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Michelle Lee Rigell - spreading happiness through 1000 origami cranes

St. Louis, MO / United States

Website | Instagram

Born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, Michelle Lee Rigell is a St. Louis-based contemporary realism artist who works in acrylics. Since 2015, Rigell has shown her work in several locations in the Greater St. Louis area including Angad Arts Hotel, Art Saint Louis and fundraising art events such as Wall Ball for Artscope and Art of PAWS presented by Purina. She has been featured on platforms such as The Jealous Curator, PxP Contemporary and Carve Out Time For Art and in publications such as PIKCHUR Magazine and AcrylicWorks7 by Artists Magazine. Rigell also volunteers as an instructor and is the assistant director of Arts As Healing Foundation, a nonprofit organization that brings the therapeutic benefits of art to cancer patients and those with chronic illnesses.

Michelle, we’ve connected in the past, and I’m excited about having you

in the directory! Can you introduce yourself and take us behind the scenes of

your art practice?

I am a contemporary realism artist born and raised in Atlanta who works in acrylics. I currently live in St. Louis with my husband, son and our little Shih-poo. My current focus is my 1000 Crane Project, painting origami cranes mostly made from candy wrappers that I loved eating growing up. I am a gallery assistant at Duane Reed Gallery and the assistant director of Arts As Healing, a non-profit organization that brings the therapeutic benefits of art to cancer patients and those with chronic illnesses.

What has the journey into the art world looked like for you?

My journey has been very long and winding. I wanted to be an animator and graphics designer like my uncle, the other artist in our family. From the time I was four until middle school, I took lessons in oil painting from a local artist, Penelope Van der Putton. However, in high school, I redirected my focus to getting into medical school. I was convinced by the adults in my life that this was a more practical career path. Ultimately I chose not to pursue medicine after graduating from college.

After moving to St. Louis for my husband’s medical training, my mother-in-law encouraged me to take art classes. Before that, I had been taking odd jobs and was lost when it came to choosing a career. Through the classes, I eventually met my mentor Vicki Friedman, founder and executive director of Arts As Healing, and then through her, I met my boss, Duane Reed. So now, I am making my own art, helping others through art, and curating art. Everything I do now is art, and I couldn't be more blessed and happier for it!

Your pieces often portray origami, mostly origami cranes. Can you tell our readers about the meaning behind your art?

I was inspired to start the “1000 Crane Project” when my mentor gifted me a glass jar with the Chinese character for happiness and good fortune on it. Along with art, I also loved origami growing up, so I decided to fill it up with cranes, which then led to an even better idea of painting them. As I gained more confidence in myself and my work, I wanted to experiment with more open and brighter compositions and colors, and I found the perfect subject that was special to me but also iconic! I decided on the title because of the legend that 1000 cranes could grant a person one wish or even eternal happiness; I’d like to think the latter.

Since you mentioned your 100 Crane Project (#1000cranepaintchallenge on Instagram). What was/is your aim with that challenge and the body of work?

Ever since I started my origami crane series, I have had several people ask me over the years if I was planning to paint 1000 cranes because of my project title. To be honest, I work too slow to accomplish something like that (LOL). During COVID and especially after I had my baby, I started participating in art challenges on Instagram not to feel so isolated and to stay consistent with my art practice. Through some encouragement from the wonderful artists I met, I came up with the idea of the #1000cranepaintchallenge. I thought this would be a great way to create 1000 cranes as a community because, ultimately, 1000 cranes mean happiness, and I want to share that happiness, especially during these difficult times.

You volunteer as an instructor at the Arts As Healing Foundation, where you are also the assistant director. You’ve participated in fundraising art events. First of all, thank you for your work. But I wanted to ask you about any personal experiences that pointed you in the direction of helping through art.

I experienced my first miscarriage around the time I met my mentor, and I was struggling to cope. My mentor suggested I come volunteer for Arts As Healing. I initially hesitated because I didn’t think I had the skills or experience teaching art. I started volunteering for my own mental health. Arts As Healing gave me something to focus my energy and emotions on, and continued to do so as I experienced my second miscarriage and several years of IVF treatment.

You’ve always been very open about the healing effects of art and what your art practice did for you. You are very encouraging to others to embrace their creativity. How important do you think sharing is both among artists and in general?

I think it is very important! I am a huge advocate for mental health. When I initially went through my miscarriages, I had a hard time telling people, even my own family and friends. I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me or think that I wanted attention. However, I eventually came to realize while going through IVF treatment and then postpartum depression that this is a part of who I am, just as I can’t have art without healing. Being open about your struggles might help someone who is going through something similar and is scared like I was.

This is also why Arts As Healing and the people I work with are so special to me. It reignited my passion for art and opened new possibilities allowing me to share art with others who could benefit from it, as I did because I really believe art can provide healing. And it was really through the encouragement of the participants that I started developing my art practice and applying to art shows.

What has been the most exciting moment of your art career so far?

It’s not a moment but a period of time for me. The first half of this year has been full of inspiration and new projects and ideas. I have been painting more than I ever did before I had my baby, started working in a new medium (watercolor), launched the #1000cranepaintchallenge, and successfully pitched my solo exhibition proposal to a gallery.

What are your plans, goals and dreams?

Currently, I am planning my solo exhibition for Lunar New Year 2024. My goal for this solo exhibition is to be braver and take that leap and paint an immersive experience as if you’re surrounded by hundreds of cranes. I want the viewer to feel like they are being enveloped in happiness. I also plan to feature the origami crane artwork by artists who participated in the #1000cranepaintchallenge.

What is the number one advice to fellow artist mothers who want to connect with others through sharing their stories?

Don’t be scared to put yourself out there. You’ll be so surprised how many people, you meet who are also going through similar situations and life stages and are willing to share with you.

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