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Insights of an Eco Artist

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Green + Just- i3C Group

i3C Group- Michelle Lougee

In our third interview, we are excited to introduce a special guest, Michelle Lougee, a fiber artist, sculptor, and ceramist whose works address the impact of our consumerist society on nature.

Joana Alarcão: So thank you so much Michelle for being here and taking the time to talk about the collective and your part in the collective i3C. Do you want to start by talking a bit about your practice? I know you, work in terms of subject matter and materiality,on the delicate balance and duality of nature versus human and technology. Can you talk a bit about how do you explore that duality? 

Michelle Lougee: Yes, I work with post-consumer materials and try to evoke natural objects with them. So much of my work has been about plastic debris in the ocean but creating plastic organisms. I started first with recognizable organisms like a jellyfish and an octopus and that kind of thing. And then moved into more the microscopic organisms, which I think are very beautiful and very sculptural and just structurally interesting, but also interesting in a way that corresponds with the way I was making them, which was with crocheted plastic.

So they both have the sort of open framework and I felt like I could really respond to what I was seeing as my subject matter. And then that also kind of made sense because the plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces and choking out those life-sustaining microorganisms. And in more recent work, I'm encasing natural objects with post-consumer blister packaging.

Joana: So you explore these sculptures, just for people to have a better understanding, these sculptures normally are installations or are individual sculptures that then are in a gallery?

Michelle: Right. I've done some projects that are also like collaborative projects with communities where other people help me by crocheting plastic and collecting plastic bags and so I work a lot with plastic yarn, which is made from post-consumer plastic bags and then cut and processed and then I crochet with them.

So, I had one project where people crocheted for me, and then I asked for specific forms, and then I put those forms together, we ended up with 36 or more sculptural objects that were installed in the trees on a bike path nearby. So that was a great project.

And I think it touches on one of your other questions like having that kind of community project really allows for more conversation and sort of reaching a brighter, broader audience, reaching people who wouldn't necessarily be going to galleries. I mean you can also include a lot more children in that kind of project.

And I did another project. Nearby,that used post-consumer bottle caps to make a plastic tapestry. And so I was sort of in residence at a Nature centre, a new nature centre and people would come, some of my participants came like day after day after day, and some came like, just because they were walking by and participated for 10 minutes and then went on with their business.

But it's really nice to be able to, like, speak with the community. 1 of the participants also, she had collected a lot of plastic from her family debris. And, when she found out about my project, she was so excited because she wanted to put that plastic to use but didn't know how to do it.

And found that I was able to accept and incorporate a lot of what she had collected. 

Dinoflagellate- Plastic bags by Michelle Lougee. Image courtesy of Michelle Lougee

Joana: So do you prefer this type of work working with the community and having a wider audience seeing your work, or do you prefer the setting of a gallery? 

Michelle: Oh, I like both. I think I feel like the public art projects I'm a little bit less in control of the end results, you know, subject matter and what the final form, the quality of the final forms is, I'm not complaining, but for work that's in the gallery, I am able to kind of really keep it at my particular vision.

Joana: Yeah, okay. Yeah, that's makes sense. So your art also replicates the animatic quality of all living things and captures the beauty of nature while instilling a message. So how do you go about all of this and also instilling a message on your work? 

Michelle:  My work has kind of recently changed somewhat.

And so the work I was describing earlier with the creating large microorganisms from plastic, I think one of the ways that the message is instilled is that people can't tell that it's plastic. So you come up, and also the bottle cap tapestry, you know it's just an interesting object from far away and you get closer and you recognize all the little bits and pieces, and I think the same there's a moment with the plastic crochet where people are you know, kind of recognize it and then are like, "Ohhh" so I hope to kind of pull people in with the subject and the beauty or interest that it makes and then they kind of have a secondary reaction when they realize what it's created out of.

And then my newer work. Okay. I feel like the message is more nuanced because I'm using blister packaging and encasing natural found natural objects. So sometimes it's a little bit more about, like nostalgic, like this work, these objects, I'm trying to convey that these objects might not always be around and that we may have to pull these things off the wall and break them open to get the seeds to continue to grow things. One has a portion of a crab shell, but a crab usually has pincers and the pincers are gone, but the plastic, the plastic that I paired it with has, like little things from an electrical cord. So there's like, sort of a shadow effect of what used to be there. 

Joana: So do you feel that having this message be less noticeable, is better for the viewer in terms that they can make their own questions and talk to you, or do you feel that when the viewers understand that it's the plastic, or go near the work and understand that it's the plastic for you, is better this connection or the one that you have now?

Spore by Michelle Lougee. Image courtesy of Michelle Lougee

Michelle: You know, they're just different. I'm not sure there's better. For me, it's exciting because I've been doing the other work for a long time and so to be able to kind of talk more specifically about different little things, it's more absurd. Before sometimes it was very colorful and playful and enjoyable to look at, and you're right, the message might sometimes be overlooked but these are, I think, harder to overlook the message. And hopefully still compelling. 

Joana: Can you tell us a bit about your time in the collective? When did you join? Why did you join and do you feel that since you joined the collective you have been able to grow as an artist and develop your career?

Michelle: So I've known Adriana for a long time, probably 20 years. And so, when she first came to me with the idea of this climate change exhibit, it wasn't a collective, she was curating the first one and kind of had so much success. She's such a force and so pleasant to deal with that I think people have really responded. Plus it's a great topic and a great group of artists.

So yeah, I didn't know I was joining a collective when I joined the collective. And I think it's great to have a community that's like-minded. I think there's always power in numbers. And you learn a little bit from each conversation about how the artist is thinking about it. But also sometimes you learn facts that might affect your own work.

And we've also had these great events where the, I can't remember exactly, the union of concerned scientists or where, you know, people come in and talk about what all is happening to our climate and so all of that, I think, informs the work.

Joana: I know the collective has talks and workshops. Have you been part of any of those? 

Michelle: Not yet. I will definitely. I mean, I've been to the talks. Yes, I have actually, I'm a liar. I've been on a couple of panels. Yeah, I've taken part. 

Joana: And do you enjoy that?

Michelle: Yes, I do. I do enjoy taking, like being part of the panel and you know, learning from the other artists, as I said. Yeah. So I guess I've done two panels. So that's good for me. I feel like I don't participate enough. 

Joana: Because all the collective is talking about environmental challenges and environmental protection, how do you feel that their message is coming across to the audience?

How is it challenging the audience's perspective of their relations with nature and how to protect it? 

Michelle: I think it's hard. It's hard to know. And I feel like as an artist, I'm compelled to make things. And so this is my voice and what I want to talk about, but it's not the same as going to the state house and demanding, working for structural change. But I think both things are necessary and I do, I feel like it's a little bit harder to know really how you're affecting change through art. But hopefully, we are. 

Seed Pod by Michelle Lougee. Image courtesy of Michelle Lougee

Joana: And do you feel that your time with a collective has helped you as an artist? Do you think that artists or young artists should strive to be part of a collective?

Michelle: I do think it's helpful to be part of a collective. Yes. And I'm part of a couple. So I think it might not have been until COVID and when I finally kind of realized how important community is and, you know, the specific community, of course, I was part of different communities, but not necessarily recognizing, like, what that function was and I'm much more aware of it now and trying to preserve it in the many forms. I am part of an artist group, part of several artists groups, but also part of a clay studio that, you know, especially during the lockdown, it was really difficult for people who were used to being in this community, at least once a week to like, just suddenly not have that, and when they might not have other regular things that they do or go to, it's kind of all of theirs structure. But yes, I think it's very important for younger artists to be part of a community. 

Joana: Yeah, I think also too, because being part of a collective can help you a lot, being that you have other artists to talk about your work and review your work and tell you what's working and what's not and art is not really good in a bubble. It is better to have different perspectives, on the work you're doing. 

Michelle: Exactly. And to hear what other people see and what you're doing. Yes, absolutely. 

Joana: My last question is, do you have since you joined the collective any unexpected moments or perspectives that shifted or shaped your perceptions as an artist?

Michelle: Hmm. That's hard. I would say I don't feel like I've had unexpected moments, but as you can see, I'm kind of forgetful. It's been a couple of years already with this group. What's been unexpected for me is the level, as I said, originally I joined for one show and then, you know, one show led to two more shows and then those two shows led to three shows.

 So it's really kind of built very quickly, I think over time. And just so that aspect, I guess people are ready for this group, right? That's what it tells me. Like they're interested in the subject. They're interested in the group. 

Joana: Yeah I do see that. So thank you so much for taking the time to have this conversation with me and talking about your experience.

I really, really appreciate it. 

Michelle: Thank you, Joanna.

Know more about the artist here.

Know more about the collective here.

Michelle Lougee is a fiber artist, sculptor, and ceramist. Her work addresses the impact of our consumerist society on nature. She is a member of the Boston Sculptors Gallery, and her artwork has been shown at Kunstverein Teirgarten in Berlin, Convento de Santo Domingo Qorikancha in Cusco, Peru, the Peabody Essex Museum, the Art Complex Museum, and the Trustman Gallery at Simmons College.

In addition, she teaches sculpture at Lesley University College of Art and Design. She resides with her family in Cambridge, MA and maintains a studio at Vernon Street Studios in Somerville, MA.

Michelle also is a freelance illustrator whose credits include business and financial publications such as Software, Strategy and Business, and Bloomberg Wealth Manager.

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