The paintings of Michele Mikesell are specific—they have an intention in atmosphere, palette, mood, and flavor. Through her sophisticated and stylized aesthetic, she creates characters that emerge from their setting as they often appear both underneath and on top of unpredictable textures. The artist achieves this complex, layered affect by a series of methodologies, such as removing paint by sanding it off the canvas. For Mikesell, taking paint off of the work is just as important (and creates textures just as interesting) as applying paint to the work.

Join us in conversation as the artists shares her journey experimenting with different painting processes (which included using a blow torch), the importance of not catering your style to what sells, and the magic that happens when you intimately know your work.

© Michele Mikesell

When did you first feel like you were an artist and when did you realize that you wanted to dedicate your life to creating art?

When I was very young, maybe six or seven, I drew a battleship, probably a model belonging to one of my brothers. I drew it differently than my normal subjects. I made quick, dark, aggressive marks, sloppy compared to my normal child-like endeavors for perfect draftsmanship. I remember thinking that my finished drawing looked like how a battleship must feel and sound. At that moment I felt like I understood something, that I was an artist. I guess I’ve spent my whole life since then trying once again to obtain that feeling of understanding. I was a young single mother studying music when I finally acquiesced that art was the only thing I could do. Choosing it then, I was thrust into a sink or swim situation. When I committed, I really committed.

© Michele Mikesell

Your work has such a distinct aesthetic and visual language. Can you talk about your journey arriving at this style?

I had an early fascination with pre-historic rock art and the symbolism found therein and began to borrow these symbols as my subjects. I would use them as an armature to put paint on. I was a very experimental painter. For a period of time I was painting with industrial enamels and using a blow torch to manipulate the fire-retardant paint. I also painted with Asphaltum which is a sort of roofing tar. As I arranged these rock art symbols I began to see anthropomorphic figures and my work gradually evolved to become figurative. Now I know better than to set toxic paints on fire, but my fascination with what paint can do and my sacrilegious approach is what keeps me interested. The figure is important I suppose, but paint is my main interest.

© Michele Mikesell

I’m so drawn to the textures present in your paintings, almost as if you’ve scraped the canvas. How do you achieve these effects?

I was taught by Susan Sales, an artist that had her own technique of sanding paintings. Although our subject matter didn’t align, my utilization of her technique gradually became my own. This process of wet sanding is still evident in my surfaces. I also dabbled briefly in photography back when we printed negatives in the darkroom. I was influenced by Joel-Peter Witkin and loved scratched and manipulated negatives. Unpredictable texture really gets me going. Taking paint off creates marks just as putting paint on does.

What is your favorite (and least favorite) part of your process?

I guess stretching canvas is my least favorite, but its probably the only part of the process of making a painting that I’m a real stickler about. My favorite part of the painting is the finish.  When you “know” the painting so intimately you know exactly what it needs to be complete and it just comes together. It doesn’t always happen like this. But boy.. when it does, it’s the best feeling.  

© Michele Mikesell

Your paintings have such an old world feel to them. Are you inspired by paintings and/or artists from the past?

When I finally came to understand that I was going to be a figurative artist, I didn’t necessarily want to become a portrait artist. Although we all love faces, it’s not what I was most interested in. Borrowing from the old masters gave me a sort of blank (fill in the blank) face to work with. The porcelain skin and smooth presentation of features served as a great juxtaposition to my sanded, stained marks and textures. Currently I’m trying to let some of that tightness go, and bring in some of the loose mark making and textures into the face.  

© Michele Mikesell

What is one of the biggest decisions you’ve had to make when it comes to your career?

Early on when I first started to experience some success, I realized how easy it would be to start catering to what sells. I made a conscious decision to let my work evolve naturally regardless of what was pleasing gallery owners or an audience. It would be easy to get cornered into painting one thing or one style your whole life if that was paying the bills. For me, that is not a sustainable way to live.

Do you have anything coming up that you’d like to tell us about? (If not, what is something you’re looking forward to seeing, such as an upcoming exhibition?)

This spring and summer I have a busy exhibition schedule and am in far over over my head.  That’s how I work best. I am looking forward to just holing in and sleeping, eating, breathing painting with few distractions. We recently finished a project of renovating a small house in Spain, so I will end the year there, catching Art Miami on the way back into the USA to begin again next year.

© Michele Mikesell
© Michele Mikesell
© Michele Mikesell