Michel Varisco lives in a charming little cottage in Faubourg St. John along with her protective chihuahua, Rocket. Her home, as well as the vibrant garden surrounding it, succinctly reflects her broad interest in horticulture and the environment. One gets the sense that each object within her picket fence is an assemblage, not unlike the assembled pieces of art for which she is famous.
Michel has been very successful, earning prestigious art grants which have enabled her to bring ideas to life. The challenge for most artists is how to balance the tasks of creating work that is meaningful while maintaining a reasonable level of financial support. Income must be sustained during the production and after the completion of an artist’s work. Michel has realized enough success to have curators who are also willing to help write grants. “The Ogden helped me with some grant writing. I also received support from the Joan Mitchell Foundation and The Louisiana Division of the Arts.”
Michel’s cottage is filled with examples of her assemblage pieces and her photography. One assemblage piece consists of two resin hammers, which she cast from a broken hammer inherited from her deceased father.
“I brought this little broken hammer with me to Captiva, Florida. I’d received an invitation from the Rauschenberg Foundation to spend six weeks at his studio. An assistant helped me cast four hammers from the original. That started me on this trail where I decided to use them in an assemblage along with brick dust.
“I took bricks that were made by slaves. You can find these bricks pretty easily in a brick yard – old New Orleans bricks. I’ve read that the mud came from Lake Ponchartrain and the sand and mortar came from the Mississippi River. Those are two things that are the nearest and dearest to my heart, the waters around us. I am also concerned with the land around that water. A lot of the work from the Shifting series is my way of asking ‘why are we losing land at such a rapid rate?’ How do I describe that as an artist? I want to confront those demons of Louisiana and the Gulf Coast.
“This brick is tied back to the earth and it also represents an illicit energy source because of the slaves who were forced to make them. Not unlike the illicit energy source of fossil fuels which are ruining our environment. Then I started playing with the bricks and broke them down to dust with my dad’s hammer. Then I learned that the slaves and their descendants would use the dust by sprinkling it in their doorways to ward off evil spirits. So I just fell in love with bricks. I love to tie things together.
The game board that is holding the bricks is Mancala game board. It’s an African game that many of the slaves brought with them to Louisiana. Archeologist have found many of these game boards during their excavations near slave homes.”
Michel has an unusual way of bringing pieces together. It’s something she acknowledges can be spiritual, but usually requires a lot of thought and introspection. Michel’s latest collection is called Below Sea Level, which is mostly composed of photographic images, which are sometimes assembled with found objects.
Michel’s environmental imagery isn’t as direct and confrontational as it has been in the past, yet she remains every bit as concerned about the environment as ever. Michel is using a different approach these days, incorporating more “magical realism” into her work.
“Louisiana’s precarious balance of being the newest land in the country yet the fastest deteriorating land is something I’ve focused on for years in my artwork and photography.
“But the fact that we are sinking while sea levels are rising is another major area of concern, especially since we are below sea level in NOLA and living in a bowl that’s just waiting to be filled through either human engineering errors, or climate change, or both.
“This anxiety lies just below the surface, and to a great extent we cope with this fact through denying it in everyday life…and denying its causes. My concerns around human’s effect on climate prompted me to respond through my artwork and in my own way.
” As an artist, I direct my attention to exactly where a lot of people don’t necessarily want to look. I have decided to kindly, gently lead my audience to hell, and then lift them out of the hell realm by showing them alternatives. Even though we are certainly leading to our own destruction, it’s possible for good things to happen. There are some people still fighting for us to survive and this is what they’re doing.”
Michel develops friendships with many of her models and they end up collaborating on many of the pieces.
“I ask all of my models to bring a totem under water. I photographed one young woman, named Corrina Bohren, who brought knitting needles underwater. She also happens to be an opera designer and has this really long hair. She brought brown yarn and went underwater for this amazing shoot.”
Michel also talked former inmate Gregory Bright into posing for several images underwater. Gregory was wrongly convicted of second degree murder in 1974. After serving 27 years, he was released thanks to the work of the innocence project. Gregory has become a friend and model for Michel’s series Below Sea Level.
“I think though that we have to get back to the garden. We have to get back to working with nature. A lot of my work is around that idea. How do we live with nature? What if we are living in a modern day Atlantis because we are not making the changes that we need to make for South Louisiana to survive. Will New Orleans end up underwater?”
Much of Michel’s work is simply breathtaking. During the interview she had a large print of Trawling displayed against the wall. It has an otherworld quality about it, reminiscent perhaps of a mermaid, or maybe a bride, swept into an underwater net. The model in the photo brought the net as a totem because it was handmade by her grandfather
Why does Michel devote so much attention to water, over the many other environmental and social issues we face as community?
“I like to think of water as a literal and metaphorical reflecting pond of our behavior and concerns as a species. It’s a kind of moral barometer regarding pollutants and hydrological changes that affect the ecosystem dramatically.
After photographing the BP oil spill and living through a flooded New Orleans, I’ve seen so many aspects of water that concern me deeply, environmentally and socially.”
You can see more of Michel’s body of work at www.michelvarisco.com