You are slightly mysterious, alluring and hauntingly beautiful, Detroit. I am beginning to extensively understand how an environment has the ability to affect your psyche. The community-minded, benign gallery scene, innovative design opportunities, community-based projects and raw industrial spaces are drawing artists and creatives of all sorts into Detroit’s vortex. Each and every community member has morphed into an eye witness of a mecca of street art and innovational artistic quality being composed through sanctioned graffiti and edifying murals nurturing the urban landscape. Though potentially bias, I perceive the artistic talent level cultivating throughout Detroit to be notably staggering. Detroit-based painter, curator, artist and creator, Michelle Tanguay, has influenced the hearts and minds of a fanciful melange of local community members through creating murals throughout Downtown Detroit evoking profound feelings that welcome inquisitive rumination on expansiveness. I had the pleasure of joining Michelle in her Detroit studio to chitchat about her thoughts pertaining to her upcoming projects, Detroit’s abounding art scene, and everything in between.
Tell us about your background. What made you interested in art?
It was the only thing I was ever halfway decent at and the only thing I was interested in doing. Ever since I was a child, my mom joked that everyone thought something was wrong with me because all I wanted to do was draw. I moved to Detroit when I was 18 years old. I went to CCS for Art and ended up dropping out and just getting further involved in Detroit. I am originally a troubled teen from Upstate New York, dropped out of high school and ended up in Detroit. I was always a misfit and a loner. I didn’t feel like I fit in anywhere until I came to Detroit.
Who are your early influencers?
Robert Schefman, photo realistic oil painter, was my biggest influencer and professor at CCS (College for Creative Studies), who influenced my painting style. I just fell in love with his dedication; he took me under his wing and taught me a lot. He is the reason why I am a painter today.
In your opinion, why is the arts community so valuable to Detroit?
Nobody really cared about Detroit when I first moved here in 2006. There was something so romantic about this city, it was like a free for all. Anything that you were willing to work for was possible. It was a blank canvas. There were so many times when I was out of art supplies, or out of inspiration and the city supplied that to me. When I started curating art shows with Pop Up Detroit when I was twenty years old, we were throwing art shows in vacant buildings that didn’t have any renters, and we walked into one building and there were no walls. It was just studs and bricks. And I asked myself how we were going to hang artwork here.
My partner and I were super young kids at the time and ended up going into an abandoned factory and taking the doors off of the hinges and filling a truck with the doors. We hung the doors from the ceiling in the space and ended up hanging the artwork from the doors. It happens out of necessity. We didn’t have anything else. And that stuff happens daily in Detroit. I see artwork that people are making. I see things on the street and I instantly know what I have to do. As much as the atmosphere, the city and the architecture here are inspiring, the people are just as inspiring. And there’s this fight that people have here. There’s a reason why the Detroit Hustles Harder t-shirt is everywhere; it’s because we work our asses off here.
What is the most indispensable item in your studio?
The painting that I am working on right now. It’s always the current painting.
Where do you believe is the current street art capital of the world?
I would like to say Detroit. Because everyone is coming here, everyone is visiting. There are spots in Detroit that you can go over to and see artists such as Revoke and there’s all of these super famous graffiti artists from all over the place.
Tell me more about your experience with the 2015 Murals In The Market Project.
When I was asked to contribute to Murals In The Market, I was absolutely in shock because I never did a mural before. It’s the first mural I have ever done and I thought to myself, “I’m going to f*** this up so bad.” There was a corner available and weird parking lot within Eastern Market; I totally took it. I started doing the spray paint thing, and I didn’t work out too well for me.
One of my friends came by and said, “Michelle, you are a painter. You should paint. Painting is what you are good at. Get out a giant brush and paint this wall.” He was totally right. So, I had five days to complete it. The first two days were spent doing the spray paint thing. I went home, got some sleep and decided to start all over again. Everyone thought I was losing my mind but it ended up working out. I am so intrigued by people who can do that with a spray paint can. I can sit there and watch these artists work and I don’t even know how that happens.
A substantial portion of your work involves artistic depictions and larger than life canvases of women and candy/sweets. How did you come up with the concept and what is the message you are sending behind the correlation?
I have always seen myself as a feminist that was fighting for equal rights, even in terms of how the outside world views women as sexual objects. I really feel that women should own that. It is okay for women to be sexual beings. With the lollipop series, I had a bunch of my beautiful friends over at my studio when I was working at The Red Bull House of Art and I had no idea what I wanted to do. I had a ton of candy and I wanted to paint all of these beautiful babes. So, I asked each one of my friends to eat the candy. I ended up photographing them and it ended up working out. I love those paintings, but I feel like I have been hiding behind all of these bright, colorful paintings for so long. But, the thing that I appreciate is that they can be seen as sexual or they can be seen as just fun. There are kids who love those paintings. And it could be seen as being hot. But, whatever.
How do you perceive the arts inspire change and cultivates communion resilience in Detroit?
Everyone got really excited about Detroit. And I think that the art scene did that. It was almost ten years ago now when I was throwing art shows with Pop Up Detroit just to get people down here because everyone was scared of Detroit. It is totally different now, but no one from the suburbs wanted to come down to Detroit. They were scared. It wasn’t a very safe place ten years ago, and that’s changed a lot, but, there was something so exciting that was happening. It was so cheap, and no one else wanted to live here other than artists. There is a great energy that is here. All of these artists that didn’t have opportunities for people to buy their artwork because no one was here are beginning to sell their artwork and being able to make a living. And that’s the most important thing.
Do you have any particular galleries that you are contributing to?
Yes. Inner State Gallery has supported me a lot. I am doing a Detroit themed show with Inner State in San Francisco and there are taking a lot of us Detroit artists. It’s really exciting because we need galleries that are taking our artwork from Detroit and sending it to California or New York. Inner State is the reason why I can do this full time. Inner State is making a huge difference in the city for the artists and truly supporting the local artists.
Describe the general path you take to start on and complete a piece.
I get inspired by the people I am surrounded by or life experiences. I used to view art as a very selfish thing. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable is very difficult, but it is something that I am beginning to do more and more through my artwork. When approaching a project, I usually come up with a concept for a group of paintings, and try to see that through. Sometimes it doesn’t really work after the first two. But, I find that it’s easier for me to complete a whole body of work with a concept and then a vision for it. Applying the paint to the canvas is the easy part.
What project are you working on now?
Well, I have felt like I wasn’t being vulnerable. I was painting all of these bright, colorful lollipop paintings for so long. I felt like I was hiding behind them. And that’s what people began to expect from me. So, I decided that I was going to be a bit more honest and dark and do a painting that is just for me. I usually spend half of my time doing commission work for people and half of my time doing paintings for myself, and I decided that I was going to take three months off and do this giant painting that has a lot of symbolism, and is constantly evolving. I am approaching it totally different from anything that I have ever done before. It is based off of mourning and grief, and I had someone really close to me commit suicide over two years ago. And after that, I couldn’t paint. I was painting, but I wasn’t being honest. I realized that I needed to be strong and to get through it. I needed to have faith in myself. The strength that you need to go through the mourning process and to work through the grieving is a message that I think people need to hear. I didn’t think life could get any worse than those moments after he passed away. It was tough. This painting tells me that I need to keep going.
Do you have a body of work that you do not sell, that is very personal?
Art, for me, is not very personal anymore. I do have a lot of artwork and small quick studies that I don’t often share, and I often give those paintings away to family and friends. Other than that, I am pretty much an open book. Being in a creative field, especially these days with social media and the internet, people always want more information from you. It’s difficult to keep anything private. Especially with what I was going through with the suicide, I realized that I need to use my platform as a way to talk about this with people. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death. When I was given the opportunity to put the paintings on the building downtown, I did the black and white ones that are in between the lollipop paintings, and one of the portraits on the side of the building is of my friend who committed suicide. At the time that I was doing it, I thought to myself: I want to see his face on the side of a building. I want to be able to see that when I drive by. I wanted his friends and family to be able to see that and know that it is not a shameful thing. He was sick, and that is okay. One of the greatest feelings was getting photos of his sister standing below and his friends standing next to it.
What is your favorite medium to create with? Water colors, acrylics or oils?
I love oil painting. I have fallen in love with the actual paint, applying the paint, the different techniques and the history of oil painting. I love watching Youtube videos of other people painting and learning different ways to apply the paint. Even though I work in different mediums, I always come back to oil painting.
Is the business side of art taking precedence over the artistic value?
I have to start thinking about the business side of art more, but I am really bad at it. I feel like a lot of artists are. I am thankful for galleries that show my work and take care of that for me. I am happy as long as I am painting. No one ever gets into art thinking that they are going to make millions of dollars or for the money. You do it because you love it. You stick with it even when it gets difficult because you love it. If I was in it for the money, I would have given up years ago. I am not really involved in the business side of it. Friends that are super supportive bring people over that buy my paintings. I couldn’t do this anywhere else. Detroit is my home.
Last but certainly not least, do you have any thoughts that you would like to share to aspiring artists?
Just get out and see what’s going on. Meet people. Network. People in the city are so friendly and they are making amazing work. Sometimes, it is difficult to meet people because they are hiding out in their studio. But, if you put yourself out there, you’ll be amazed with what you can achieve.
For more information on Michelle Tanguay, visit her website