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Work Samples

Gift

8x10" Derwent Inktense Pencils, Fluid Acrylic, and Ballpoint Pen on Paper, Mounted on Canvas. Words are small but powerful. The power of words can save life or destroy. This painting is from a series of lightning bugs and spiders (lightning bugs represented as origami notes, such as one might pass in grade school, spiders by razor blades hung from string). For most of my life, the world has been a very dark place and words have hurt me. I found it full of discouragement, not encouragement, losses piling on top of losses, leaving my spirit shattered.

No Wonder I Can't Fly (2)

16x24” Mixed Media on (found) Wood Two years into treatment, I realized that the things holding me down were real. I cannot tell you how much relief that brought me. I had always blamed myself for not being able to fly. This first took the form of emotional connection--why wouldn't people connect with me? Over and over, I didn’t understand: why wasn't I good enough to be friends with? Why wasn’t I good enough to keep around? Why wasn’t worthy to stay? Was it some sort of moral failure? If so, what was my flaw?

Endpages, Razorbook 1 (Embroidery)

Detail: Hand-Embroidery on Various Fabrics, mounted on Paper and Bookboard. When I created this image, its meaning was unclear. There was a bird, there was an eye. There were curls of golden thread. I had no preconceived meaning; I had no idea how the images related to one another. I made it because it was beautiful, and I needed to sew. In retrospect, it is the perfect ending to my first volume (there are two volumes): eyes set forward, gazing seriously into the future, which was abstract at the time and unformed.

Commission: Guest Parking

4 Panels, Mixed Media on Paper, Mounted on Metal Signs Dimensions: unknown Credits for this installation go to the curators of Area 405. If I were to summarize all of my hopes to revitalize the city, it might look something like this. By commission, these four panels were given to me with the instruction to “make something out of them." Four signs from the parking lot of a bedraggled neighborhood church, had been placed badly, making “welcome” look like “we don’t care.” These were given to me with the ultimate message a plea, “redeem it.” Baltimore.

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About Michelle

Baltimore City

Michelle Labonte's picture
Michelle Labonte Fine Artist [email protected] https://www.facebook.com/sadeyedartist http://fineartamerica.com/profiles/sadeyedartist.html?tab=artworkgalleries Michelle Labonte is a MICA graduate who studied both fine arts and teaching. An award-winning teacher, Mrs. Labonte spent eight years cultivating an accessible art curriculum that resulted in high-achieving students. This culminated in 2008, where she became the founding art teacher for the SEED School of Maryland, where she... more

Razorbook

This series began as a way to make sense of a severe mental breakdown, for which I was hospitalized, after 3 decades of untreated depression. What started as a sketchbook (simply to understand what had just happened to me), became an artist's book and quickly gained momentum; what started as something amazingly intimate has now become a means by which I engage a world afraid to talk of mental illness. What I intended to show nobody, I now have a goal for widespread publication.

There are two primary audiences for this:

First, are the countless people who suffer from mental illness in silence, afraid, and desperately alone. Personally, I had found lifelong solace in literature. What helped me process inpatient hospitalization was an array of literature on mental illness, suicide, and any related topic I could find. These were of tremendous comfort to me, in part because of a book's ability to let one see into someone else's head and in part because they were intimate. People may write what they would not say, and this is where I found fellowship before I had anything resembling a real-world support group.

There are those who process the world much less via text and more through image. While there is a diverse and rich assortment of written literature on mental health, suicide, and related topics, there is much less available by way of accessible, visual information, and for many, this creates a need. The first need is to feel like they are not alone but understood in a format that can initially be kept private. A book can be opened and closed, unlike a movie or a painting. As an artist, that is one of the things that helped me in the making of the book; I did not have an audience if I did not choose to--and it was very sparse, at first, who I chose to share that content with.

Secondly, there are a number of people who do not understand mental illness and need to be able to see it through somebody else's eyes. Razorbook would be a good mechanism for illustration and conversation. When two people have their eyes on a page, they can discuss the content on the page without themselves being in the spotlight. One can say, "what do you think about this," as a way to gauge how the other person might react to them, and then determine whether it is safe to continue the conversation. It is much different to say, "what do you think about this depiction of madness," than, "I think I might want to die," or "I feel like I might literally be going insane." People under-react or overreact or don't react at all.

In my own experience, I had real reason for concern, which is what kept me silent for three decades. Considering the severity of my illness, every clinician I talked to wondered how it was that I had stayed alive that long. Had there been a tool like this available, things might have been different. Mental illness increases over time and with each episode, something I did not know prior to hospitalization. Having spent the first part of my adult life as a classroom teacher, I have a particular interest in teens and young adults, who struggle with this in astounding measure. I also have had a window into their world.

What the graphic novel has evolved into has set the stage for entirely new kinds of books, which is very exciting, and the way printing has evolved has set the stage for full-color books for young-adult budgets. The average graphic novel costs between $20-$25, which is much more accessible than an original painting. One might also have access to a bookstore (or library) but not a gallery. The idea is to make this content visible, beautiful, and accessible. Ultimately the goal is to create conversations that save lives.

  • Digital Layout (4 Pages)

    Digital. Intended dimensions: 9x18" per page. Here are several more layouts I made in preparation to convert Razorbook into a format for potential publication. My primary intended audience is for teens and young adults. Graphic novels have drastically evolved. Pioneers like David Mack and Dave McKean have created graphic novels that birthed entirely new conceptualizations of what the book form could be. in his Kabuki series, David Mack changes the rules of the graphic novel by combining richly layered fine-art with the more traditional paneled comic book style.
  • Digital Layout: No Wonder I Can't Fly

    Digital. Intended dimensions: 9x18". One of the questions I had had was how to format Razorbook for potential future publication. How to keep the integrity of the images while also adding text? How to add text without taking away from the crafted, hand-made page. I finally decided upon a square format, 9x9" closed, 9x18" open. This allowed for the entirety of a double-page spread to be shown, in addition to whatever text, explanation, or caption needed to accompany it.
  • Endpages, Razorbook 1 (Embroidery)

    Detail: Hand-Embroidery on Various Fabrics, mounted on Paper and Bookboard. When I created this image, its meaning was unclear. There was a bird, there was an eye. There were curls of golden thread. I had no preconceived meaning; I had no idea how the images related to one another. I made it because it was beautiful, and I needed to sew. In retrospect, it is the perfect ending to my first volume (there are two volumes): eyes set forward, gazing seriously into the future, which was abstract at the time and unformed.
  • I Am Batman (Sometimes)

    Razorbook Pages (double-page spread): approximately 9x12" Ink, Fluid Acrylic, Gel Pen, and a variety of Collaged Papers, on Paper *Copyright of Batman and related symbols belong to DC Comics.* What most people don’t realize about mental illness is that it’s a continuum. Even in unipolar depression the spectrum from dark to light can shift within a month, day-to-day, or even hour-to-hour. Recovery is not a straight line and the highs and lows can be jarring in their strength and sudden change. Intimates want to see steady movement forward.
  • I Am Batman

    Razorbook Page: approximately 9x6" Ink, Fluid Acrylic, Gel Pen, Sharpie, Inktense Pencils and Crayon on Paper *Copyright of Batman and related symbols belong to DC Comics.* What many people do not know is how closely linked mental health is to one's identity. For some, it's episodic in nature, for others, tightly woven into the fabric of their personhood. In my case, depression had been lifelong, developing and maturing like any other personal trait. Both serious and scholarly, it was hard for me to imagine what life without depression would look like.
  • Fragile (Broom Corn)

    Razorbook Pages (double-page spread): approximately 9x12" Mixed Media, including Collaged, Painted, and Printmaking techniques on paper. This image reveals a space, physical and emotional, in which I was safe enough to fall apart. I was fragile, and I was allowed to be fragile. I desperately needed to be allowed that in a safe context. I will never forget the walls of that building, the distinctive window frames, nor the stairs. It was in that building that my life was saved by a meeting that almost didn't happen.
  • 30

    Detail: 30 Mixed Media on Paper. A page.
  • Razorbook: Thread Figures

    Detail: mixed media on paper, figures hand-embroidered in black thread. These are two of four panels, each of which contains a solitary figure. Each figure, in its own way, shows isolation as well as disappearance.
  • Lost My Voice

    6x9" Crayon, Pen, Tape, a page
  • I'm Not Fine (Original Book on Display)

    Book, 9x6" closed, 9x12" open. Mixed Media on Paper, in a pre-bound book. This has become somewhat of a signature piece for Razorbook, showing both the richness of the media, and rawness of emotion present throughout the book. The main text describes my experience of psychiatric hospitalization, which was actually quite good. It was a time of stripping off required masks and being honest. In the hospital, it is ok to not be fine; that's the reason one ends up there. In that context, raw emotion is protected from a world ill-equipped to handle it and too quick to judge.

General Portfolio

I don't believe in false happy endings, forced and contrived. I will not fake them. This portfolio chronicles pivotal psychological moments in my life. Although the work, "Buried Dreams," vastly predates the rest, it is critical to the overall narrative. That piece was about a lifetime of disappointments, losses, and pains, all correlating with a particular personal, relational, or professional dream. At that time, I could see nothing but barrenness, and so I had to surrender all of it. That burying was like a funeral; while I knew, conceptually, that a seed must be buried in order to grow, I had little hope for the outcome. It was a gesture of faith. The leaf, first included for aesthetic reasons, would later come to represent my tenacity in holding on in spite of every bruise, new and old.

Dearest to my heart was a friendship, sustained over 10 years and the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. This was the kind of soulmate that one only reads about, and this friend brought years of light and life into an otherwise desolate world. The loss of that friendship, shown by "Stop," and, "Best Endship," was an erasure of self, the only identity that I had known apart from a life of scholarship and faith. The countless letters sent back and forth across the ocean were erased by her indifference, solidifying a wall of silence. As she was German, I thought about the Berlin Wall, and how it separated bodies as well as souls. I saw, in the walls of my own city, a history without words: bricked-up windows in various patterns, tar spilled a century ago, a splattering of industrial concrete, and years' worth of peeling paint, revealing both difficulty and dignity--in spite of change and battery, these walls stand, solid.

As do I. Layers of my life are revealed here, in all their grittiness, and yet there has somehow been life underground. Dreams long dead have taken root and there is movement.

At the end of this sequence is what I have now: a handful of light, a jar of lightning bugs in a context that is otherwise very dark. My story is not over and I have somehow found a sense of "Wonder," be it ever so small. It is a gift, a light in the dark, something once unfathomable but it is real and it is mine.

  • Trust

    10x22” Mixed Media Pen, Derwent Inkense Pencils, Fluid Acrylic, and Marker on Wood This is the final piece in the "Consider the Birds" series. Unlike the others, each of which reveal a state of waiting, this bird is at ease. He sits amid stoplights each at a different color, content whether life has him at "stop," "go," or "wait." What's more, he sits atop a wire, the voltage of which can power a city. This is a dangerous amount of electricity but also the energy upon which we depend.
  • Wonder

    9x12" Derwent Inktense Pencils, Fluid Acrylic, Ink, and Embroidery on Paper, mounted on Canvas. Drawing from much of the same content of the painting "Gift," this portrait has me looking in wonder at the small snatches of light that have come together collectively to give me life. It is a small but significant light source against the backdrop of a life that has been very dark. These are precious words, treasured.
  • Gift

    8x10" Derwent Inktense Pencils, Fluid Acrylic, and Ballpoint Pen on Paper, Mounted on Canvas. Words are small but powerful. The power of words can save life or destroy. This painting is from a series of lightning bugs and spiders (lightning bugs represented as origami notes, such as one might pass in grade school, spiders by razor blades hung from string). For most of my life, the world has been a very dark place and words have hurt me. I found it full of discouragement, not encouragement, losses piling on top of losses, leaving my spirit shattered.
  • Waiting

    8.25x13” Mixed Media on Cardboard; the bird was rendered in Marker and Ballpoint Pen. This painting was done as one of a series of paintings called, "Consider the Birds." It references a story about worry and provision. In the midst of this process, often, one has to wait. In 2011, I unexpectedly left my career due to my need for serious, long-term medical treatment. With it went a sense of security, income, and identity. Who I was and where the next thing was coming from was entirely out of my control.
  • Need

    12x12" Hand Embroidery, Found Objects, Paper Collage, Acrylic, Ink, and Marker on Wood. Affectionately, I refer to this painting as my "Ugly Bird." Newly hatched with alien-looking eyes and wet feathers, it is absolutely helpless, which was uncomfortable to work with. The discomfort came primarily from the fact that I was to identify with this bird as the representation of my own raw, uncovered need.
  • False Religion

    14 ¼ x 14 ¼” Drawing, Painting, and Mixed Media on Cardboard
  • The Bridge (The Winter of My Discontent)

    24x20" Acrylic, Colored Pencil, Embroidery, Fibers, and Mixed Media on Paper, Cardboard and Canvas, February 19th, 2011, I was standing on a bridge in the bitter cold, taking pictures of abandoned buildings. It was my 30th birthday. I had received but one present that year. There was no planned celebration, no one to plan the party. I did not wish to piece together a contrived gathering; at 30, one should have enough intimate companions to gather around a bottle of wine.
  • Best Endship

    15x32.5” Mixed Media on Paper, Mounted on Wood At 17, I found one of my most compelling ties to life: a friendship that would be sustained over 10 years and the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. This is the kind of friendship that one reads about, and this friend brought ten years of love and life into an otherwise desperately lonely and love-starved world. The loss of that friendship was in many ways an erasure of self, the only steady identity that I had had apart from a life of scholarship and faith.
  • Stop (breaking my heart)

    9x12” Mixed Media on Wood Locked out and windows permanently filled, there was no way to get the message through to the other side. The wall was too solid, the concrete blocks too immovable, the door heavy and industrial. The stop sign hangs by a single screw, fallen, as if in defeat.
  • Buried Dreams

    Approx. 3x4’ Mixed Media, Fabric, Charcoal, Ink, Acrylic, and Tree Branch on Stretched Paper Death of a dream is painful. There is a time for hope, a time for grief, and a time beyond. To bury something is to give it up, surrender it to the life of the soil. My life has little by way of hope, and has suffered an unending stream of losses. The biggest--and most breakable--loss is the hope to be loved--not merely tolerated, not obligatorily kept around but chosen, warmly received, and accepted for my whole self. For ages, this painting sat half-finished, only the bottom resolved.

I and the City

I and the City

For thirteen years, Baltimore has been both my home and my muse. From the time that I moved here, I felt that this city and I understood each other, a feeling that has only proven itself true over time.

The city shows its scars. In bricked-over windows and broken glass, the walls reveal their history. They don’t need to speak to show that they have lived through the agony and ecstasy of people with a thousand motivations, who blustered through, leaving their collective mark. There we see evidence of tar spilled while fixing a roof, or concrete, dripping accidental white over colored walls. Here rusted iron reminds us of Baltimore’s humble industrial roots. Boarded windows shyly cover once-cared-for homes. Stickers stuck on signposts reveal a pulse of life as visible as it is hidden. Neon signatures disclose secret names.

Here you see patches of paint, covering graffiti with colors that never quite match.
There you see flower boxes, planted by women who cling stubbornly to hope. Kids hurl words at each other, squabbling like rats in an alley. In the walls, I see my own story, written on concrete skin. Conflict is written into the brick, revised continually as wars are waged. It is a gritty town that has seen its share of heartbreak and survival. It is a troubled and dangerous city, but that’s not all that it is. Behind the chaos lies a strength beneath the struggle, a dignity that belies the quiet elegance on which this city was built.

Some people criticize Baltimore because of what it is not. Expecting the sleek corporate gleam of its neighbors, there are those who never quite see Baltimore for what it is: a city built with real materials for authentic people. What those of us who live here know is that Baltimore’s beauty is in its details: the molding exquisitely carved, proud hardwood floors, delicately sculpted iron, and marbled exteriors. Baltimore won’t impress one with its skyscrapers, but it also never claimed to. It is a city made up of real life and planted firmly on the ground.

I find that I fit here. In my own skin, cracks formed by inner wars are beginning to show. At times the frantic pitch of my psyche has me convinced that violence and danger are all that that I am made of, blinding me to anything good. In myself, I have found forces as destructive as the fire that burnt Baltimore to the ground. Like the city, I find myself grieving in ashes and smoke, wondering if healing is possible.

...But that’s not all there is. Amid scars and bruises, the disparate scraps of my life have begun to blend together to form a strange beauty. Among broken glass and bus tickets I am finding unexpected strength, and the determination to rebuild my life and repossess my dreams.

  • Commission: Guest Parking

    4 Panels, Mixed Media on Paper, Mounted on Metal Signs Dimensions: unknown Credits for this installation go to the curators of Area 405. If I were to summarize all of my hopes to revitalize the city, it might look something like this. By commission, these four panels were given to me with the instruction to “make something out of them." Four signs from the parking lot of a bedraggled neighborhood church, had been placed badly, making “welcome” look like “we don’t care.” These were given to me with the ultimate message a plea, “redeem it.” Baltimore.
  • Commission: Guest Parking

    4 Panels, Mixed Media on Paper, Mounted on Metal Signs Dimensions: unknown If I were to summarize all of my hopes to revitalize the city, it might look something like this. By commission, these four panels were given to me with the instruction to “make something out of them." Four signs from the parking lot of a bedraggled neighborhood church, had been placed badly, making “welcome” look like “we don’t care.” These were given to me with the ultimate message a plea, “redeem it.” Baltimore.
  • Commission: Breaking Free

    Sculpture - Shattered Glass, Tree Branch, Chain, Found Wood, Butterfly Template, Wire This was a commissioned piece for an organization that supports addiction awareness in all of its attributes: treatment, personal and familial devastation, the tenuous line each addict walks between life and death, family support, physical support, and other related issues. Every commissioned artist was given a butterfly template. Due to the nature of the subject, I decided to show the potential of freedom, as well as the difficulty and cost of that freedom.
  • No Wonder I Can't Fly (2)

    16x24” Mixed Media on (found) Wood Two years into treatment, I realized that the things holding me down were real. I cannot tell you how much relief that brought me. I had always blamed myself for not being able to fly. This first took the form of emotional connection--why wouldn't people connect with me? Over and over, I didn’t understand: why wasn't I good enough to be friends with? Why wasn’t I good enough to keep around? Why wasn’t worthy to stay? Was it some sort of moral failure? If so, what was my flaw?
  • Rose Skateboard: Ballet

    Handpainted roses on a skate-deck, covered with a satin finish. I love to paint on wood and engaging urban life, one element of which is play. Though many have pointed out the unlikelihood of this board being ridden, I'm content to experiment with new ways to integrate beauty into city life, without need for a practical application. I have designed the board in a way that enables the owner to decide whether to add trucks and wheels or keep the board strictly for display. This skate-deck has a sister board named "Rose Skateboard: Hip Hop."
  • Emerging

    16x24” Mixed Media on (found) Wood The title of this piece has a layered significance. While I began emerging as an artist, I was also emerging, in many ways, as a human being. In this piece, the facial expression is tentative, seeing the prospect of hope but not trusting it. There is far too much grief, loss, fear, and pain—even rage--to be worked through first. Each brick (overlaid in purple) is made from visitor's badges I received during therapy sessions, one at a time. Much to the frustration of outsiders, healing does not come all at once.
  • Sabbatical Project (Detail)

    Shellac, Paper, and Thread on Canvas. This detail from the Sabbatical Project denotes a baptism, the figures partially sewn. The waves were made from hymns and literature, to indicate that one is baptized into a history, a community both present and past.
  • The Sabbatical Project

    Approx 70x50", Thread and ink on various papers, Including handwritten letters and heavy-bodied tracing paper, mounted on unprimed canvas. [Due to the personal nature of of what people have written, the owner of this piece asked that their privacy be respected. I chose this photo specifically because most of the work can be seen, while the reflected light and camera angle keep the written content respectfully and intentionally obscured.] I made this piece as a gift to my pastor while he was on sabbatical.
  • Skin and Bone

    16x24” Mixed Media and Fluid Acrylic on (found) Wood What lies between these two essential parts is hunger--hunger displayed by a skeleton and an uninhabited house. We imagine the walls echoing; we can hear the bones clatter and we understand emptiness. It is within us. It is inescapable. Unless one were to enter into that echoey space, it would appear to be but one more rowhouse, as easily occupied as not. The soul-deep, unfathomably hungry get few visitors. "What's wrong with us?" we think, "what is it about us that keeps us from being filled?
  • No Parking

    16x24” Mixed Media on (found) Wood An art forum posted a competition to create a self-portrait in the style of another artist. Having found a recent interest in street art, I decided to base my portrait on the newer work of Shepard Fairey, who uses block prints as a motif, more recently integrating them with elaborate patterns. The opportunity to play with a wall, to bring the elements of street art into my studio was what opened the door for "I and the City," a title dreamt up by Marc Chagall that I fell in love with.

The New Day Campaign, 2015

In 2015, I was proud to be involved in The New Day Campaign, an initiative to address topics of mental health and addiction, using art in public forums as the springboard for conversation. This was a large-scale, city-wide series of exhibitions and events, and I committed my year to it. Among the 16 exhibitions, I participated in 4, and was present for many of the 60 public programs that happened between October and December of 2015. Highlights included a two-person show with Jeffery Kent, and a gallery talk, "Finding My Voice."

  • cryingbanner.jpg

    This was part of the exhibition, "Michelle Labonte: Finding My Voice." It represents the gap of time in which, having finally dared to expose my inner self, I stopped painting and drawing altogether due to a single criticism. The drawing on the left marks my last attempt to reveal this self for approximately ten years. The panel to the right is a collection of unshown drawings in that ten-year period, which I kept strictly to myself.
  • GalleryCAWall copy 2.jpg

    Gallery wall in City Arts, displaying prints of pictures from Razorbook.
  • IMG_8382.jpg

    Another wall from the show at Gallery CA; this shows four paintings in my "I and the City" series, as well as the original Razorbook under a protective case.
  • RazorbookOriginalBehindGlassGalleryCA.jpeg

    The original Razorbook, on display at Gallery CA, for the 2015 New Day Campaign.
  • IMG_8375.jpg

    Work included in the two-person show with Jeffery Kent at Gallery CA.
  • Emily, Edge

    These pages from Emily's book come from the last photographs taken of her--at a family event, where she was caught between the two warring sides of herself. On the one hand, she was deeply troubled and concerned; on the other, she was engaged with family, smiling, with yellow flower barrettes in her hair.
  • Emily

    As part of the exhibition, "People and Places, a Primer," I was commissioned to create work about people who had suffered various aspects of mental illness or addiction. This piece, Emily's Story, was the result of a series of interviews with the father of a girl who had committed suicide. Because of my own history, this particular commission was very close to the heart. I chose the book form in part to reveal a story that obviously ended prematurely in a drastic, violently unexpected way.
  • Emily's Room, Black and White

    Little describes a teenage girl as well as the inside of bedroom. I was able to see photo's of Emily's bedroom when she was alive. This image is a compilation of drawings, clippings, stickers, and other items found on her bedroom walls. I did two of these images; one in black and white; the other in color.
  • Emily's Room, Color

    Little describes a teenage girl as well as the inside of bedroom. I was able to see photo's of Emily's bedroom when she was alive. This image is a compilation of drawings, clippings, stickers, and other items found on her bedroom walls. I did two of these images; one in black and white; the other in color.
  • Disappearing Girl

    This middle section of the book represents the time in which Emily, the person, lost sight of her whole self, and was consumed by the depression that would finally take her life.

"Come As You Are: The Spectrum of Vulnerability," installation at Creative Alliance

The exhibition, "Come As You Are: The Spectrum of Vulnerability," was about the things people shy away from. I was invited to be part of this exhibition because of my involvement in The New Day Campaign (2015) and continued work about the experience suffering with lifelong, severe, chronic mental illness.

As the basis for my psychological work began in book form (see: Razorbook), the concept I had for my work in this exhibition was to create a space that could simulate the viewer's emersion into one of my books.

I asked for a corner. I did not anticipate being given 200 square feet. The scale of my work tends to be small, and I had never done installation work before. It was an honor that was also somewhat daunting.

This coincided incidentally with a shifting focus from Depression and Suicide (which had been the central focus of my New Day work) to Asperger's, which tends to be all-encompassing, and underlies much of the Depression and Anxiety, particularly Social Anxiety. The world of an Aspie is intense. (Many say, "too" intense.) There is an extreme sensitivity to the senses and emotions, which can feel overwhelming, combined with a hyper intensity of interests and lack of social finesse, which make for a very isolated experience. Many assume that Aspies (and others on the Autism Spectrum) simply do not feel or do not care about others, a myth that intensifies the isolation even more.

In the neurotypical ("normal") world, there are those who suffer from test anxiety. What is more complex than a test in which one must be aware of the social cues, emotions, behaviors, direct and inferred communication, body language, group dynamics, and the environment that surrounds one in every direction at all times in real time and know how to correctly respond? Some people get overwhelmed by physics. Interpersonal dynamics are just as complex; they just tend to be "picked up" by most people during the natural course of their human development.

For this reason, the scale of this installation made sense. The sheer amount of information (whether scholastic or emotional) in an Aspie mind (in this case, my mind) is intense--and intensely beautiful. But the pain that comes with social disconnect is also very intense, and this pain often fuels depression, severe social anxiety, and suicide. People often want the outcome of our work (gasp!! That talent!! That mind!! That genius work!! A-MA-zing!!) without the company of our persons (could you just tone it down a bit... maybe try... not being you. It's a bit too much for me. Actually, I'll just go. It's fine; I'm leaving.) This leaves many bewildered in terms of what just went wrong, what they may have done wrong, why one more person left. The price of a marvelous brain is profound loneliness when the cost of fitting in is an erasure of the self.

My eventual solution was to take a compilation of work, finished and unfinished, and create a wall-sized collage. In simulating the "too muchness" that is the constant of my inner world, the amount of space available to me was an asset. It allowed me to immerse the viewer in my psychological space, rather than simply depict it.

"Come As You Are" details

The Deep

  • Note to Self The Deep Aji Font.pdf

    The entirety of this next piece of work has to do with a piece of writing I did for therapy, though the seed of that idea came many years prior. As a teen, in conversation with my mother, she said, offhand, "I know; the Marianas Trench is not as deep."
    "What's the Mariana Trench?"
    "The deepest trench in the ocean."
    Woah.
    She was talking about my thoughts. (I was a very serious child.)

    As I learned about the Mariana Trench (also referred to as "the Deep"), I thought how apt a metaphor that was for a person with depression... and then, later, with Aspergers. Some of the most amazing creatures are found there; there are magical glowing fish! At the same time, it is a frightening, isolating place to be.

    I've often thought, "would I trade?" As I looked around at people who made friends easily (or at all), understood social norms, and didn't think of death all the time, I thought, "would I trade it? Would I trade my own, particular brain--something I find to be a marvelous gift--for the easier lives I saw around me?

    No.
    In the end, my answer was always no.
    At the same time, my life was unbearably lonely.

    This writing, assigned as a "letter to self," explores the beauty and tyranny of such a life. Several years later, this concept found visual form in an 8' drawing, as part of a bigger installation for the "Come As You Are; the Spectrum of Vulnerability,"exhibition at Creative Alliance.

    PDF icon Note to Self The Deep Aji Font.pdf
  • TheDeepdraft.jpg

    At first I had intended to incorporate the writing with the image itself. Here is an early draft in my studio.
  • IMG_4379.jpg

    The fish begin to take shape. (Marker and Colored Pencil on Paper)
  • IMG_7668.jpg

    come, join the family...
  • IMG_5565.jpg

    More fish emerge. (Marker, Colored Pencil, and Ink on Paper)
  • IMG_5484.jpg

    At one point it made sense to pair this drawing with one I had made years before. The first draft of that drawing was made in charcoal; I remade the drawing in marker for the of continuity and strength.
  • CryingGirlTwins.jpg

    The original image (Charcoal and Ink on Paper) on right. It's sister drawing (Marker on Paper) on the left.
  • IMG_7675 copy.jpg

    The work's first public appearance was as part of a larger installation. The finished piece was 8' tall, and was overlapped by other paintings. Here it is, complete.
  • IMG_5951.jpg

    "The Deep" as part of "Come As You Are" installation at Creative Alliance. This image was integrated into the far right of the installation.

The Baltimore Boys Project

The Baltimore Boys Project began as my response to the concern that the boys in this city have not been heard. The boys of this city are charged with content: they are intelligent, thoughtful, caring, emotional, intense, and individual but have very few venues in which to convey that. Unlike girls, who have several socially-acceptable outlets for their thoughts and emotions, one would be hard-pressed to find a safe place in this city where a boy might keep a diary.

Because so many avenues of communication are closed to them, there builds up a frustration, which often expresses itself in the way their peers find socially acceptable: anger, and with it, violence.

I began to ask some of the young men I knew if they would be willing to sit for a portrait. This quickly turned into a portrait and interview. Interview questions allow me into their thoughts, hopes, fears, and dreams. It also serves a practical purpose: for the duration of a portrait sitting, both the artist and the sitter need breaks.

The purpose of this project is to make sure each boy I work with is seen and heard. Drawing a portrait takes time; it requires the sitter to be studied. Although I work with a photographer, the primary medium for this project is deliberately not film. The time and attention a drawing requires is part of the purpose and power of the project: to give Baltimore's boys the opportunity to share their lives. It takes time to do them justice. Photographs have become quick and easy to come by, and they too often recall the stereotypes we are trying so hard to break. The role of photography in this project is reference, photos taken for the purpose of creating paintings later.

As a finished product, I make paintings, the goal of which is to show who these boys are, inside and out, to show the person behind each face. A labor of love, this project has been done piecemeal over time between other obligations. My eventual goal is to have 50 portraits in an exhibition that displays the beauty and diversity of the boys in this city.

To create peace, we need to join two demographics that might not otherwise meet. We need to build a bridge between what we think we know about the youth in our city and who they actually are. The gallery is an ideal setting for this. The exhibition is intended for those who would typically attend exhibitions with the means to do so, and the gentlemen being represented.

Stories are beautiful, but we distance ourselves from stories we don't understand by letting them remain on paper, allowing the storyteller to be the only (or primary) person who touches both worlds. What happens when the story is not safely distanced by canvas or paper but present, in flesh and blood? This city has remained in a state of crisis for too long. It's time to break the boundaries, allowing both worlds to meet.

For those who want to participate:
The criteria for eligibility is to be a male resident of Baltimore City, roughly between the ages of 10 and 24. That's it.

  • Darrel (Triple Portrait)

    12x24" Mixed Media on Wood Darrel is a young man with a big heart who deeply values people. At the time of this portrait, he was on the precipice of making some defining life decisions. School was not kind to Darrel. As a teacher myself, I am outraged at some of the stories he relayed about his school experience. Articulate and observant, it is very telling that he struggles even now to read and write.
  • Drawing Session: Shawn

    Photo credit: Katrina Zimmerman This is a still photograph from one of the drawing sessions, specifically, Shawn's drawing session. This is a critical, lengthy process, in which the subject has my full attention, visually and auditorily.
  • Drawing Session: Jeremiah

    Photo credits: Katrina Zimmerman This is a still photograph from one of the drawing sessions, specifically, Jeremiah's drawing session. This is a critical, lengthy process, in which the subject has my full attention, visually and auditorily.
  • Jeremiah

    Left: 9x12" Marker on Wooden Panel (Underpainting) Right: Pencil on Paper (Original Drawn Portrait.)
  • Joshua

    Left: 9x12" Marker on Wooden Panel Right: Pencil on Paper (Original Drawn Portrait.)
  • Hinged (Twins)

    I am a strong believer in personal individuality, so when I drew each of these brothers, I asked if they would mind my hinging their portraits together. Both agreed readily. Joshua and Jeremiah are twins. They had a lot of crossover in their stories and yet did not have identical stories any more than they have identical personalities. I wanted to leave room for each of them to be revealed as separate persons as well as to show the connection between them.
  • Darius

    Here I've included several things: one is the initial drawing of Darius. In the folder underneath is my written interview of him and some drawings he decided to give me in addition. The portrait on the right (8x10" on wood) is a fairly complete mapping out of the painting. All of the visual information on the underpainting came from the portrait-sitting and conversation. A typical sitting takes about 4 hours. I want to be thorough and make sure I understand who I'm talking to as well as I can without my own invention or interference getting in the way.
  • Darius

    Left: Pencil on Paper (Original Portrait) Right: Derwent Inketnse Pencils, Fluid Acrylic, Ink, Marker, Pen, and other Mixed Media on Wood. The previous photo shows the painting in its planning stages. With the use of photo references, this is how that translates into color. I consider the piece on the right finished.
  • Darrel and Darius

    Various sizes Derwent Inketnse Pencils, Fluid Acrylic, Ink, Marker, Pen, and other Mixed Media on Wood. Detail from Darrel's portrait alongside of Darius'. The two boys are brothers.
  • Chris

    9x12" Derwent Inketnse Pencils, Fluid Acrylic, Ink, Marker, Pen, and other Mixed Media on Wood. I have had the pleasure of knowing Chris since he was ten-years-old. At the time, I was his sixth grade art teacher, and would be his seventh and eighth grade teacher as well. Chris was born to think. He thinks deeply, he thinks carefully, he thinks quietly, and he thinks all of the time. In elementary school, he would get physically harassed by other kids for bringing his books home to do homework.

What's in the studio?

"What's your medium," is a question I hear a lot, yet find myself unable to come up with an adequate (or accurate) answer. To say, "everything" is somewhat accurate, somewhat vague, and almost always hard for the asker to make sense of. The term "mixed media" (meaning, "more than one medium used in a single work of art") often conjures up badly made collage. The truth is that I use a little bit of everything: I write, I paint, I sew. One might find delicate hand-embroidery amid bus tickets, sticks, and little treasures--a penny, wire netting, rusted washers and safety glass--items I collect while walking through Charm City. I love paper. And fabric. And wood.

The best answer is that I use whatever it is that the piece requires, and the kinds of projects I do are variable. The best way to answer tends to be show and tell, and so, I invite you into my studio. Here you will find a little bit of the kinds of everything I tend to do. Enjoy.

  • Angry Valentine Pincushion.jpg

    Some people love Valentine's Day; others need... something to stab. Though I myself have no grudge against the day, I do appreciate that there are some for whom this day is painful. With that in mind, I made a series of Angry Valentine Pincushions, to represent some widely felt (but less frequently expressed), feelings that Valentine's Day conjures up.
  • Gift 2 drafts.jpg

    A common myth is that art comes easily to artists (see: talent) and that we always get it right on the first try. Not so. These are two versions of the same painting. I did the one on the left first (acrylic on masonite) and decided I wanted something clearer and tighter. The painting on the right is a myriad of materials (including ball point pen) on paper, glued (and sewn) onto a black canvas background. I love seeing the juxtaposition of the two, the first was such a struggle, the second such a triumph.
  • Block Party Blocks!

    I love the city. I love its textures and colors. I had taken a number of pictures of local graffiti and experimented with painting in a similar abstract style. I saw a small stack of wooden blocks in my studio, decided to adhere the photos and paintings onto them, in a way reminiscent of childhood blocks. The experiment was playful; the result was just fun.
  • Street Art Switzerland.jpg

    Generally I don't show my photographs as such. However, the ones I do show are similar in kind to the type of fine art I like to make; a visual excavation. This image is part of a wall of street art in Zürich, Switzerland. It's reminiscent of the city: colorful, alive, beautiful, and layered with history.
  • BeautifulMind.jpg

    Currently I am working on a series of work about life with Aspergers. This is part of an in-progress drawing wherein I try to represent the complexity of the Aspie mind, while still indicating that we are whole people, as much in need of love as any other, and not simply the "machines" those on the spectrum are sometimes assumed to be.
  • Bird.jpg

    All of my representational work starts with a drawing. Often, the drawing is the hardest part of the entire process, no matter how complex the finished work. As an artist, I am apparently in the minority as one who can't visualize. It wasn't until college that I realized, shocked, that some people actually SAW things in their heads. It was like a visual vocabulary. I had no such vocabulary. I could remember sounds, words, and textures, but images? I didn't have a catalogue of those within my head.
  • skelesketch

    Graphite on paper. (In preparation for a stencil and eventual painting.) All of my representational work starts with a drawing. Often, the drawing is the hardest part of the entire process, no matter how complex the finished work. As an artist, I am apparently in the minority as one who can't visualize. It wasn't until college that I realized, shocked, that some people actually SAW things in their heads. It was like a visual vocabulary. I had no such vocabulary. I could remember sounds, words, and textures, but images? I didn't have a catalogue of those within my head.
  • ButterflyDrawingYellow.jpg

    I love drawing in color. As I was looking through my studio, a particular glass jar reminded me of a chrysalis. It fit exactly with a concept I had already been thinking through. Here is one of the butterfly drawings (Colored Pencil on Paper) I made in preparation for that series.
  • Saturated.jpg

    Hypersaturated... beautiful mess... happy accident. I don't know which best fits, if any. I was cutting a heart out of paper (to keep the negative space) and it fell into a hyper-saturated tray of ink. I thought it was beautiful and I left it to dry. I don't know the fate of this little heart, and that is ok. I don't know how others will read the image, and that is ok. Throughout my life, I've heard the word "too" a lot. "You're too serious, too sensitive, too much..." Hypersaturated.
  • My Little Gem

    I have never been fascinated with the human form as such. For me, what matters about a person is who they are. It's intangible. This drawing is of someone I know well and love deeply, an artist in her own right. I used the cover of a watercolor pad as the basis for this image because that is her natural habitat. I used commercial stencils to create a pattern because that is her heritage. Color, posture, texture speak to her personality... and the writing indicates a profound intelligence. To quote Billy Joel, this drawing"is all about soul,"as is she.

Michelle's Curated Collection

This artist has not yet created a curated collection.