Michelle works as an artist, muralist and educator who uses her art to create social change in communities. As a teaching artist, Michelle has taught a number of courses through Fleisher including Dibujo Basico, an introductory bi-lingual drawing course specifically intended for Spanish-speaking students.
1. What is your primary artistic medium? Do you have a favorite style of work?
My primary artistic medium is painting. Over the past ten years, my artistic practice has combined both studio works in figurative painting, printmaking, drawing, and writing, as well as large scale public murals. It is difficult to say what style of work is my favorite, I am interested in creating artwork that tells a story and reveals compelling images that impact the viewer.
2. What types of projects have you been working on outside Fleisher?
I have trained artists in public art and community engagement techniques in different countries. Since 2008, I have created large-scale murals with communities in Fiji, Juarez and Chihuahua City, Mexico and Spain as a Cultural Envoy through the United States Embassy. I have also created murals through independent projects in Costa Rica, Ecuador and Puebla, Mexico. Right now, I am preparing for my next Cultural Envoy artist residency in Buenos Aires, Argentina where I will be working with the community in the creation of a mural utilizing mural and street art techniques.
In August 2012, I will be leading the “Aqui y Alla” (Here and There) project that explores the impact of immigration in the lives of Mexican immigrant youth in South Philadelphia in connection with youth in Chihuahua, Mexico. This project will work simultaneously on both sides of the border, Chihuahua and Philadelphia to join the two cultural worlds through the vision of young people. Four skilled graffiti/ street artists from the Colectivo Rezizte (Juarez) and Colectivo Madroño (Chihuahua City) will work in collaboration with me by guiding the youth (here and there) in the creation of a collaborative permanent mural in South Philadelphia.
I also work part-time as the Program Manager at the Stockton Rush Bartol Foundation where I continue to develop programs and free workshops to support the professional development of teaching artists in Philadelphia.
3. Your work seems to include a political edge to it. What inspires this? What do you consider to be the relationship between Art and the politics of social change?
My early art work started as an investigation of my cultural identity. I created portraits of my family and myself searching for ancestral traces. During this process I realized that I was creating a visual history that reflected my cultural and social experiences within my family. In1999, I began to teach and create murals and mosaics with diverse communities in Philadelphia and New Jersey. I became inspired through the interactions that emerged from conversations with my students and community members and I saw that they were reflections of my family. They all carried with them a lifetime of stories and believed that their realities were unimportant and had no value.
As a child of immigrants, I grew up with feelings of being ‘other, of belonging and not belonging. I struggled with issues of class and race. I come from a tradition with strong oral histories that were not written down or visually represented, and risk being lost. For these reasons, my work as an artist takes place in communities that share these common experiences. My creative practice involves finding value in the stories and histories of marginalized people; creating powerful images and messages as a vehicle to share these stories; claiming and transforming space in ways that affirm or challenge people’s experiences in that space; and providing the opportunity to create a dialogue through art around the most profound personal or community issues.
I suppose that my work can be viewed as a political statement, but that is not the primary intention of my work. I want to represent and honor the people that create the spirit of the space that they inhabit, reveal their faces and keep alive their stories through my images.
4. Your performance collective Las Gallas, recently received a Hispanic Choice Award. Who is Las Gallas? Tell us about your work with Las Gallas.
Definition of a Galla:
GALLA n. (proun. Ga-Ya)- The feminization of the word gallo which means rooster in Spanish (they should never be mistaken as chickens). The name explores female gender roles and labels. The name originated by the displaced roosters that survive in another land, climate and environment. This rare breed of highly creative fierce women can lay eggs, crow at the sun and moon and excel in all fields of the arts.
LAS GALLAS is a Philadelphia-based multi-disciplinary artist collective which incorporate theatre, visual arts, dance, film, poetry, spoken word and literature imbedded in the tradition of community arts. I am one of the members along with Julia Lopez (writer, performance artist, educator) and Magda Martinez (playwright and poet).
As artists involved in the visual, performing and literary arts we create using a “Let’s see what happens when we .” approach to our work. We create with one another sharing our skills that push our boundaries in our creative process. Utilizing our many artistic disciplines, creating with Las Gallas allows me to explore performance and literary arts practices. In return, I share with them visual art techniques and methods. In the end, we create new and original works that can be a theatre performance, literary reading, installation and/ or a visual art exhibit. As we celebrate our 10 years together this year, we continue to create through an organic process that allows for the development of true collaborations.
What inspires you to be an artist by profession?
When I was younger, I was told by others not to become an artist. In knowing the struggles that my family has had to overcome, I believed at an early age that I owe it to them to work hard and use my skills to my full potential. I knew when making the decision to pursue a career in the arts it would require me to work hard and be fully committed to my art.\
My inspiration comes from the moments when a child realizes who they are, when a community sees the power and beauty that they possess, and when strangers breakdown assumptions and stereotypes of one another. Through the creative process I am able to expose others to the arts in an interactive non-traditional way. These moments reinforce the purpose of my work and my role as an artist working in communities.
5. In a society where artists and teachers are not often given the credit they deserve, what tools or resources have you used in order to distinguish yourself as a dedicated creative professional?
Artists and educators play an important role in our society. When I train other artists through my residencies, I encourage them to see and recognize the value of their work, how it impacts the community and find ways to communicate and educate others of the work that they do. I have been able to share my methods and tools to give back to the artist community through my work as the Program Manager at the Stockton Rush Bartol Foundation. Through the Bartol Foundation, I am able to help design and facilitate free professional training for artists working in communities. From building a strong curriculum to knowing how to market yourself as a teaching artists- these are tools that are necessary to know and use to have a sustainable career in the arts.
6. What advice would you offer to young artists?
I always share with young artists that I decided to create my first mural at age 17 when encountered with a racial incident in my high school. I felt powerless and angry and thought that the only power I had was to create a mural that counteracted that negative situation. With the support of my art teacher, I created a mural that celebrated cultural diversity in the school and discovered that I could create positive change through my art. My advice to young artists is to focus on your strengths as individuals and rely on the support of those that believe in you. Follow your path as an artist and continue to learn, discover, travel and create art work that is meaningful to you.