Written By Brett Levine
Photography by Beau Gustafson
“Why do you spend so much time on art that is so ugly?” This is not a question you would expect to hear, but artist and educator Lisa Michitti once did—from a student—and she saw it as a teaching opportunity. “I think creating opportunities for people to know that they don’t have to do or make in the ways people expect them to is something that is great about making art,” Michitti says with a laugh. This idea has certainly been at the core of her practice, which she has at times described as a study in opposites: tiny or large; black and white or color; painting or drawing. “I don’t think it is particularly important to categorize yourself,” she explains.
Instead, what is important is simply that her creative ideas are tied together. “There is always some string that connects everything,” she remarks. Michitti began the most recent phase of her creative journey as a graduate student at the University of Alabama, where she received a Master of Fine Arts degree. Then, after seeing her career taking shape, a series of injuries almost derailed it forever. “I had carpal tunnel syndrome and ulnar nerve issues in both arms,” she says. “It was like dragging my arms around in cement.” After four surgeries, the recovery was arduous. “One of the nurses asked if I was going to change how I made work as a result of what had happened, and I had to laugh,” she says. “I couldn’t imagine not doing what I loved. Still, I knew I would probably have to pace myself a little better.” The issue was that previously her work combined a frenetic pace with meticulously repetitive tasks. “I had done a series of works with shredded paper,” she says, “which was really like laying a floor, piece by piece, except with flimsy material.”
Having the time to step back and consider where she might take her work next, Michitti began to explore ideas that were affecting her thinking in the present day. “I’ve always been fascinated by quilting, stitching, and needlepoint,” she explains, “but also by pattern and repetition. Patterns are approachable because you pick them out all the time. I noticed that companies seemed to spend a lot of time making their security envelopes unique, which actually seemed a little strange. The whole idea is that no one will see what’s inside, but someone is designing these so they’re all different.”
Using these as a source, Michitti began a series of drawings derived from patterning and layering these designs one on top of the other. “I had to find a way to compile these, so I began running them through a copier. I then lay other designs on top. I don’t edition them. Each design is unique, so I think of them as drawings.” The idea that an ink-based, single-copy object is a drawing is not far-fetched. Michitti is taking the idea of drawing and pushing it toward its new limits, which is precisely what she is always encouraging her students to do. It is all part of her core creative value. “I make up my own problems, then I do my best to solve them. In fact,” she pauses, “my biggest problem with working digitally is the undo button because I like having to deal with what I get.”
Now back in Birmingham after several years away, Michitti is happy to be back in a familiar creative community. Still, she understands that she faces challenges, as does any creative artist. “I think my biggest challenge is being abstract,” she says with a chuckle. “People have a filter about art, and I don’t think there is a lot of point in trying to convince someone to like what you do.”
For now, Michitti is continuing to develop new works and thinking about the ways she would like her work to develop. When asked if she might revisit some older series, she pauses: “Take the shredded series. I loved those works when I made them. Over time, I thought there were creative approaches I could take that could make them even better, but that meant that the drawings themselves would physically have to change. That is probably a really difficult idea for many people to think about, but for an artist, I think it is a risk that you have to sometimes be willing to take.” So why not just make some new drawings to shred? “I can’t,” she responds. “I always loved that work. So if I make a beautiful work today, why would I possibly want to shred it?”
Lisa Michitti’s work can be seen at facebook.com/art8lisamart.