The Texture of Skin: Baltimore Artist Michelle Dickson Sculpts a Soulful Decline

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“you lose what you don’t hold, 2” (digital photograph) “This is from a series of photographs taken of [my] sculptures in an abandoned house on a hiking trail.”
Michelle Dickson, 27, a resident artist at School 33, sculpts work that seems to live — to wear breathing skin — or, in some cases, promises to have recently pulsed with life, but now instead to hum with the hushed and faded rhythm of decay. In her attraction to nature’s dying moment, and to the partway beautiful deterioration of changing human architecture, she reminds me of one of my favorite artists, Kiki Smith, whom Dickson did meet in an academic setting. (She reminds me of Kiki Smith in her semi-sexual, body-hinting abstractions — in many ways…) But Dickson is her own maker to be sure, with her own brand of broken beauty, her own set of challenges and charms for the viewer. Her work lives.

When I happened upon Dickson’s studio at a School 33 open house, I marveled at her bowl-like sculptures (pictured above and below), clean white outside, containing inside intricately textured human hands, the skin calloused, lined, gorgeously ruined. Dickson invited visitors to scoop up the pieces and examine the open hands, the thick, creased fingers. The interactive experience charged us all — you could hear the oohs and cools whispered, as if we were kids peeking through a telescope at brand-new stars.

“you lose what you don’t hold” (plaster, dirt, graphite, and oil paint) “This is the body of work that got me interested in making singular sculptures and sets of sculptures. Previously I had no experience working in plaster.”

Dickson and her husband currently live in Pikesville — they relocated to Baltimore a year ago post-grad school. Dickson majored in drawing and painting at the University of Florida; she earned an MFA in studio art from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst last year. I spoke to the artist about her influences, her origin, and what she’s working on now.

Who are your favorite artists?

I greatly admire the art of Kiki Smith, Doris Salcedo, and Andy Goldsworthy and the poetry of Li-Young Lee.

Where do you find inspiration?

I am inspired the most by nature and my surroundings — especially by abstractions in nature and decay. I try to have a camera on me whenever I go hiking or take walks around the city. I use the photos as source imagery.

“Untitled Heart” (Plaster and oil paint) “After completing the ‘you lose what you don’t hold’ series I became interested in the textures of skin.”

When did you first begin to make art?

I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember. As a child I always loved art, crafts, sewing, and anything creative. I can’t remember choosing to be an artist at any particular age, it’s something I’ve always been working towards.

What is your work first and foremost about?

I like to think of my work as an extended contemplation on the passing of time and all that entails. Memory plays a large role in my work.  I’m interested in the inter-connectivity of everything around us — how the structure of rivers are like highways are like veins and tree roots. How deteriorating walls become a portrait of time and a record of human touch, and how the fragility of the body can be experienced in the crumbling buildings I see when I walk downtown.

What materials do you use?

Exploration of media is an important part of my studio practice. I like to test the boundaries of materials and try to get them to do unexpected things. I am working primarily with plaster, encaustic paint, and oil paint right now.

What are you working on now? How has your work evolved in recent phases?

I am working on a sculpture project that I haven’t officially titled yet, but in my head am calling the dress sculptures. I am making long dresses with armatures and supports so that they appear to be filled by a body and stand upright, yet are empty and hollow. I plan to install them out in nature somewhere so they can be affected by the elements and have the possibility for chance encounters.

My work is constantly evolving. My training is in drawing and painting but over the past four to five years I’ve been transitioning into installation, sculpture, and video. Although my work takes many different forms I still consider it to be all about the same subjects. Recently I’ve been working more with individual sculptures rather than installations and I’ve been experimenting with two-dimensional works made up of photo transfers in layers of encaustic paint.

You can see Michelle Dickson’s work as part of “These Favorite Things” at Jordan Faye Contemporary, 823 Park Avenue, with a reception on Saturday, 9/15, from 1-6pm.

Untitled (Anne) (photo transfer on encaustic on wood panel) “This is one of my first experimentations in layering photo transfers on encaustic.”
Untitled (Anne) (photo transfer on encaustic on paper)


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