Duplex: Tell us about your background.
Michelle Ramin: I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains of North Central Pennsylvania – a small town called Williamsport. From when I was a kid, I’ve always loved art and art making. I spent a lot of time with my Mimi (my grandmother) growing up and we would draw together. When I was in high school, I took a couple of painting classes and got hooked for good! I decided to major in art at Penn State University, about an hour drive from my hometown.
After graduation, my boyfriend (now husband) and I decided to move somewhere beautiful, inexpensive and creative. I was/am very connected to Elliott Smith’s music so I knew he had grown up in Portland. We thought, “What’s good enough for Elliott is good enough for us!” We didn’t know anyone in Portland really so we just took a chance, packed up our little red Neon, and drove across the country. No jobs, little money, no secured apartment. That was 2005.
We lived in Portland very happily until we decided to move to San Francisco in 2010 so I could to go to graduate school at the San Francisco Art Institute. I graduated in 2012 with my MFA and I’ve been drawing and painting and exhibiting ever since. My husband and I still live and work in SF.
D: Describe your studio space. How often do you work there?
MR: Living in San Francisco, space is an expensive and rare commodity. Fortunately, my husband and I are in a rent controlled two-bedroom apartment in Bernal Heights. One of those bedrooms is my studio – eighty very tightly packed square feet. It’s also a converted attic, so the ceiling is only about six and a half feet high with one window. It’s definitely not ideal but it’s enough for now. I also really love working from home so that’s a huge bonus.
I try to spend at least six hours per day in my studio, five days a week. Sometimes it’s a little more, sometimes a little less, depending on how many classes I’m teaching at the time.
D: How do you address scale in your work?
MR: For this new body of oil paintings, I didn’t really think very much about scale but rather about focus and composition. Scale obviously plays a role, but I guess I thought about it differently. I consistently worked through how far each piece should be “zoomed in” or “zoomed out”, or how much focus I wanted on the individual vs. the group or crowd, or on the replication of the master work.
D: What’s the most unexpected response you’ve had to your work?
MR: I didn’t anticipate how much people would connect with the new work, especially with the piece Mona Lisa, IRL. It’s interesting because everyone who has visited the Louvre has experienced this crowding phenomenon around a single famous painting. Beyond that, they’ve also dealt with everyone trying desperately to catch a glimpse – and not just with their eyes, but with their cameras or phones. “Pics or it didn’t happen!” is a common mindset now. I didn’t understand until creating this body of work that so many other people feel this same frustration of wanting to join in, while simultaneously wanting to back away and out of the situation. It’s a very contemporary internal conflict that seems to broadly resonate.
D: You are using oils in this body to slow yourself down while simultaneously trying to slow the viewer down. Is that medium/metaphor relationship typical in your work?
MR: I haven’t painted with oils in many years. Ironically enough, I chose oils for this body of work to speed up my process. Up until about 5 months ago, I had been working exclusively with colored pencils and watercolors – even slower mediums than oils. Craftsmanship has always been a high priority for me – high quality craft and technique force people to stop and consider process, which is important to me. I like beautiful, well-executed objects – this is what grabs my attention in a gallery or a museum. It’s so easy to be distracted today with the overwhelming abundance of tech that we consistently have at our fingertips. But, a meticulously considered and developed piece of art will stop me in my tracks and force me to focus and think and breathe. I hope my work functions in this way for its viewers.
D: What inspired this body?
MR: My husband and I took our first trip to Paris (our first trip to Europe, really) this past holiday season. I had never experienced any of these famous paintings before in real life. It took me 34 years to finally get there and really understand what these pieces mean. It was incredible and insightful and emotional and very different than what I had expected. I guess expectation is what inspired me – the difference between the romanticized notions of the thing vs. the actual thing itself.
D: We are big fans of museum going, we always center our adventures on what museum we can visit. What is your relationship to museums?
MR: I have a love/hate relationship with museums. Contrary to my subject matter, I hate crowds. I would always much prefer to have a more intimate and quiet experience than an overly stimulated one. When museums are empty and silent, I love them – they are revitalizing and thought provoking and feel a lot to me like a house of worship or meditation. When they are packed, they might as well be an excursion to Wal-Mart on Black Friday.
D: In this work, we are not really looking at the objects on view in a museum, but looking at the people interacting with the objects. How much staging do you do while setting up your reference photos? Is voyeurism important?
MR: Very little if any staging goes into my work. I’ve always been interested in people watching from behind the lens and psychologically/sociologically dismantling the human condition. Smart phones now give us free reign to take photos of anyone doing anything. All of my reference photos for my paintings come from either photos I took myself or photos my husband took for me. I feel very strongly that I should have experienced the scene myself in order to depict it. In this way, I consider my work to be somewhat documentative and auto-biographical.
D: What’s the best or most memorable thing you’ve seen patrons do/react in a museum?
MR: I love it when I notice people that are not even remotely interested in the work. They could be standing next to a 2,500 year old Greek sculpture or a Manet or a Jeff Koons and have absolutely no reaction to it, or are just seemingly bored and hanging out on their phones. Why go to a museum if you’re going to ignore the work? It’s kind of fascinating to me, especially as an artist and art lover myself. I go to museums to be blown away and astonished. I think some people go to check it off of a list, to say they went to the Louvre or the Prado or the Guggenheim. We both paid the same entrance fee to get in but have entirely different experiences in the same space, witnessing the same objects. That’s really interesting to me.
D: What’s your favorite place to see art?
MR: After this last trip to Europe, I’d say Paris. Everywhere in Paris. There’s so much art everywhere you turn – it’s seamlessly incorporated into daily life there. I wish it were more like that in the U.S.
D: How has your work changed over time?
MR: So much has changed! The last time I regularly painted with oils, I was creating abstract narrative pieces on recycled wooden doors. When I lived in Portland, I worked with markers and pen and ink creating illustrations. I went to grad school to push myself conceptually and it really helped. Before grad school, my work wasn’t as refined or conceptually driven – it was more about creating beautiful things. I still create beautiful things (or at least I try to) but I think about intention now and specificity and relevance. I also learned to always give the art what it needs – whatever is best for the piece, it’s my responsibility as the artist to provide that to the work, or it has no chance of becoming successful.
All images courtesy of the artist.