MICHELLE ST. VRAIN – AN INSPIRING INTERVIEW

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MichelleStVrainCoverAs children, it is not unusual to find fascination with animals. These creatures are a source to relate to, innocent beings living through the dichotomy of coexistence with man. To me, it makes sense to be drawn to the innocence and wonder of just… being. Children hold this magical quality to them, this ability to approach life with unbridled awe. Life has hopefully not begun to teach it’s hard lessons, to discern one’s path. In the end, we are all drinking the same water, breathing the same air. One should not be so quick to discern the hierarchy of existence.

I wish I had known Michelle St. Vrain as a child. I imagine her exploring through the dense trees of Kentucky, followed by a small body of animals; bunnies hopping at her feet, butterflies flitting above her hair in a blurry crown. This is a delightful image to hold in my mind, but I am quick to point out that Michelle is not some dainty maiden traipsing in the woods with Bambi. She is a strong-willed and mindful soul, and uses her personal beliefs as a point of exploration in her work. Michelle fosters a deep compassion for all living creatures, and continuously develops that connection. Using images of animals, or at least parts of them, she creates moments of interaction with these creatures in their various forms. Instead of focusing on the variance of our existence with the animal kingdom, she finds a refreshing unity in the disparity, and I find that to be just lovely. ~Amy

What is the path that has led you to where you are today?

I was raised in a very creative environment. My parents always encouraged me to draw, which was probably because it was a quick and easy thing to occupy me. Other than my parents, my art teachers saw something in me, and always encouraged my parents to put me in more classes. I didn’t always want to be an artist; I used to want to be a scientist, something related to animals. As I got older, science because less interesting to me. The arts became more interesting to me and I ended up going down that path.

So you went to school for art?

Yes, I went to Murray State University for undergrad, to get my BFA in printmaking and drawing. I didn’t really apply to any other schools. My high school art teacher told me that if you’re serious about art, then you go there. It is a really good program in Kentucky.  From there, I moved to Vermillion, SD, to get my Masters in printmaking. Part of the reason I came to USD was because they had a really great printmaking program, and I had also found out about this through the Frogman’s Print Workshop. When I came to that workshop as an undergrad, I really fell in love with the town, and the building and faculty.

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Can you tell me more about Frogman’s?

It’s a workshop that happens once every summer. It’s a two-week workshop. You have a group of classes one week, and then another group of classes the next week. It’s where different printmaking instructors from all over the country come to teach specialized printmaking processes. From student to faculty to just people interested in learning about printmaking–it’s a variety of people. It goes from a novice ability, to wanting to hone in on a specialized skill. Now it’s becoming where international people are coming to this workshop. It was started by the former printmaking professor, Lloyd Menard, who is now retired. Now his son is running it, Jeremy Menard.

Is it just specific to Vermillion?

Yes. USD is the one that hosts it every year. That’s a great thing about Frogmans, it’s a very unique kind of workshop. I think it’s unique in that it is as itself, but also it is in this area in South Dakota. It’s like Sturgis for printmaking. (laughing) All printmakers go to it, lots of artists outside of printmaking go to it, and it’s a really great time to learn crafts, network with people, and just find that community. As a student in undergrad I really loved how I was in a class and so many people I had only know from their artwork, people who I really admire and respect, and they would just come up and have a conversation with me. Be interested in what I had to say as a 19-20 year old person. That was really neat. They would look at my art and give me really great feedback. I just loved that art community, it’s so supportive. You have a great time too.

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In connecting with resources, and learning in a community setting, do you have any people who you have maintained as a mentor, or just someone who you can go to?

There’s my undergrad printmaking professor, Nicole Hand. She’s definitely a mentor of mine. I had her for my very first art class in college; I had her for Drawing I.  I could see this improvement from the very beginning of my three-hour class to the very end. I loved how she made the class fun, but also made me work really, really hard. I loved that class and wanted to continue working with her, and she ended up making me fall in love with printmaking. It engrained this work ethic, working hard for what you want. My printmaking professor in graduate school, Johntimothy, he was very similar to Nicole. He was very supportive, and helping me through these great conversations we would have, that would be natural and help give me direction. He wasn’t forcing me, but it came through that natural conversation and critique. Also a great support system that I have are the people I’ve met in graduate school. I started grad school with my friends Matt PresuttiNicole Geary, and Jay Wallace. We started and ended together, and it was nice to have this group of people. This support network. It’s a scary time and everyone is coming from a completely different areas of the country to Vermillion, SD. It’s scary and confusing, so it’s nice to be able to talk through things with each other.

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Have you been printing in Sioux Falls since you’ve moved here?

Not very much. I’ve been doing more drawing and book making. I do work on plates, and then I’ll bring them down to USD to print them.

You went to graduate school at USD. What are you doing now?

I spent a year outside of school trying to figure out what to do. I was doing adjunct teaching at various community colleges, and now I am back at USD as the Interim Gallery Director. That position started in the middle of June.

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Would you like to talk about what kind of work you were making in undergrad, and how has it developed since?

Even before undergrad, I’ve always loved to draw animals. Ever since I was a child I loved animals and that’s never something that will probably ever leave my work, at least not in the near future. In undergrad, whenever my professors were talking about focusing on a series, or to start finding new conceptual ideas, I started doing animal rights work. I was really influenced by the printmaker Sue Coe; trying to make aggressive, vocal drawings and prints and sculptures. If you know me as a person, I’m not very vocal about my actual opinion, and why I’m vegetarian. I didn’t really quite feel comfortable with telling people why they shouldn’t be eating.

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My work started morphing into animals being more of a metaphor. My BFA graduating work was all about that common transitional phase from adolescence to adulthood. I would find these dead animals, usually on walks with my dog. In any type of rural town you’re going to see roadkill, and there’s always birds everywhere. If you follow that same path you’ll see them over and over and over and you’ll see that decay. I use the decay process as maybe being something seen with the unknown, and relaying that to my future as an adult. My safety net with parents. I used not only a lot of dead animals, but also fake feather and fur. Other little pieces that would come off of animals.

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Coming from undergrad to graduate school, my professor was like “Okay, great show. What can you do now?” It was kind of a traumatic time. I just didn’t really know. I explored mark making, and eventually I was frustrated with my prints. I explored using natural objects, not just animal pieces, but also as installation works and as parts of books. For my thesis show I kind of came full circle. It’s  a self narrative of me coping with death, and my fear of that. It’s also touching on my sensitivity to these dead animal objects that I have. I really revere and cherish these animals, as opposed to other people thinking they’re gross and looking away. Paying reverence to them. For my thesis show I had a lot of parts of animals and drawings of animals. It was therapeutic play, like a child using a doll to explain an abstract concept. Help them deal with something they can’t quite understand.

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My hands are in all of my work, and they’re kind of handling these animals. They’re a linear drawing. The animals I try to draw to the best of my ability and make them look like a trompe-l’oeil. It’s kind of like I’m reversing the role of the animal. I’m drawing them to make them look alive. With an illustration of something, you can choose what parts you have, and depending on how you pose it the viewer may get this idea of life. So I’m switching these roles where I’m the transparent, ghostly like person.

Are there certain animals you feel more connected to, or certain parts of animals? 

I use a lot of animal fur, partially because I have a fluffy cat and a dog that sheds a lot. The fur is on my artwork already, so if I can make an excuse to include it, it just saves me time with brushing it off. (Laughing) As far as imagery wise goes, almost all of the pieces of animals that I have come from people, which I think is really special. People are thinking, at the very least, oh Michelle likes this, as opposed to maybe throwing away these extra parts or looking them over. They’re stopping and thinking and giving it a new place in its process. Moving to South Dakota, there are lots of pheasant hunters. A lot of my professors were pheasant hunters, so every day I would get a new bag in my studio of some type of animal part.

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How do you preserve the pieces?

I give them all a little home. I put them in salt and let them dry out, and then they go in my freezer. I don’t use my freezer for anything else. My husband is okay with it; that’s why I married him. After I’m finished drawing it, I will go and bury the animal. They have a lifespan with me. Once I feel that their time has come, then I will pay respect to it and put it somewhere where I think it may like. It’s not just in my backyard. I’ll go find a nice area that I feel it will be okay with being buried in.

I have a lot of birds. Either what someone’s cat brought home, or pheasant parts. I also have lots of bones from fish. People will bring me the weirdest things in school. Someone brought me a snake; I have a lot of nests too. I’ll photograph the things I can’t take home. And then I have bags of fur from my cat and dog, since I brush them a lot.

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What is your preferred type of process for printmaking?

I really like the intaglio process, so right now I’m doing mezzotint. My work kind of pulls out a lot of different type of intaglio processes. It involves lots of mezzotint areas and linear etches. Then also dry point. For the color, for my thesis show, I did a lot of mono printing, where I would either use old plates of mine, or roll up a piece of plexiglass and make stencils with it and create layers, which I’ll then put on top of my actual plates that I’ve been working on.

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About how much time does it take per piece, or does that vary?

The most recent print I did was a giant nest, and just doing that piece alone… I don’t even know. It took me many, many days of watching Hulu all day long and scraping. For printing, it was part of a portfolio. With my then fiance, it took us about 16 total hours of printing that edition. It was a four plate process. It would take us about half an hour each piece.

Do you save all of your plates?

I do. For my BFA, all my plates were extremely big, so now I’m starting to cut them down and turn them into smaller plates.

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What are your plans for your work now that you’ve graduated? Are you looking to show?

I’ve been in some shows. I never have the time to look, and also the energy, because I think that can be kind of discouraging if you’re without a job or whatever situation you’re in. It can cost a lot of money applying to shows, and then when you don’t get into them, not necessarily because you’re bad or anything, but maybe you’re just not appropriate for what their curating vision is. Sometimes you see it as a waste if you spend $20-$50 applying for a show. It kind of breaks my heart and my bank account a little bit, so I don’t do it as often as I should. Just have to find that right moment where I’m ready to just chance it.

Where have you recently shown?

Frogmans was my most recent show. I was a part of the portfolio exchange. Also, I was in the assistants and coordinator’s show. I had a solo show at The Design Center in March. Rug and Relic was my first show back in Sioux Falls with my pieces.

What are some shows you’ve really enjoyed attending this year?

Fresh Produce always has really, really great shows. I think when they curate the shows they all have a similar theme, and I think they all are very beautiful pieces. I really like those shows because some of them really challenge me as a viewer, and those are my favorite type of shows to go to. Where I’m spending a longer time because I don’t quite get it at the time. Whether it’s the actual piece, or if it pertains to the theme that the show is addressing.

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Being the Interim Director at USD, how do you approach the business side of art? Is it different for you now? 

Before, whenever I would get rejected from a show, I would think I wasn’t good enough. Now, in the process of curating something, and having maybe a vision and preparing for the future of shows, I’m not thinking oh, that’s a terrible piece of artwork, I think this is nice but it’s not necessarily appropriate for this theme. I know that a lot of curators do that, especially for group shows too. They may have a certain type of narrative that they’re trying to convey, so being rejected doesn’t mean you’re not good enough. It means this isn’t appropriate for this. Telling that to a person that is rejected is always hard to do. I’ve been on the receiving end. When someone tells you it’s still good, you’re just like yeah yeah yeah whatever. So that’s been helpful to be on the other side. Being able to reflect on my own self. It’s not always a good or bad thing, sometimes it’s just a matter of something being more theme appropriate.

Having taught during graduate school, and also after you’ve graduated, what advice do you have for art students to get the most out of their education? Different things to approach?

Yeah. This is not necessarily going towards just art students, but I’ve seen so many students that haven’t really been active with their education. You’re paying a lot of money to go to college. There are so many students that choose to either come late, or skip, or just do as little as possible and ride it out. That always really saddens me. There’s always so much more. It’s your education. There’s all these students who work their butts off to be the best that they possibly can, and then there’s the students who just do as little as possible. That just really saddens me. Someone is spending a lot of money to get them an education, and they’re not taking advantage of that.

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In art school, you have this wonderful time where people are telling you to devote all of your time and energy to make work, and make as much as possible, and really learn from making it. Being outside of school, I really miss that. I miss the constant dialogue with faculty and all the students. I really miss that time that I can wake up, go work in the printing room, go draw, go make books. That was my job. It’s hard juggling art making and real life. Especially when you’re in a real life situation and you have families to take care of. Grad school was a magical time because I could live on coffee and fast food. Now I just really miss all that time and attention that was put on to me from faculty members and visiting artists. All these opportunities that I had in grad school, everything came so easy, now I’m having to struggle to make these opportunities for myself.

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Do you make a schedule to create?

My work days are long and stressful, and I can’t really do too much. I come home, make dinner, walk the dog and then by that time I’m pretty beat, so I take a shower and go to bed. Usually my Saturdays are my recovery days where I just turn my phone off and stream something and try to do some drawing or work on a plate. Not having time to work makes me want to work more. Whenever I had time, I was always really good at finding things to distract me.

You’re usually watching something when you’re creating?

Yes. I like to by distracted, somewhat. I can listen to music, but it has to be the type of music where maybe the songs kind of merge together. If it’s a normal song, then I start counting out the time. With a television show, I can think, oh that was a half hour. I did this. I watch either a DVD of a season and watch it all, or I can also watch the BBC Documentaries, like Plant Earth, and Human Planet. I think those are really soothing.  I love learning about animals. If I wasn’t an artist I would be doing something with animals.

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You’re not originally from Sioux Falls. What is your impression since you’ve moved here?

I really love Sioux Falls. I’m from Louisville, Kentucky. I saw that city grow and grow; going back I hardly recognize it. South Dakota is a very beautiful state, and coming as an outsider there’s so many wonderful things that are already here, and a lot of wonderful things that are beginning to happen here. I think it’s really refreshing with the community of people who want this city to be a neat place, in all aspects. Not just art, but food wise, bike trails, the whole downtown system… I’m really excited to be a part of that at some point. I don’t see myself in a big city like Minneapolis or Denver. I like to be an active person in creating a better place for people.

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Are there any artists in Sioux Falls that you think we should keep our eyes out for?

I think there’s a lot of artists here. I still feel like a newbie to Sioux Falls; I’ve only been here for a year. The majority of the people who I know are through Vermillion, so I think a lot of the students that are based in the area, that I know from USD, are extremely talented. Off the top of my head? Jeff Ballard. Another person who teaches at Augustana, Chad Nelson. I really admire his work. As a printmaker, his technical skills just floor me. I really love his imagery too. I met him at Frogmans. He is a very lovely person. Very outspoken with the art scene, which I really admire too. He’s not afraid to voice his opinion in a professional way, which I think takes a long time with the workplace environment.

You can find Michelle’s work on her website here.

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