It is the last week of our show ‘Pilot’ with PxP Contemporary so this Studio Sunday highlights one of our invited artists, Michelle Lee Rigell. She is a contemporary realist painter who is based in St. Louis and we have featured two works from her ‘1,000 Crane Project’ in the exhibition. Read on to learn more about her creative practice, studio space, and exhibitions for the rest of the year!
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 SOHA Gallery, Art Saint Louis and fundraising art events such as Wall Ball for Artscope and Art of PAWS for St. Louis Effort for AIDS. 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.
I tend to gravitate toward subjects that evoke nostalgia and whimsy. I am currently working on a project called the "1000 Crane Project" because of my childhood love for origami. When I wasn't drawing or painting, I was constantly folding origami. My goal is to capture the beauty and precision of origami while incorporating the flawed nature of wrinkled papers and used wrappers and labels of some of my favorite childhood American products.
Cranes are also a symbol of good fortune and longevity in Korean culture. They have been an apt subject matter in my life because rediscovering my passion for painting began as a way to cope with my miscarriages and difficulties with infertility. I am a firm believer that art can provide healing, and I want to be able to help others heal by providing a sense of sentimentality and humor through my art process and experiences.
How did you first become interested in art and can you explain a bit of how it led you to the work you create today?
I’ve loved art for as long as I can remember. As a child I wanted to be an animator and graphics designer like my uncle, the other artist in our family, but in high school, I focused on getting into medical school. I was convinced by the adults in my life that this was a more practical career path, but ultimately I chose not to pursue a career in 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. When I signed up, it never crossed my mind to pursue a career in art because I didn’t have any formal education in art and I had lost a lot of confidence in myself. Around the same time, I had a miscarriage and my second not too long after, so it was a period filled with a lot of hurt. Fortunately through the classes, I met my mentor and began volunteering for the Arts As Healing Foundation, reigniting my passion for art and opening new possibilities for me. I went on a long and roundabout journey back to an art career, but now I am sharing my love for art to others who need it and love it with more appreciation and passion than when I was younger.
We love that your work is so fun and whimsical with hints of nostalgia. Can you tell us about what inspires you and the story behind your series of origami cranes specifically?
A few years ago for Christmas, 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.
Before my “1000 Crane Project”, I was already painting nostalgic subjects like record players, musicians, vintage signs using earthy, dark tones; I grew up listening to a lot of Oldies music. But as I gained more confidence in myself and my work, I wanted to experiment with bolder compositions and colors. I had found the perfect subject that was not only iconic and symbolic but had been a big part of my childhood as well. Instead of using crisp, new sheets of paper, I thought it would be more interesting and challenging to make cranes with wrinkled, brightly colored candy wrappers that are sometimes more plastic and wax than paper. It would give me more opportunities to play with lights and darks to create all the tears and odd folds. And who doesn’t love candy? As long as I can bring a smile to the viewers’ faces, I know I’ve done a good job.
What is your process like? Do you do a lot of sketching or make work more intuitively?
I fold all the cranes I paint first. Occasionally I’ll go on a folding spree and fold whatever piece of paper or candy wrapper that catches my eye, so that later if I need inspiration or a new idea I can go through ones I’ve already folded. Sometimes I have to do a little cutting and taping supplemented with thumbnail sketches especially with the candy wrappers, so I can get the right labels and patterns to show through. I prefer to paint from my still-life set up, but I also take photos to refer back to because the cranes are tiny.
Describe your current studio or creative space. What is most important about it or one thing that you definitely need in your work area?
Currently my studio is in our guest bedroom. I’ve tried almost every other room in our house before settling into where I am now. The guest bedroom has the best lighting as it faces north with lots of windows. I try to take advantage of the natural lighting as much as I can, so my colors don’t shift. For me, lots of sunshine leads to lots of motivation and productivity. I would eventually like a space where I can make larger paintings and move more freely, but I also like being comfortable and having everything I need at home.
What is your favorite thing about being an artist?
One of my favorite things about being an artist is being able to express myself but also being able to have a safe place for me to tune everything out. The other is that I never stop learning as an artist. I’m continuously finding ways to improve my technique and to challenge myself to elevate my artwork.
Do you have any big collaborations, projects, exhibitions, etc going on during the rest of the year that you'd like to share?
I recently finished a piece that will be up for silent auction on August 3rd at this great fundraiser, Art of PAWS by St. Louis Effort for AIDS. The proceeds help patients care for their furry companions so they can focus financially on their healthcare. I will also be in a four-man exhibition at the Angad Arts Hotel in downtown St. Louis from August 2nd to October 26th.