When I was in middle school, the commencement speaker at my brother’s college graduation was the founder of Covenant House, a non-profit serving homeless, runaway and at-risk youth. He encouraged graduates to give at least a year of their post-grad lives volunteering at Covenant House or another non-profit—it was time to pay forward one’s privilege. His words imprinted on me.
I didn’t think about that speech until I was about to graduate college, 10 years later. I had been receiving inspiration and mentorship from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke, and post graduation, I felt called to become a VISTA volunteer in impoverished, rural North Carolina, and then start an enrichment program for children living in public housing in Durham, NC.
I got to know these children and collaborated with them to create photographs of their lives. I also spent time getting to know their mothers who were navigating the stresses of poverty, violence and parenthood. These relationships moved me deeply, challenged me to move beyond stereotypes, and set my emotional, artistic, and professional compass for the next 25 years.
I carried my interests in social justice and the documentary tradition to Los Angeles where I pursued graduate studies at CalArts. I expanded my experience with photography and got immersed in semiotics and feminist theory, gender and identity politics, and diverse approaches to photographic and aesthetic practice.
During this time, I more deeply explored documentary practice, worked at building personal imagery, and taught inner-city teens through CalArts’ community-based arts program. These key experiences became the legs of a tripod to support my professional artistic practice. This practice has been led by an interest in the narratives and associations of place, the challenge of cultivating one’s own idiosyncratic visual language, and a drive for personal and community transformation through relationship building and mentorship.
After formal schooling, the really difficult work began. How do you lead an inspired, creatively productive life, while honoring your intimate relationships, becoming a parent, losing your own parents, and creating a livelihood? How do you create space and time to nurture an artistic practice that feels authentic and rigorous?
So began what’s become a 20-year journey of yoga and meditation study. These teachings have supported all of my personal and artistic explorations. Every time I pick up the camera, collaborate with others, edit images, create a lesson plan, or imagine a project, I focus on concentrated observation and stillness.
Michelle graduated with honors in English from Duke University and received her Masters in Fine Arts from the California Institute of the Arts. Her fine art photography has been exhibited in North Carolina and throughout California, including the Oakland Museum, L.A. Center for Photographic Studies, MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary, S.F.’s Presidio and Fort Mason, and San Jose’s Zero1 Festival. In Michelle’s commercial photographic work, her clients include Visa and Kaiser Permanente, and her work has appeared in national publications and TV programs, such as the New York Times and the Today Show. In addition, Michelle has spent over 20 years working to create opportunities for low-income teens, through founding arts programs, public art projects, and direct teaching of photography and digital art. This work has been nationally recognized by the Echoing Green Foundation, Coming Up Taller Awards, and the California Arts Council.