Washington, D.C. | by Kristina Bilonick
March 26, 2011
I first met Michelle while participating in a group exhibition at The Butcher’s Daughter Gallery in Detroit, MI. Well, I met her work actually… I had made it out there for the artist’s talk, yet Michelle, who has a rigorous teaching schedule at Gallaudet University, wasn’t able to make the trip.
I was immediately drawn to her work for its ability to capture and preserve every day moments. Upon entering the gallery, I was faced with a large-format photograph of a woman walking with a group of men on a beach. Michelle later explained the story to me. Her friend asked a group of men to have their photo taken with her and in return, she would reward them with a round of beers. The men in the photo are smiling and following behind her in a way that seems choreographed like a music video. The photo was accompanied by a mini-installation that included a bag of Doritos, a six pack of beer, and other beach-day sundries. This exhibition dealt with archiving memories and I admired Michelle’s choice of a fun, fleeting moment.
Another captivating piece I saw in Detroit was entitled ‘First Crush’. In this piece, Michelle gathered tales on her camcorder. She asked friends and strangers in bars, their homes, and parking lots to recount their first crush. That in itself would make for a fun ‘This American Life’ style piece. But Michelle’s take was different. Michelle relies on lip reading and hearing aids to weave her way through the stories she recorded. Back in the studio, she added subtitles to the film where she could. When she was unable to understand the subjects’ words, she not only left subtitles out, but muted the subject’s voice. The outcome is an experiential video that gives the viewer a sense of the separation and disjointedness she experiences in her daily life. You can watch the video here.
I caught up with Michelle in DC as soon as we both got our schedules aligned. Her studio takes up a good portion of her Capitol Hill apartment. In one area, she works on mixed media photography and collage while the other side is devoted to digital media and video work. I was also impressed with her collection of cool vintage furniture along with a rad bike that leaned against the mantle. Michelle and I chatted awhile about our experiences as artists living in DC.
Michelle is from the San Francisco Bay Area of California, and has lived in and out of DC for about 13 years. She graduated from George Washington University with an MFA in photography. Upon graduating, she was selected for Conner Contemporary’s annual ‘Academy’ show, which is a roundup of the finest talent emerging from regional art programs. She has been working as an Assistant Professor of Art and Media Technology at Gallaudet for the past three years.
We both talked about how hard it is to balance your ‘day job’ with your personal practice. Michelle finds satisfaction in working with her students and bringing out their artistic voices. She also explained how teaching is a nice way to re-visit the fundamentals of her own art practice. The academic schedule is also conducive — having summers and holidays off gives her time to concentrate on her work and a chance to travel, which is also part of Michelle’s creative process. As a professor at Gallaudet, Michelle strives to bridge the gap between her students and the DC art community. She’s made an initiative to show more DC artists at the University’s Art Gallery, and encourages them to attend area art events and openings.
Michelle showed me some recent projects she had on display in her studio. One project she has been working on is a series of hundreds of photographs for an installation called ‘Thin Edges’ which spanned a 9’ x 27’ wall during her MFA thesis installation at George Washington University. The images are all diptychs stitched together with a sewing machine. She showed me some photos of the massive installation. Michelle had shot and sliced up images from her travels, daily life, artwork, texts, surroundings and meticulously sliced and re-assembled them to create a singular piece which reads like a contemporary epic quilt when displayed en masse. These stitched fissures in each photo symoblize the line that Michelle constantly crosses over in her life between the world of hearing people and the world of the deaf.
Michelle’s work is not a documentation of this struggle, but rather an exploration of divisions and boundaries — and it is done in a way that I feel is relatable to all. She is currently working on a new video that will be comprised of footage and clips she has taken and collected over the past few years. She also recently organized an exhibition at the University’s art gallery featuring women artists working in DC. It opened on March 22, 2011 with a reception and talk on April 5.
Find out more about Michelle on her web site here: http://www.michellemcauliffe.com