Michelle Mansour is an artist, educator, curator, and the current Executive Director of Root Division, a visual arts non-profit in San Francisco. Mansour received her MFA in Painting at the San Francisco Art Institute (2003). Her work can be found in the upcoming Whitney Modern Exhbit, 31 Women.
What was your childhood like?
I grew up in the suburbs of Cincinnati, Ohio. It was a pretty Midwestern place, relatively homogenous. My dad immigrated from Egypt in the late ’50s and met my mom, who grew up in Cincinnati. He’s an OB-GYN with a PhD in anatomy and met my mom, a nurse, while he was doing his residency and she was doing the nursing school at the same hospital. Even though I was of mixed ethnicity, I grew up in a pretty homogenous environment.
The house that we lived in, starting from when I was about four until after high school, was at the bottom of the cul-de-sac and dropped down into a big ravine in a creek bed. If you went up the other side of the ravine, there was the next community over. It had a lot of privacy, but also this whole world to explore, which I spent a lot of time doing as a kid.
We would do everything from going out and building forts out in the woods to catching bugs and water striders in the creek and getting ourselves in varying levels of trouble. I think the thing that it inspired was a sense of curiosity, especially about the natural world and how things grow and multiply and divide, and how patterns exist, but in what can seem like a random order or chaos.
I went to a Catholic school. It was very much about a structure, a set of stories meant to instill a set of values, but it was like living two different lives in a way.
When did making art first become important to you?
Every birthday or Christmas I asked for the kit, the monster kit of Crayola, or the caddy that came with paints and crayons and color pencils and all the things. It wasn’t like I was only into art, but it’s definitely what I tended towards and I always was into color and liked experimenting with different media.
I remember doing layers of colored sands in jars. Some of them were much more elaborate, as if they made pictures. As opposed to purchasing already colored sands, the undertaking was an entire container of salt and chalk, colored chalk. I basically colored my own “sand.” There were a lot of things like that, where the methodology or process became engaging beyond the thing that I was making. That’s my reflection now. When I was doing it, I was all about “ making as many cool colors as I can to make this thing look cool.” When I think back on it now, I think about creative flow and just the psychology of meditation around that sort of brain activity. I think it was the thing that really hooked me.
Was your family supportive?
I think my parents knew I was creative and knew I was good at art, but it was just part of everything else.
When did you decide that you were an artist?
I went to a public high school, but it’s one of the best public high schools in the state of Ohio, and I had had a really incredible set of art teachers. It was the first time that I had taken art seriously and was also encouraged seriously.
My art teacher, Jack Walther was such an incredible soul, not just as a teacher but as a person. He was just very open-minded, very inclusive. The way he ran his classes was very much about learning the skills of the medium, but also thinking about what it is you’re trying to express. I ended up taking several classes with him and a bunch of classes with the other art teacher, and just exploring a lot of media. I took a batik and a fiber-weaving textiles class, I took ceramics, I took a design class which was fascinating. This is before we were doing design on computers, we were cutting pieces of colored paper and coloring them.
I decided to take AP Art. The whole idea is you’re building this portfolio towards a theme, and mine was around the anatomy and physiology of the body, which of course was probably influenced by the tons of books that we had at home on various things.
There was such an ability to explore materials and form. I started looking at the ways that other artists had approached the figure that weren’t about the anatomical correctness of the form, that were more about just the body as a vessel for expression.
That was a really pivotal year for me. I took anatomy in my senior year, so those were concurrent. I always thought that I was going to go to med school or go into science in some capacity. That was the first time I considered “How can I do both of these things that I love?” I started looking at programs in medical illustration and even reconstructive surgery, things that involved aesthetics or craft of some sort. Then I realized it was actually the inverse of each that I was interested in. It was less the precision of science that interested me, it was more about the wonder and the curiosity, like how things work.
I ended up going to Northwestern, I declared my art major because it allowed me as a freshman to get into art classes. I knew I wanted to get a strong and diverse liberal arts education. I always was interested in science, more from a biological, molecular, cellular perspective. I ended up doing art theory and practice as my major, and art history as my minor, as well as working at the Museum of Contemporary Art, waiting tables.
Did you have other jobs?
I went back to take some classes at the School of the Art Institute, ended up volunteering at the children’s art museum and decided I had a natural propensity towards teaching. So I went back to School of the Art Institute and got a degree in arts education and started teaching. Learning about learning reinvigorated my practice from the sense of like, “This is why I’m a curious person, or this is why these things appeal to me,” or just the meta knowledge.
I was in the right place at the right time. I spent a couple of summers in Evanston, and in one of them I got a job at the public art department in Evanston. They were working on a public art commission jury process for the new library. It was my first exposure to working in art outside the studio; it was highly administrative, not creative at all, but it was an interesting perspective.
The next fall I got an internship. My senior year I interned at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in the PR department. I had a couple of great mentors there. Again, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. My internship ended, but it was at the time when they were moving, building the new museum. When I graduated, they asked me if I wanted to come on as PR assistant for the transition. We put together all of the press materials and outreach, and managed messaging and communications for the opening of the new museum. When I think about that experience, even as a fresh out of college assistant, just being aware of all that went into that project was pretty great.
When I was teaching, I chose to do my student teaching at Francis Parker School, which was across the street and again, I was in the right place at the right time. Someone was going on maternity leave, another person was resigning. They liked me, the kids liked me. It was just very easy, though it was a very difficult place to get hired. You learn so much about artistic practice and art history when you teach it. Children are just incredibly creative beings, unfettered expressionists. It was a privilege to be around that energy on a daily basis. It helped me hone my communication skills about art. In order to teach children or teens how to talk about art, you have to be concise and specific.
It was a really good period for me to experiment in my own work. I had a studio downtown on Wabash.
Then I moved out to the Bay Area to do my MFA and it was a little bittersweet. I got tenure at Parker, which was such a great pedagogical environment. I learned so much, but I just knew that I wanted to focus on my own work and I wasn’t doing that. I needed just a push. SFAI is very well known for its school of painters.
It was super influential in my process and my work just being around artists all the time. It was the focus that I needed after doing such broad and diverse liberal arts, working in the administrative side and a little bit of the industry politics side, working in the educational sector. Just drilling down and focusing on my own work. It was nice to be surrounded by people who were not doing the exact same thing as me, but were on the same quest.
Which mediums are your favorite?
I experimented a lot in the years when I was teaching, and I think that came directly out of working with so many different materials, trying new things. I had my classroom set up such that we had a couple of different boxes for scraps of things. When they had extra time or on special days they could make whatever out of whatever was in there. It was basically trash, but it was so exciting: bubble wrap and ribbon and the dots from hole punching, just extra stuff. Watching that was inspiring. At the time, I was interested in patterns, biological structures, seed pods, things found in nature or found in the body and exploring that.
I started building things like building pods, wrapping wire around balled up bubble wrap or building things with Sculpey, a material that we used in the classroom, colored train wire and things like that, as opposed to just looking in nature or just looking in books. Just expanded the form. I was also using bubble wrap to print that beehive pattern. That carried over into a lot of the work that I was doing when I went to grad school.
It fostered a real sense of experimentation with materials. When I got to graduate school, I had been working in oil and encaustic, and we weren’t supposed to use burners because of the fire hazard in the studio. I decided to switch my entire practice to being water-based. I wanted to see if I could accomplish the same kind of surface and physical build-up and translucency and all the properties that are so romanticized in caustic work, to see if I could achieve that with acrylic.
My first couple of semesters were really experimenting with process and materials. Some of that was just trial and error and some of it was seeing how colleagues were using the material. I got into using airbrush and cutting stencils and just doing a lot of stuff that I probably wouldn’t have considered or thought about, except that other people were trying them.
Are there mediums beyond what you work on now that interest you?
I’ve thought a little bit about video or projections and space with light, as well as physical installations of strands of lights. I’ve been trying to figure out how to make it not feel like Christmas lights. Creating these experiential spaces with light in darkness, and sound meditation. I can envision them but … the technological leap, how I would fabricate them, would take a pretty intense period of investigation, which I just haven’t found time for yet.
Tell me about your process…has it changed over time? How so?
When I do slide lectures about the trajectory of my work, you can definitely see the progression from one place to the other. It tells a story of the development of my process and the things that I’ve consistently been fascinated by or that have influenced me. There’s a pretty marked difference in how something I’m doing today looks from maybe 15 years ago or 20 years ago.
I grew up in this family of science and health practitioners. There was always a fascination with images in the textbooks, everything from cellular, histology slides like cell patterns to weird gross tumors. Between the beautiful and the grotesque. My work was focused on this overgrowth in the body during my first semester.
Then right in the midst of that, my mom was diagnosed with gynecological cancer. At that point, my dad had been an expert in the field for over 40 years, but it was very aggressive and they caught it late. She was stage four when they found it, with a prognosis of only six months. They had moved to Savannah, and ended up moving back to Cincinnati, just to get the best access to the best care. Ended up going through several courses of treatment that turned that six months into three and a half years.
So much of what I was thinking about in terms of biology became really real in a different way. My mom had a very strong Catholic faith. I became fascinated with this space. This is what I’m doing now, exploring the space that exists between science and spirituality. How we know what we know in terms of epistemological questions, and everything from creation and evolution to how we think about death and the after. Obviously, a hard and difficult time, but her struggle and treatment and then, ultimately, her passing, have been huge, huge pieces of the work.
The last year that my mom was alive, and the year that she passed away, I started exploring symmetries in the work. In general, in the older work was a lot about order and chaos, patterns in nature and systems and then what disrupts the system. Things like: if you look at cancer cells under the electron microscope, they’re actually extraordinary and beautiful things, but there’s a sense of what you can and can’t control in your own physiology. The opposite of faith is uncertainty.
I was interested in the place between those two things. Control versus lack of control. I was working with a r organic process of laying down fluid pigment on the surface and trying for it to be symmetrical. Exerting a certain amount of control over the compositions, but then, of course, only having to surrender to the material and the medium and whatever forces of gravity or external properties of the paint and how it would never be perfect, perfectly symmetrical.
This symmetry definitely came out of that desire to create a specific kind of matrix. They referenced Rorschach a little bit: how do we know what we know, what do we see when we look at a picture. Not as simple as “Is the glass half full or half empty?” but a similar paradigm of looking through the lens, “Do you see health or sickness? Do you see order or chaos?”
I was doing a lot of cellular patterns and things that were very biological. Eventually, the symmetry led me into working with these differently. Instead of clusters of cells, they become more like strands of cells, with the cross-reference of prayer beads. The last few months my mom was really sick, she prayed the Rosary. As I did more research about it, I learned that prayer beads exist in all cultures. The idea is that you use it as a counting meditation. It’s a physical thing that you touch in order to engage the mind in an ethereal space. I started using the physical surface of the strands of cells like beads, like that physical surface that is tangible in an otherwise ethereal space.
Is there a work or type of work you’re most proud of?
I was asked to do the six-piece commission for Nordstrom. One of them would be in each of six different stores. There’s one in Maryland outside of DC, one in Magnificent Mile, one in the suburbs in Chicago, one in Scottsdale, one here and remember the sixth in Seattle. That just was really cool. It was ironic because they were in the bridal dressing rooms, because the bead reference was what was appealing. I made those six paintings for that and that felt like a big thing.
Then I was on a show at Root Division. When I think about it now, it’s bittersweet. Pegi Young bought one of my pieces from that show, very much about loss. It’s in their home, in Redwood City out on the ranch. She also developed cancer and recently passed.
Those paintings started at Djerassi, the neighboring property to where she lives. The painting had a full lifecycle from that place and time to now. Things like that, that are better than just selling something at an art fair. Meaningful connections.
How do you promote your work?
I think it’s a catch-22. I’ve made a lot of contacts and commercial connections for my work based on my role at Root Division, in terms of meeting people, asking people to jury galleries or curate shows and come to events. Obviously I have sold work at events shows, getting eyes on the work. In some ways, the fact that I work a full-time job allows me to not be so influenced by the pressures of the market. I can make the decisions on my work that feel true to me and what I want to make, as opposed to the market, because I’m making my primary source of income someplace else. There’s a lot of artists who discover that people really like fun gold squares. They’ll make lots of gold squares, gold squares, gold squares, but not so much like the other thing that they are interested in making.
I don’t feel that pressure necessarily, but at the same time, because I’m working someplace else, it takes a lot of my time and physical presence as well as mental energy. I’m not in my studio as much as someone else might be. My attitude towards the commercial part of it for many years has been like, it’s extra, it’s great. The work does tend to sell on a pretty measured but reliable consistent scale.
A couple of years ago when I did the art residency in Ireland I wanted to do things like create a Facebook page and an Instagram channel for my art, so that they could be public and I could feel comfortable putting stuff out on those channels.
I took the time to update my website and create a newsletter. It’s just keeping on people’s radars. It’s funny how much you think as an artist that people are not necessarily looking at this stuff, but I’ve had some redirect opportunities come out of the handful of newsletters that I’ve sent out since then.
In general, I’m great at telling artists what they should be doing, and not that great at doing it myself. I know what should be done. It’s just about having the time and bandwidth to do it. So much of it, too, is showing up, going to other people’s shows or curatorial projects. There’s this personal element of people seeing you and thinking like, “Oh, what do you love to do?” and my replying “Oh, I’m finishing this new body of work.” “Oh, you should send me some images.”
I feel like a lot of the things that have happened for me professionally and personally have happened by being in the right place at the right time. A certain level of hard work, but also serendipity. Making myself open to the possibility of those moments is not a business strategy per se, but it is something that I do.
Where can our audience find your work?
SFMOMA art gallery is doing an event in September. There’s some work there that they’ll have out and about. They’re a little older, so I’m hoping that they push the sales for those just so I can refresh my inventory with them. I don’t have anything specific on the books. It’s time for another newsletter. I am finishing these huge paintings. They are 64 inches tall, 36 inches wide. There’s four of them in my small little studio. When they’re done, they all need to go somewhere so that I can make other things.
Mansour is opening the Whiney Modern’s 31 Women Exhibit in celebration of International Women’s Day, the 8th of March, in Los Gatos: http://www.whitneymodern.com/Exhibit_Detail.cfm?ShowsID=100