How did you first get involved in art?
Art has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. My mother, Sunny Syrett, is an artist. When I was a child, she introduced me to many forms of art: drawing, painting, sculpture - but drawing was my favorite. I also loved animals of all kinds and spent hours drawing them, especially horses. Art was my favorite subject in school and I went on to get my degree in art after high school.
What is your academic history?
I received a BFA in Graphic Design from Missouri State University, then called Southwest Missouri State. My emphasis was in watercolor. I worked as a graphic designer in St. Louis in many capacities, including communications, television, and advertising. I started doing murals and interior decorative painting on the side and eventually started taking classes at Saint Louis Community College - Wildwood in painting with professor Mark Weber. It was there I found a group of St. Louis artists that are constantly striving to refine their skills and grow as artists. We have been painting together for 6 years now.
From where do you draw inspiration?
I volunteer and work with Stray Rescue of St. Louis. These dogs - and now cats - are my constant source of inspiration. I was particularly thrilled to receive this award for Soapbox because it truly is a cause I am passionate about. I am inspired every day by their stories and, though sometimes it is hard to imagine, there is joy there as well.
Did your volunteer work steer the direction of your artwork or vice versa?
I began painting at STLCC Wildwood at about the same time as volunteering at Stray Rescue. One of my first very successful paintings, in my eyes, was for the Urban Wanderers Exhibit that Stray Rescue holds every year. Local artists paint an assigned shelter dog; the paintings are then donated, exhibited, and auctioned off as a fundraiser. I knew immediately these dogs would be my muse, inspiration, and favorite subject.
Are there are artists that inspire you?
I am inspired by many artists, especially in the journey to find who I am as a painter. Henri Matisse, Lucian Freud, Jean-Francois Millet - to name a few from the past. Current artists that inspire me daily include Ryan Hewett, Victor Wang, many Plein Air artists including Shelby Keefe, and locally I have taken workshops and follow Lon Bauer, Billyo O'Donnell, Shawn Cornell, Allen Kriegshauser, and Patrick Saunders.
What is your connection with the Foundry Art Centre? How did you discover it?
I discovered the Foundry Art Centre when I started exhibiting my work. A friend had a painting in a show at the Centre; I loved the space, entered the next show that I felt worked for me, and I got in! I have been so impressed with the jurors' talks and have gained valuable information from their critiques.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on a combination of pieces for upcoming shows, commissions (I do a lot of pet portraits), and a painting from an Edward Curtis photograph that will remain a "grisaille-like" sepia tone.
I also have a painting that the entire STLCC Wildwood Art Club is working on, each of us using a 24"x36" canvas, the same image, interpreting it our own way, and then exhibiting them at the college in December. I also have started Plein Air painting and won my first award at the Wildwood Plein Air Event this summer.
What do you enjoy doing when you are not painting?
I enjoy the outdoors, volunteering, walking dogs and fostering for Stray Rescue. My husband and I are foodies and have recently renovated our kitchen and outdoor space to make cooking and eating one of our favorite activities. We love SEC football (Roll Tide!), St. Louis Cardinals Baseball, and Blues Hockey.
Finally, how do you connect with people through your art? Why do you create art?
My art has an immediate connection with people just through my subjects. I try to make them much more than portraits of dogs by actually telling their story. The pain, joy, hurt and relief is always evident in their eyes and I love to mix up my technique - sometimes using bright under-washes of color, sometimes leaving them just grisailles, thick paint, thin paint - whatever draws you in and makes you look closer at the story behind the image. I think I create art because I need to. I love painting. Many of my pieces will probably never find a home, but if the story is seen by an audience that comes away with a new attitude about a pit bull or the desire to volunteer at a shelter, that gives my passion and my creativity a voice. How lucky I am to be able to do what I love and make it a new journey in my life.
Thank you for the recognition.
You can view two of Michelle's paintings in Soapbox, including her award-winning piece Bus Stop/Unchained, through November 11 in Gallery II. See more of her work on her website; there you can also commission her to paint your pet's portrait.
Article by Jillian Schoettle.