Michelle Wilson

What are you working on?

Currently I’m working on a suite of handmade papers, made with cornhusk, that are watermarked with corporate logos. Watermarks are a handmade paper technique in which the fibers of the sheet of handmade paper are thinner in a certain area compared to the remainder of the sheet, creating an image within the paper itself. I’m working with cornhusk, and the images are the logos of the corporations that produce, benefit, and direct the corn-based food system that controls United States agriculture and food-based commerce.

Describe your work.

The basis of all my current work, be it a print, artist book, installation, street intervention or social practice, is handmade paper. This paper is from clothing I recycled, or plants I grow myself, or from local invasive plants I harvest. I see this paper as substrate and content, a means of allowing plants and nature to speak for themselves regarding issues of environmental and social justice.

Using this paper as a foundation, my work becomes an exploration of the human-nature interrelationship. Handmade paper, made from plants, evokes its origins. Marks made on such paper suggest the human hand, and by extension, the human presence. Thus, by making marks on handmade paper, either through drawing, printing, or shaping the paper, the intersection of humans and nature occurs physically as well as metaphorically in my work.

Through this, I examine historical and ecological links using intersecting narratives, language, and structure. Much of my work concerns the crossroads of human political actions and ecological systems, and how social and environmental justice often go in unison. Many of the narratives I explore have a duality or interconnection of ideas: the crossroads of politics and the environment, colonialism and natural history, wordplay, migration, vegetation, and hidden truths.

Do you collaborate with other artists?

Collaboration has opened me up to so many new ideas, possibilities, and opportunities. I’m fortunate to have collaborated with some very cool artists. The first artist I ever collaborated with was Marie Elçin, a fiber artist who has previously been featured on this blog. Our collaboration began through the mail, as she was living in Istanbul, Turkey, while I was in Philadelphia. We mailed a blank artist book back and forth, each adding embellishments as we went along. After she returned to the states, it led us to experiment with installation, and eventually we partnered on a very planned, editioned artist book called Infinite Thread.

Currently, I’ve been collaborating with another papermaker, printmaker, and book artist named Mary Tasillo, in a collaboration called Book Bombs. We’ve been producing a zine and doing street interventions since 2010.

Plans for the future?

This isn’t a plan so much as a dream – I’d like to spend some time in Asia studying their papermaking techniques.

What do you do for fun?

I live my life! I’m an overly busy person lately, but, but I’m fortunate to love what I do. I try to find moments to hike, practice mindfulness, and remember to enjoy and feel grateful for everything I’ve been given.

What’s on your mind?

Over the past year, I’ve started trying to develop a mindfulness/meditation practice. I’m terrible at it. However, I had a friend tell me once that what he liked most about meditation was that it always gave him the chance to fail, and try again. I get so busy with things sometimes I need to remember my good fortune, and how to center myself.

Any exhibits coming up?

Quite a few! I’m currently part of exhibitions at the Center for Book Arts (New York, NY), and the Compound Gallery (Oakland, CA). I’m also going to be participating in upcoming exhibitions at the Sonoma Valley Museum (Sonoma, CA), Sonoma State University (Santa Rosa, CA), and at Central Booking Gallery (New York, NY), this fall.

Any past exhibits you’d like to mention?

I was part of an exhibition curated by Nancy Willis at the Napa Valley Museum last year.  The show was called “Discrepancy: Living Between War and Peace,” and dealt with the issue of wars in distant locations and how most American’s lives are perceived as removed from direct involvement. When I was invited, I knew I wanted to make work about America’s overwhelming need for petroleum, and how this feeds our involvement with the Middle East, war, and global warming. It seemed to me that our need for oil for energy and plastics was so big we couldn’t even see it, like the saying about how people who live in London can’t see England. This idea of an overshadowing presence led me to conceive of the idea of casting a shadow as the work itself.

The final piece was a cast shadow of an oil derrick, that I titled, “Power.” I felt this title embodied the duality that is petroleum: energy and control.

Is any of your work political?

I think it’s safe to say a resounding yes.

Are you involved with any organizations?

Just recently I became a member of the California Society of Printmakers. Before moving to the Bay Area, I was a member of quite a few organizations in Philadelphia, but here out west, despite having been here almost two years now, I still feel like I’m finding my feet.

What are you currently interested in?

I’m currently interested in how my work can be a form of activism while at the same time seduce a viewer into its narrative. I think that there is a place for loud, printed broadsides-these are very important. However, that’s not my work. I am more interested in making work that quietly asks a viewer to consider something differently for a moment.

What are you reading?

I just finished reading Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. For those who might not be familiar, Aldo Leopold was an environmentalist and the founder of the science of wildlife management. As I understand it, during his lifetime, he published a number of scientific articles about ecology. However, he felt very strongly that the general public needed to be educated about environmental issues, and the essays of A Sand County Almanac were designed for that purpose. He died shortly after their completion; the book was published posthumously in 1949.

Considering that most of the book was written in the 1940ies, its amazing how relevant and revolutionary it is, even sixty years later.

Two of his main ideas were that of the land organism and land ethic. The idea of a land organism is that the entire ecological system – the soil, bacteria, waters, plant life, biota – all make up a continuous entity. This idea leads into the concept of a land ethic – a philosophy for guiding humans when making changes onto a landscape – that all the aspects of an ecosystem need to be considered when making these changes.

What websites do you visit each day?

I waste entirely too much time on Facebook, but I also like Inhabitat, Jezebel, and Colossal. I also have a thing for advice columns, particularly Dear Prudence and Captain Awkward.

What types of music/ audio are you listening to these days?

Over the past few years, I’ve actually developed a deep need for regular intervals of quiet and silence. So I tend to listen to music very rarely. I love listening to the soft sounds of my studio practice, such as the splashing of water while I’m making paper, or the susurration of a roller picking up ink for relief printing. I need stillness, and when I actually do want some sounds, I prefer it to be more anecdotal, such as something like NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” or “On Being.”

Tell us about a few of your favorite spots in (where do you live?):

I’m very found of hiking in Point Pinole Regional Park. Decades ago, a munitions factory stood where the park is now, that produced black powder and dynamite. Now that’s all gone, and the land has been restored. Walking there gives me a sense of hope and renewed optimism.

Your website(s):





Image Descriptions:

“Power,” installation at the Napa Valley Museum, Yountville, CA, cut handmade denim paper, illumination, cast shadow, 2011. (featured image)

“Hurricane Irene, Rancocas Creek,” two color linoleum block print on handmade paper with pulp paint, 2011. This print was made after my in-laws lost all their belongings in the flooding after Hurricane Irene.

“Population Dynamics: Clear Lake Splittail”

“Population Dynamics: Santa Barbara Song Sparrow”

“Population Dynamics: California Kit Fox”

Handmade paper made from invasive plants with watermark. Paper is usually conceived of as a substrate. In this series, the paper is made from local invasive plants, and documents through ghostly watermarks native wildlife that has gone extinct in recent history. Paper is usually something in which history is recorded on, however, in this series, I see the paper itself as a historic document, recording California’s changing environment, 2011.

“Reverse Archaeology,” interior view

“Reverse Archaeology,” exterior view

Performative installation of cast paper vessels infused with native seeds, vessels were displayed indoors then carried outside and buried in the soil in an archaeological grid, 2010. This project takes the form of an institutional critique, asking participants to consider ideas of both Land Art and archaeological ethics, and then to de-excavate something. As a means of creating something to give to the land, I have made these vessels from compostable, handmade paper from the agricultural excess of plants harvested on the land of the Life is Art Foundation, and infused with native wildflower seeds. I asked participants to bury these vessels, returning them to the earth, where the paper biodegraded and the seeds grew. There, the traces of their existences will dissolve and be reborn into a new growth. In archaeology, the search is for evidence, while in this project, the earth itself becomes the evidence.

“Power,” installation at the Napa Valley Museum, Yountville, CA, cut handmade denim paper, illumination, cast shadow, 2011.

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