Interview with Michele Mirisola

I met Michele Mirisola back in 2008 at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she studied oil painting and fiction, and I studied music and poetry. After we graduated in 2012, our paths didn’t cross until June of this year when we both attended a wedding of mutual friends (one of whom is also a Hampshire alum). I had remembered a painting from Michele’s thesis show — a simple wooden chair smeared with blue — and knew I had to catch up on her recent work. We wrote to each other over email in July 2019. –Ryan Mihaly

What are you working on now? What is your process? What are your obsessions, philosophies, concerns, preoccupations? 

Lately I’ve been looking at historical permanent decorative elements in interiors–moldings, sconces, and frescos. I’ve become somewhat obsessed with trompe l’oeil–the technique of painting or drawing something to look like something else, for example a mural of a marble statue that has the optical illusion of looking like an actual statue. I’d really like to paint a fresco in my home one day, possibly imploring this technique. When I went to Florence last summer I saw the Convent of San Marco where Fra Angelico had painted disembodied hands around Jesus and his disciples on brilliant green backgrounds on the walls of the most bare rooms for the monks. I was completely enamored. 

I started painting some versions of these from my head and wasn’t satisfied. I work best from life. So I wanted to make a wall painting of my own but at the time my studio was in my home, so the fresco had to become a large-scale work on paper pinned flat against the wall. The image in this piece is based on Primavera by Bottecelli with the figures removed and only their sweet feet and silhouettes left above a cloudy background. I was thinking about those fake nature backdrops that were used in photographs around the turn of the century, when the whole family would be dressed in their best furs and pearls sitting unnaturally in front of the woods. Then there’s that amazing juxtaposition with their feet clearly placed on the interior floor. I thought about this because I wanted my wall painting to go down to the baseboards but it would inevitably cover the electrical outlet, and I thought that might actually work in my favor and have that same juxtaposition, allowing for the nature scene to be pretend. 

Botticelli with Clouds as Fresco, 2019. Oil on paper. 3.5 x 5 feet

In front of this wall painting backdrop, I sensitively arrange objects that I love and carry with me to every new apartment or studio I move into.  I like to make very small paintings so that I can paint them in my lap holding the canvas or panel tenderly with my legs crossed or balanced on my knees. 

You just moved into a new studio. How has the change of space impacted your work, your thinking, your process? What do you want to paint there?

Snapshot of the new studio.

I had a studio in my home for the past two years. I worked really well there. It allowed making dinner and grooming to be part of the process of making my art. Step one-feed myself; step two-mix a palette, step three-put away my clothes, step four-paint. I do well floating in and out of the studio and seeing my work from the night before in the morning light. It all felt romantic. 

I think this will ultimately be healthier–to be away from oil painting physically and mentally. The studio itself is the largest I’ve ever had and allows me to think bigger. This doesn’t necessarily mean a larger canvas, but maybe a more thorough body of work. I want this space to be permanent. I want to plan long-term projects in there and I want to be able to have more than one piece going at a time. 

How does literature figure into your painting work? And how does painting figure into your writing? When painting on the covers of Autobiography of Red or My Brilliant Friend, how are you engaging with those books?

I read a lot or I feel best when I’m reading a lot. It sparks ideas for paintings. I’ve stopped writing fiction, but in the back of most of my books on the blank pages before the cover I have scribbled ideas for paintings and covered them with stream of consciousness. My books are well-loved, dog-eared, spilled-on, and marked up. I place them on my shelves with no intention of reading them again. I wanted to honor my time with them and make them into a new object, so I started making the book cover paintings. 

I also truly hated the cover for My Brilliant Friend. I found it demeaning that such an amazing piece of literature had a cliche image of a bride and groom. The book was so deeply about growing up as a girl in Naples and not about being a bride. I wanted to make a cover that felt like Italy to me. 

I will be making more of these pieces. They are time-consuming because I seal the pages together and dig out the back so they lay flush against the wall. They are not paintings on a surface but complete objects. 

My Brilliant Friend, 2019. Oil on book. 10 x 8 inches

Could you tell us about a piece that was born from your notes in the back of a book? How you worked with the themes-characters-ideas-rhymes in the book / how your stream-of-consciousness writing morphed into a painting?

I wish I could give a concrete example of my writing in books influencing a painting. It has never been as direct as that for me. Writing and painting live on different islands. It was that way for me in undergrad as well. I concentrated in oil painting and fiction writing and struggled to bridge the two. It always felt forced. I ended up creating a gallery show and writing a separate book of short stories, one called Leftovers and one called Remains. What they had in common was my hand. 

Writing does help me push past creative block in painting. If I am actively keeping a notebook, my creating muscles are being flexed and I get ideas for paintings. My painting ideas are usually just improving on the last piece I made. How do I push an idea farther? If a white-colored moment felt the most truthful and exciting then the next painting will likely be entirely white. 

How does the internet impact your work? Could you work without it? Is it the ultimate distraction or the ideal research tool (or both)?

The internet doesn’t factor into my work which I hadn’t realized before you asked and now I’m proud of it. There is something I like about making oil paintings in a new-media-saturated-world. My true crux is absolutely television and the internet does make it incredibly easy to watch endless shows. 

What do you like to listen to when you work?

When I’m mixing my palette I like to listen to podcasts: Judge John Hodgeman, This is Love, and Ologies or the news. (I’m trying to limit my true-crime obsessions). When I paint it can be any albums I’ve been into lately. But the true nitty-gritty work, when I can almost forget I’m painting, requires me to listen to things I know by heart that I’ve loved for years: Joanna Newsom’s entire discography, Third Eye Blind’s self-titled album, Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, or my actual favorite musician and friend Ben Seretan, Bowl of Plums

How do you deal with creative block?

I deal with creative block by looking at art. I get jealous of other painters and want to make things that have already been made, then of course I find my own direction. I used to work in galleries and found that it stifling for me. I was exhausted by art when I left for the day. Now I work in jewelry production and when I leave my job it’s when my real work starts. I am privileged to live in New York City and to have so much contemporary art around me. I go to galleries or museums most weekends. Last weekend, I went to The Cloisters and was incredibly inspired. I don’t make drawings but I would love to go up there alone one day and draw for hours. 

I am working towards my certification to be a birth doula, and I am curious to see if it will influence my art.

When is your favorite time of day to work?

Right after my first cup of tea! 

Waiting for the Train, 2017. Oil on panel. 8 x 10 inches

Michele Mirisola‘s solo, two-person, and group shows have been displayed across New York and in Dallas, Texas. Her work has also been featured in a number of magazines, including Brooklyn Magazine, Berlin Art Link, and others. To see and read more about her work, please visit her website.

Ryan Mihaly is a poet and musician. He recently graduated from the MFA program at Naropa University where he was an Anne Waldman/Anselm Hollo fellow. His work has appeared in or is forthcoming from: 3:AM MagazineDIAGRAMOpossumPosit, AsymptoteThe Massachusetts Review, and in Ilan Stavans’ anthology On Self-Translation: Meditations on Language. He was a resident at Greywood Arts in 2018.