artist spotlight: Michelle Schwartz

fields is proud to pair with Austin’s Little Pink Monster Gallery to bring you the artist spotlight series, a collection of interviews conducted by the folks at Little Pink Monster, working in tandem with our editors to showcase some of the most interesting visual artists here in Austin and beyond. Some of these artists have exhibited with Little Pink Monster, and as fans of the wonderful women behind the LPM Gallery, we are excited to be able to provide a platform to introduce them to a wider audience. For this interview, Lyndsie DeCologero spoke with Austin artist Michelle Schwartz.

Michelle Schwartz
Michelle Schwartz

Cecilia (2015)

Michelle Schwartz is an Austin-based artist who creates images of women and animals with mixed media. She recently collaborated with artist Polly Morwood on a series of paintings for the exhibit "Romance of the Rose," currently on display at Companion gallery, located at 908 E. 5th Street in Austin (EAST stop #384). More of her work can be found at her website.

So, Michelle, how did you become an artist?

MS: Well, I think I’ve been an artist for a long time. I don’t really think there was ever a starting point, necessarily, but, even as a kid, I was constantly making books and drawing books. That’s what I wanted to do. I was like, “I want to be an illustrator!” So then my parents were like, “You’re going to college,” and I was like, “No. No no no.” But then my teachers in high school were like, “You can go to art school. That’s an option.” So I went and looked at a couple places, and I was like alright, I can do this. I can go to school… for painting, or photography, or whatever.

I went to Bowling Green University. I started taking classes, started in photography, and was like I think this is more of a hobby for me. And then I started painting and loved it, loved it, loved it… I took all painting classes, and then didn’t realize until I got out of school how much stuff I had—all the resources, all the people, all the artists that you’re around —all the things taken for granted. It’s like oh yeah, why wouldn't It be like this anymore? And then you get out of school, and you’re like, I have no one to talk to about this kind of thing.  So I think It wasn't until I got out of school, and started meeting other artists and stuff—’cause even when I was in school, I didn’t feel like an artist. It was once I got out of school and started meeting other artists who were making work outside of school that I really felt like I started to consider myself an “artist”.

Once you’re totally committed to the lifestyle.

MS: Yeah. And I was like okay, I have to make this work. I’m never going to have the space or the time necessarily to make it. But eventually I was like I gotta save up and quit my job so I can do this.

Yeah. I mean, you’ve just gotten to that point now, right? Where you’re “quitting” your job?

MS: Yeah, just recently. I don’t know. It’s probably been four months or something. But yeah, it was really intense, working full-time at a bar, and working full-time at the juice bar, and then trying to make work… Feeling like I’m not making enough, and that I’m rushing things. I mean, you have to make money, so I have to get up, have to go to work. But I don’t know, it’s so nice being able to wake up and come in here and work in the studio and like only having to go to “work” three times a week.

There are a lot of creative people in the bar scene here in Austin. A lot of visual artists and musicians are working at bars, especially the hip bars on the east side. Do you think working in that environment has opened a lot of doors for you?

MS: I think so, for sure; and doing pop-ups at bars and stuff. The amount of creative people that I meet here is insane. I worked in the bar scene in Colorado, it wasn't the same. Working in a bar, you start talking to people… and it’s really cool here because people don’t assume that I work at the bar. They’re like, “Oh, what do you do?” And I’m like, “I’m an artist,” and then they’re artists too, and then, you know—it’s like so many times that that happens, that I meet people at coffee shops and bars. And I don’t feel like it’s like that everywhere—certainly not like that everywhere.

Yeah, it’s great to live in a city where you’re working at a bar, and people are like, “What do you do?” and not like, “Oh, this is your life...”

MS: Yeah, like, “Oh you’re a barista,” or whatever.

How would you describe the art scene in Austin?

MS: I can’t even believe it. It’s like, when I first moved here I was like alright, I’m going to type in art gallery on Google, and it came up with Art Garage and Big Medium and the whole Canopy thing. I walked around there, and I was like oh, cool. This all exists here? That’s crazy.  There’s so much. And then I talked to one person at a gallery and learned so many more things that are going on. I think WEST [the West Austin Studio Tour] was coming up right when I moved here, and I found out about that, and I was like oh my gosh, I really want to get involved with that… I randomly walked into this woman’s studio by Art Garage, and she was a sculpture artist, and she immediately gave me her WEST book and was like, “Check this out. You know, this is what you do to get involved—just walk around and talk to people and they’ll point you in the right direction.” So she told me about WEST, and then through that I found out about so many other things. It’s almost like the more I find out, the more I’m like oh my god, there’s so much more! I mean, everyone is doing, everybody is making so much stuff here.

Have you had a chance to get around and discover your favorite places? Do you have favorite galleries?

MS: Over at Big Medium, over at Canopy, I thought the Little Pink Monster gallery was really cool, before I even knew Elsie or anyone over there. I think that place is just amazing. Big Medium is really cool.

Just to have such a large collection of artists and galleries, all in one spot. So many different types of art.

MS: It’s really awesome.

Your parents were very encouraging with your work. Were they creative as well?

MS: Yeah, my dad’s super creative. He is definitely an artist. He doesn’t do it for a living or anything, but he’s always drawn, painted, and he’s a really good writer. I think he pushed me with being creative a lot when I was younger. And they wanted me to go to school as well, so I think they’ve been really supportive through it all. Just always like, “This is what you can do.” He’s in sales and business, so he’s always pushing—”You gotta sign your stuff, you gotta do this.” It’s just really sweet and cute. You know, “Sign your stuff, you gotta get your name out there. You gotta do this for these people.” They’re great!

That’s great. Most artists’ parents are like, “No! You need to go to business school.”

MS: It’s funny, the stuff that they like and the stuff that I do. When I was in school, when I started, I wanted to be a realist painter. That’s what I wanted to do—paint things that looked super real. I saw Marilyn Minter’s work—she does close-ups of  mouths, and so I was like I’m gonna do these really close-ups of people’s feet and people’s hands. And so I started doing that, and they just loved it. And then, once I started my second year of school, I became really close with one of my advisers, and she does abstract art—watercolor. So I started doing some stuff with her—a lot of encaustic, a lot of abstract work, and I really loved it. I was moving so much quicker, and learning how to produce a bunch of work at once, and finally getting my own series of work together. Collaborative pieces. And she was getting me into all these shows, and getting me grants and stuff, and I was so excited about it. And the whole time I was doing that, my parents were like, “What? What is that? What is that stuff?” Just, you know, a bunch of wax and trippy stuff. And they were like, “But what about those feet you did? You know, what about those?” They wanted something they could see and relate to.

photo 2
photo 2

Michelle Schwartz and Polly Morwood, Patricia (2015)

How would you describe your work?

MS: I think it’s relatable to a lot of people, I hope. I do a lot with animals and women and the figure. I get distracted really easily, so I’m constantly switching paintings and even materials that I’m using. I’ll be doing oil for a second, and then seriously, a half hour in, I’m like I’m over this. Gotta switch the painting. Gotta work on acrylic. I get distracted with stuff, and then I start cutting stuff up. When I’m in here, it is really messy, ’cause I’m doing so many different things all at once. But I think I function a little bit better like that.

I feel like it’s a lot of me just reacting to stuff. When I did abstract art, that’s why I liked working on wood, because I was reacting to what was already there… just like what I think we’re all doing in general. I love working on the wood because it’s like what do I have to work with? What am I going to do over this? I love leaving it exposed. I used to really try and pay a lot of attention to what I was putting down, and what I was also taking away from the paintings… which I do, but now it’s not obvious to the viewer once it’s done, because I’m sanding… In some paintings, there’s been a lot of sanding and blasting away and carving out of the paintings.

Yeah, I see some scraping and some etching.

MS: Before they’re done, it’s important to me to take as much away as I put down.

Until they feel balanced?

MS: Yeah, just like—they’ve gone through something. They’ve obviously become something else. To take away, to put down... once I take away something, it might change the entire piece, because now I have something totally different to react to, which I think is really fun.

Sometimes I just get stuck. Say I get a commission to do something, and I’m like I know what this has to look like in the end. And so I jump to doing that in the end. And it’s like there’s not enough there, almost, because I didn’t have all that time to take away and put down… not enough time to react to what was going on. So now, instead of going into something when I know the outcome, I’ll start doing whatever I feel like doing. And then taking away, and then adding, so there’s some depth and some layers.

Have you been inspired by previous art movements, or are there movements from history that really inspired a lot of your work?

MS: Lately, actually, I’ve been really drawn to a lot of religious paintings. I’ve had a couple funerals to go to, and I was looking at the stained glass and the imagery in some of the paintings in the churches, and I remember as a kid going to church and just being like these are really beautiful paintings. And then I learned about them in school. But up until now, I guess I didn’t even realize the collages and a lot of the paintings… I’m doing a lot of haloes, these gold haloes and stuff. I was like wow, this is super interesting, that I’m just now realizing that I’m really connected, or drawn to those… Not so much what they stand for, but the imagery in them. And so now I’m doing these things with these gold haloes, and these larger paintings I’m doing sort of like the pictures that you always see of Mary and the baby, with the animals around her—the nativity scene. I’m going to be doing that, but with nudes that I have. A bunch of old photographs I found. It’s weird to look at them side by side, because those women are almost mocking each other in a way… so I want to do some stuff with that, and experiment with using similar colors, similar set-ups as those religious paintings.

Do you think it’s the energy and the spirits that you’re drawn to, in a way, in those paintings? Or is it the history of the religion?

MS: I think both. My parents are Catholic, so I grew up going to church and stuff, but was never really involved that much, and was really distracted by other stuff when I was in church—looking at pictures and stuff like that. And now I just started to get in touch with my own beliefs and trying to figure out my spiritual path. And it’s sort of interesting that when I was young, just looking at those pictures and really being drawn to them—I think it is because there were women in them, and animals. It’s almost like the stuff I’m drawn to now, but in a different set-up and a different light.

Succulent Summers
Succulent Summers

Michelle Schwartz and Polly Morwood, Succulent Summers (2015)

So you find most of your imagery from vintage books and stuff that you find in thrift stores?

MS: I have all these books here. I have a huge chest of them in my room. But yeah, I look for books. I shop a lot… MondoCon was last weekend, which is when I thought I was going to New Orleans. I didn’t think I was going to be able to go, so I was so sad. But I was like at least I won’t buy any posters or anything, so I’ll have money! But then the trip was rescheduled, and I was like now I can go to MondoCon! And then I went to MondoCon and I bought a bunch of movie posters and artwork. I do that a lot. When I’m out shopping, I mean, I’m in vintage stores, and I see a lot of vintage books. I just go through stuff. I just go through old yearbooks, old whatever, and find images of heads that I’m like that would be cool if I did that. Where can I find that? Where I can get that? And I’ll look stuff up online and get references. I rarely paint without looking at something.

What kind of things do you search for online?

MS: Nudes. My roommates come in and they’re like, “What are you…?” I look at a lot of old nudes, old porn. But it’s great!

It’s part of your work.

MS: Yeah, it’s part of my work. Recently, I’ve been looking up a lot of the religious paintings and a lot of old circus posters.

Did you ever see Santa Sangre? It’s a Spanish film that’s like really dark circus.

MS: Really?

I feel like you’d like dark circus.

MS: I have to write that down, because I do. All the old circus posters are so great. I’m not pulling things directly from them, but just colors and the set-up of them and stuff. I’ve been doing a lot of collage work like that. But yeah, I think I’m just a collector. Everything I see goes into what I’m doing. Sometimes subconsciously. I’ll do like five collages or paintings, and I’ll just have stuff laying around, and I’ll be like oh my god, I have this show, or this pop-up coming up! And then it’s like I didn’t prepare or didn’t put anything together, but then I start hanging my work, and find I used four colors on accident that all go together. Or like flowers on this side, or whatever. They all have some element.

Interview by Lyndsie DeCologero.