Artist Interview: Michelle Blades



While traveling in the Cincinnati area for work this past spring, I had the chance to pop into a co-op gallery where I saw the most amazing tableaux of figures, painstakingly crafted, going about their business in a way that made me stop in my tracks to watch and wonder what they would do next. But I only could get a peek into their world, a momentary glimpse of what had to be a more elaborate narrative that, as the viewer, I had to determine on my own. These pieces still haunt me. The artist is Michelle Blades, and I was delighted when she agreed to let me interview her. 

Michelle Blades lives and works in Cincinnati, Ohio with her husband, Brent Naughton, and two ape-dogs, Chimp and Baboon. Working with stories, words, polymer clay, cotton, wood, fabric, found objects and other mixed media, she creates curious little figures and environments to please, delight and creep out the crowd. Welcome to her tiny and expansive universe.

Share a little bit about you and your work. What is your background? How long does it take to make a piece, and where do you find your materials?
I've been creating environments for my dolls and toys for as long as I can remember. This play-work led me to The University of Cincinnati where I received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 2001. Since then, I've been creating a tiny universe of my own dolls and kinetic dioramas, promoting interaction from the viewer and engaging folks young and old. Many of the materials that I use are found while digging through boxes of rusty stuff at antique fairs, cruising through the aisles of the craft and hardware stores, reading or watching archetypal fairy tale stories and listening to music. I don't really know how long it takes to create each piece - a lifetime? I know that's an open-ended answer. I suppose in the context of days and hours, I would guessitmate that the smaller work takes a few hours and the bigger work take s a few days. Inspiration generally comes from words and phrases that I read or hear, and sometimes the image comes really quick, but the execution might take a lot longer. This is especially true if I am using a new material in the work - I can get a little intimidated with trying out a new mechanism in a kinetic piece as well.

What's the one thing you'd like people who aren't familiar with you/your work to know about you? 
Along Came a Spider
The one thing I would like people to know about me is that yes, my work can get a little creepy. But I swear, it's harmless. Some of the pieces have an 'edge,' but I've found that so does most of life. And it's up to us if we want to fall off that edge, or tap dance on it. I choose to dance and flirt. Sometimes, even I can think the work gets a little too banal and saccharine. Then along comes a wild viewer that mumbles to me, 'this is creepy,' and subsequently, I feel validation about where I've pushed the image visually and contextually.

Who is your biggest influence and why? 

My biggest influence... that is tough. The gestalt of my influence lies in the workings of the universe as a whole, and the power of observing those interactions. Sometimes, I feel like I spend more time on the sidelines watching how things and people move with or against each other than I do participating in the action. Being a spectator is a great thing for me -  it's rife with the probability of good storytelling. I believe my job is to collect the story in a mason jar terrarium, let it grow into its own species and then show it to the viewer. How vague it all of that?! I guess in a more literal sense, my dad's influence is really strong because of his quirky sense of humor /observation and the fact that he showed me how to use power tools at a young age. I still ask him how to build stuff now. He's been a great resource for all things mechanical and electrical.

Tell us about your local art scene. What makes it great? What are the challenges?
There are a lot of really creative people in Cincinnati. A LOT. However, I often hear folks lamenting the conservative nature of our city - which, no question, the suburbs surrounding Cincy proper are. And I think this fact might lead some folks to feel 'held back' creatively. Thankfully, I've not had any real issue in that regard. I just tend to focus on what I can accomplish here, and search out other venues regionally where the work will also be celebrated.

A lot of artists have that one piece in their studio that they would never ever sell. Tell us about yours.

I don't know that I have a piece that I would not sell. My feeling is that the story came from the universe, and it is okay to give my version of the story back to the universe, and know that the universe will take care of it. The only piece that comes close is 'Hivehead' - the little gal doll with a bee hive on her head and tiny bees buzzing around it. That piece was based on a hive hat I made to wear in a Halloween 5K race I made a few years ago. While a lot of my work has been autobiographical, this piece in particular felt special to me. However, my sister-in-law recently wanted to purchase the doll, and I was pleased with that, so I let her go. I know she's in a good home, and I've been promised visiting hours.

Thanks, Michelle, for sharing insights into your creative world! For more images of her work and process, visit her website and Facebook page.

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