Michelle Wilson – Oakland, California

Fragment, Linoleum blocks on handmade papers in triptych format, 9" x 30", 2014

Fragment, Linoleum blocks on handmade papers in triptych format, 9″ x 30″, 2014

Briefly describe the work you do.           

My work fluctuates between contemplative activism and personal narrative. It takes the form of handmade papers, prints, artist books, sculptures, installations and social practice interventions.

In the nonlinear narratives I present, landscape and location play a role. They are more than setting; they are characters and catalysts for transformation. The exterior landscape depicted is an embodiment of an interior landscape explored, a manifestation of my cognitive environment. Much of my work concerns the crossroads of human political actions and ecological systems, and how social and environmental justice often go in unison. Many of the narratives I explore have a duality or interconnection of ideas: the crossroads of politics and the environment, colonialism and natural history, wordplay, migration, vegetation, and the loss of diversity.

Tell us a little about your background and how that influences you as an artist.

I grew up in Central Pennsylvania, a rural and fairly conservative part of the country. My family didn’t travel much, although when we did, my parents made sure to take us to museums. However, much of the art I was exposed to as a child was children’s picture books, where both image and text contribute to the narrative. Since then, narrative is always an integral part of visual art.  

True North, Collage of handmade papers, found and printed matter, 9" x 24", 2013

True North, Collage of handmade papers, found and printed matter, 9″ x 24″, 2013

The concept of the “artist studio” has a broad range of meanings, especially in contemporary practice. The idea of the artist toiling away alone in a room may not necessarily reflect what many artists do from day to day anymore. Describe your studio practice and how it differs from (or is the same as) traditional notions of “being in the studio.”

As part of my papermaking practice, I harvest invasive plants to California, such as French Broom, Pampas Grass, even Ice Plant.  These plants serve as a base fiber for paper. Invasive plants tend to take over the ecosystem, creating monocultures and driving out native plants, which are often the basis for the food web. When the foundation for the food web falls apart, it creates a domino effect to other participants in the system. So a part of my practice takes place outdoors, as a means of clearing space for native vegetation.

The handmade papers made from these plants are more than just substrates. They are a signifier for the content, documentation of place and history, and embodiments of site-specificity.  Currently I am working on an artist book about endangered languages, which will be printed on papers made from invasive plants. In that work, these plants, which are also aggressive colonizers, serve as a metaphor for colonialism and the loss of diversity.

What unique roles do you see yourself as the artist playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?

As a young artist, I never imagined myself doing interventions or performative actions. I was a naturally shy, awkward person, I never saw myself having the confidence, and I always saw myself as working on images that would be hung on the wall because I thought that was what Real Art was supposed to be. Yet now I see such interventions as creating a narrative in real time, and they make sense to me. My practice has opened me up to so much possibility. Who knows what’s ahead?

Frieze Detail

Frieze Detail

When do you find is the best time of day to make art? Do you have time set aside every day, every week or do you just work whenever you can?

For the first time in my professional career, my studio is outside of my home. Keeping it in my home felt right for financial reasons, and while I loved being able to do my work in my pajamas sometimes, I’ve noticed that when I go to my new studio, I get to work as soon as I enter the door. I was always afraid that if my studio was outside of my home, I wouldn’t be able to justify the cost with the amount of time I spent there. So this has become a motivator for myself – I have to go there enough to justify the expense. As a high school teacher, I make a point of swinging by the studio after school most days working for an hour or two. I also usually spend one of my weekend days there doing the more focused, time-consuming work, such as printing a large edition or pulling sheets of handmade paper.

How has your work changed in the last five years? How is it the same?

I recently realized that I go through certain behavior patterns in the work I make. These patterns usually take place over the course of months, where the work swings between being very precise, minimal and distilled, which actually is more time-consuming, such as my series, “Corn, Incorporated.” After the year I spent making that, without thinking about it, my work shifted to a series of collages that came together quickly and are more heavily detailed, layered and complex. Looking back, I think these behaviors were always present, but have become more pronounced as the work has become more exacting. After I dedicate myself to a conceptual and technical challenge, I need the release of simple cutting and pasting.

Are there people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers or even pop icons that have had an impact on the work you do?

Where to begin? I was fortunate to attend a both an undergraduate and graduate school program with several people who I admire: Amanda D’Amico (http://www.tinyrevolutionarypress.com/), Sun Young Kang (http://www.sunyoungkang.com/), Mary Tasillo (http://www.citizenhydra.net/), Marie Elcin (http://colored-thread.blogspot.com/), to name a few.  My first printmaking teacher, Shelley Thorstensen, (http://printmakersopenforum.org/) also had a large part in me becoming the artist I am.

Another influence has been ecological philosophers, starting with Aldo Leopold of early and mid-twentieth century, to more contemporary luminaries such as Joanna Macey, Edward O. Wilson and Glenn Albrecht.

I listen to a lot of podcasts, particularly NPR’s “On Being,” (http://www.onbeing.org/), which I would describe as interviews with people who are trying to understand the nature of the universe, whether it be science, religion, poetry, art, history, or how these fields overlap. The ideas presented there are also shaping my practice as an artist.

A final influence is poetry, particularly that of Rainier Maria Rilke, Pablo Neruda and most of all, Mary Oliver. Without their words, I would be a different person.  

If you had an occupation outside of being an artist, what would that be and why?

I think I would study the possibilities of solar energy. There is some amazing science developing right now in that field, and I think it will prove to be some very necessary innovations in the future. As global warming increases, who wouldn’t want to be part of the solution?


Michelle Wilson HeadshotMichelle Wilson is a papermaker, printmaker, book, installation, and social practice artist. She is also one-half of the ongoing collaborative political art team BOOK BOMBS. Her works are in various collections, including Yale University (New Haven, CT), the National Museum of Women in the Arts (Washington, DC), and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, in Alexandria, Egypt.

She is a past recipient of grants from the Puffin Foundation, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and the Artist-Investigator Project from San Francisco’s Triangle Arts Lab, an a previous resident of the David and Julia White Colony in Ciudad Colon, Costa Rica, and the Jentel Artist Residency Program, in Banner, Wyoming.

Her extensive teaching experience includes San Francisco State University, Bryn Mawr College, Moore College of Art and Design, the Kala Art Institute, the San Jose ICA Print Center, and Magnolia Editions. In addition, she served as a hand papermaking consultant to Signa-Haiti, a NGO in the process of developing a sustainable and bio-dynamic economy in Haiti. She currently teaches Sculpture and Design through the Summit Public Charter School System, and printmaking and collage classes at the Berkeley Art and Design Extension.Wilson has a BFA from Moore College of Art and Design, and an MFA from the University of the Arts, both located in Philadelphia, PA. She currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

 Frieze, Woodblock on handmade abaca paper, 12" x 42", 2014

Frieze, Woodblock on handmade abaca paper, 12″ x 42″, 2014


All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission. 

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