was born. Appliqued onesies and one-of-a-kind dresses allowed everyone to walk away with something. It was amazing that so many people resonated with the work I was producing. In that season, I loved the days spent at the sewing machine making a factory of myself. I was tired of having to have a reason for everything I made. I got lost in the materials, the textures, and the process. It was a break from the time overwrought in school.
In 2014, you moved to the Gulf Coast where you live with your husband and daughter. Your art practice changed a lot. You've been creating very colorful and intricate paintings full of natural elements and animals. Tell us all about your work.
So many things changed when we moved back South. I was afforded time, which I think is the greatest gift for an artist. Because of the cost of living, I was able to make work full time without the need to try to earn a living from it.
During the interim when I had taken a break from painting following graduate school, I shed some of the constrictions that I had allowed to attach to my work during that time. I came to work with a freshness I had lost. I no longer cared what anyone thought of the paintings and did not feel a need to explain myself. New to the area, I was painting in a vacuum, but the space to paint without combatting voices from other people allowed me to find my own point of view and what I actually wanted to say.
I am interested in the unpredictability of nature. My works are dream spaces, imagined landscapes. That said, I am inspired by the world around me. I have traveled the globe - Panamanian jungles, the Mekong delta, Norwegian fjords, to name a few - seeking out immersive experiences to inform my paintings. Most recently we kayaked through the mangrove tunnels in the Everglades, and that bird and reptile paradise, with its tangle of trees, vines, grass, and swamp, has begun to infiltrate its way into current works.
I love a loose start, such as the uncontrolled pouring of paint or random marks wasting the remains of the day’s palette, that allows the materials to surprise me and lead me somewhere unexpected. As the painting progresses the work becomes more meditative and controlled. I find joy in seeking out the tiniest of details, the decadent layering a process of discovery.
It wasn't the easiest transition since you had to start over from scratch not knowing anyone, let alone artists. What kept you going and how did you find your way around?
While moving to Alabama gave me more time, I struggled because I was used to being a part of a community of makers. I also gave birth to my daughter at the beginning of the transition so my focus was solely there at first. Because I did not have a lot going on in the studio, I more easily gave myself permission to relax into figuring out my new role.
Once I began to emerge from the mother cocoon and have more energy to make, I set up a daily routine to provide structure and consistency to my days, and also make sure I actually went into the studio. I knew that art was not going to happen on its own.
A true gift was reconnecting with my studio mate from graduate school. She had also moved to the Southeast for professional reasons. Even though she was a five-hour drive away, we arranged a time for a visit. I brought my work and we talked through it and professional avenues to explore. It was a breath of fresh air and the jumpstart I needed to begin to seek out new opportunities.
Though it was a meandering path, I have found a group of women artists in my town and that has also been a gift.
You've been spending a lot of time in your studio, and you believe that consistent practice is the key. Do you also involve your daughter in your creative process?
For my studio practice, I do find it best to work alone, though I recognize this is not always possible. I made a slow return to the studio after my daughter’s birth. Like many artists, at first, I painted when she napped. Over time I added childcare two mornings a week and then three, and now she is in kindergarten full time. I dedicate those childfree hours to my studio and do not schedule things outside of my practice during that time.
All of that said, I love to make art with my daughter. She has the freedom and love of materials that is so refreshing. During stay-at-home orders during the pandemic, she had her own set of supplies in my studio (which has become a permanent fixture) and we spent many hours painting and drawing. Each day after school, she visits my studio, and we talk about what I painted that day. She has different ideas about when paintings are done.
I want to show my daughter that it is ok to prioritize herself. Her work. I want to be an artist mother who is comfortable taking the time to make the work knowing it is a value-added. I want my daughter to go boldly. I do not want her to feel like she has to validate her dreams and goals, so I know that I must live this out myself. She is learning how to be in this world from me. My studio practice is a small scale example for her of how to choose yourself.
How did you feel about motherhood in the past, and how do you feel about it now?
I did not think I would be a mom. I prevented pregnancy for the first 14 years of my marriage. It seemed like women had to give up too much when they became mothers - like there wouldn't be enough time, enough money, enough breathing room.
I felt like to become a mother I would have to give up myself, allow my drive and passions to atrophy.
Now I know that is not true. My daughter has taught me there is beauty in slowing down, that I am not less because I am not doing more. That is the beauty of it. Love expands things - time, capacity, passion, rigor. Mothering is a lot about spreading peanut butter and washing hair, but really it is about the future. I get to help a girl figure out how to navigate the world. There is power in that.
What is the message behind your art?
Right now it feels like the house is on fire and nobody cares. Or there's not much that can be done about it. I worry that we are pushing our environment to a place where it will be forced to reclaim itself, and how that plays out will not be pretty to modern-day life.
Life on the Gulf Coast is fraught with consequence. We have hurricanes, tornadoes, mold multiplying underneath floorboards and vines pushing through walls, foundations sink, and sidewalks buckle. The land here is aggressively active in trying to keep humans at bay. What we have created is not natural or sustainable. If we stopped hacking back the overgrowth and shoring up our homes, this place would fall back into the gulf - which feels like on a small scale what is happening on the planet as a whole.
My work reflects this. The landscape is a protagonist, its obscene lushness often choking out the creatures that inhabit it or a surprise force sweeping through that must be reckoned with. There is beauty to be found in the madness, but that distraction could lead to one being swallowed up.
What does your art do for you?
I feel most at home in my body when I am making work. My work gives me a place to process the world around me and my relationship to it. By making my work, I am entering into a dialogue with other artists and that conversation seems vital to the shaping of the world we live in.
What are your plans for the future (career, parenting etc.)?
AHHHHHHH travel!!! Whenever trips are safe (and allowed), my family is ready to embark on our next adventure. We miss the thrill of discovery and wonder as we learn about new places and people.
I have a solo exhibition at Alabama Contemporary Art Center in May of 2021 that I am working towards. I have plans to incorporate my love of fabric and textiles into my exploratory landscapes. Other harbingers, such as snakes, are beginning to creep into my paintings and I'm excited to follow that impulse more fully.
Mostly, I hope to be able to continue to make work full-time. That's the dream, right?
What advice do you have for fellow art mums?
MAKE. MAKE. MAKE.