Interview with Michelle Gagliano

Let’s go back to your beginning. (Laughs) I was born in Jamestown, New York, on December 26, 1964. I am the youngest of four children. My family lived in Cassadaga, New York, a rural area outside of Jamestown. My father was of Sicilian descent, and my mother was of Swedish descent. My mother was a homemaker, and my father restored vintage automobiles. Up the hill was my grandparents’ home. My grandfather had a huge dairy farm. Incidentally, Cassadaga is on a hill; down the hill on one side is Lily Dale, a gated Spiritualist community that Houdini used to frequent. On the other side is an Amish community. I maintain contact with my Amish friends to this day.

And now?  I am married; my husband’s name is David. He is a PhD in Clinical Psychology. We live in Virginia with our three children, David (18 years), Christopher (sixteen), and William (thirteen months). David and Christopher are interested in filmmaking; David had a film exhibited at the Los Angeles Film Festival recently.

Did your parents influence your artistic future?  Actually, one of my earliest memories was lining up with my sisters to help wet-sand an automobile finish for my father. My father was a perfectionist, very dedicated to his craftsmanship, and I think that affected my own sense of workmanship.

When did you decide on art as a vocation?  Oh, I intended to be an artist even before I had a clear idea of what that meant. I remember one day in kindergarten when I stood on a table to demonstrate to the other children how to hold a paint brush! I can’t really say where I got the idea, but it always seemed to be there. Possibly it came from seeing the paintings by my aunt that hung all over my grandmother’s house.

Our family moved to Austin, Texas, when I was twelve. I was determined to go to art school, so I worked my way through high school in three years so I could get to study art at the University of Texas as soon as I could. When I was a teenager, my uncle in Buffalo, New York, who was an excellent artist, instilled in me the conviction that to be an artist, one must work at it every day. I found that very appealing.

What did you find so appealing about making art?  My view of art is a lot like that of James Elkins in his book, What Painting Is. The materials of art, “sticky oils and crushed rocks,” are magically transformed into art works in a kind of alchemy through the experimental efforts of artists. We are working with these things, and we transform them into something beautiful!

Tell us a little about your technique. I can compare my painting method to that of Russian icon painters. They would make a ritual of finding the right wood, preparing it, and painting the imagery. I choose the wood panels and spend several days or even weeks preparing the surface. I gesso the wood and sand it lightly. Like the icon painters did, I apply a layer of gold and begin to build up layers of oil paint. This is when the composition begins to be set. Then I thin the paint with mineral spirits of alkyd to make glazes and apply them, gradually mixing in less and less thinner. At the final stage, I apply dark stains to work the leaf shadows into areas to showcase the background. If I want to bring up a light area, I will excavate or lift up the stain.

Are there particular things that inspire your work? Well, visually, I am fascinated by the surfaces of things, things like old tables and chairs, old tools, signs – things that have signs of being used and lived with. Maybe it started with a fascination with the weathered and hard-used patinas of the farm houses and fences where I grew up. But as an adult, I came to love the surfaces of the walls of Rome – the outer walls of buildings and the inner walls of rooms. I lived in Rome for a year and a half, and go back to Italy periodically. And actually, the artists who interest me the most – Jules Olitski, Lucien Freud, Robert Rauschenberg, for example – are those whose surfaces are important to their work. The paintings that excite me the most have a muted or quiet pallet, too.

As you know, the imagery of my work usually has a landscape reference. We now live in Virginia in the middle of thirty-five acres of woodland with few other houses visible. We see mountains on one side and a pond on the other, with lots of trees around. I do like the imagery. I’m sure it seeps into my psyche. And it reminds me of my grandfather’s dairy farm in New York when I was a child. I used to get up before the family and walk up the hill to watch the sun come up. There is that time just before the sun comes up and lights the colors, when you see fields of muted color in the sky and earth and the leaves are all in silhouette. I think that gorgeous land was imprinted on me early on.

Early on, I loved the interplay of darkness and light, and this continues to be characteristic of my style. My paintings in this style are not only about the shadowy leaves in the foreground, but also about the lush, glowing background. When I began to do these paintings, I was also doing illustrations of the cantos of Dante’s Inferno in a realistic style. What carried over was the realization that in life one encountered shadows, but that one could look beyond them into the light.

Generally, I like to work on two different ideas at the same time. At present, along with my work with natural forms – branches, leaves, and vines – I am also working with imagery drawn from ancient maps – symbols, sea monsters, nautical instruments. I was inspired by the extensive display of maps in the Vatican Museum.
I like to listen to music of all kinds, but I especially like old jazz. My son David prepares CDs for me. He knows what I like. I also listen to books on tape. But I do not like to listen to anything “dark”.

What goes through your mind when you paint? Well, for example, I am painting these vines all over the place and you can interpret these in all different ways. They can be a symbol of Christ; in the Bible He says, ‘I am the vine.’ They can just represent the human-like growing and moving just to find the light. Since I am also working with old maps, the vines can also stand for roads leading here and there. But this is just what goes through my mind. What another viewer sees may be something else entirely. It may be nothing but vines. What is important is that my painting provides pleasure and relief from all that is going on in the world.

Is that what you want your viewers to get from your work? I would like my work to provide a pause from the everyday turmoil of life. Too much is going on in the world. I want people to be able to pause and enjoy. I share the Matisse philosophy that you want to come home and sit with a painting and relax. I also like there to be a sensibility of light – that is, a sense of optimism in the painting. My colors are clear but muted because I want to give the sense of relief rather than artificial stimulation.