Taking an Industrial Lichen to Michelle Stitzlein

By Elissa Marcus

Some might criticize an artist’s choice to stay true to themselves and thus jeopardize cashing in on their talents.  Others would do just the opposite.  It is the fortunate few, like Michelle Stitzlein, that don’t see a need to choose.  Ms. Stitzlein is one of the few that does what she wants, and finds a great deal of success along the way.  Her “Industrial Lichen” exhibition, curated by Lexie Stoia Pierce, premiered at the Ohio Art League October 7th, and concludes October 27th.

Ms. Stitzlein works almost exclusively with found-objects, and in very large scale, this collection being no exception.  “I learned a lot about myself and how I work from this project,” she said, “Small is not what I do!”  After a successful run of exhibiting a series of large-scale, moth assemblages, she decided that, despite pleas for her to do more of them, her interests were leading her elsewhere.  “I like botanical subjects, but I don’t like to go the way of floral.  Lichen is unusual; there aren’t too many in my backyard!  And it’s something that can just grow across a surface like moss.  I really liked the idea of making some lichen that could grow across the walls of a gallery, organically.”

A town dump in Baltimore, Ohio, closed since the 1950s, is the source of most of Ms. Stitzlein’s materials.  “Every time I go in there, the town elders are thrilled because I’m cleaning the place up!” she laughs.  In the past, people drew a metaphoric connection between Ms. Stitzlein’s use of recycled media and the lifespan of the moth.  When asked if her materials held meaning in the context of lichen, she explained that artistically, she’s moving away from the rote and literal, and towards the abstract: “Typically, man-made items are created from natural resources.  But in my case it’s a reversal.  I’m creating natural things from man-made material.  So no, there isn’t a similarity in the same context of the moth, but I find that the ‘reversal’ is much more interesting in and of itself than the concept of the moth’s transformation.”

She uses her aesthetic instinct to choose her materials, whether they be piano keys, a sardine can or a tail light.  “Ninety-five percent of the time, I choose my materials based on their visual components [like] color, shape, and texture.  Almost never do I choose them by what they might symbolize, although I might find a funny ‘play’ between something I’ve chosen and the work that it’s in.”  For instance, the piece on the back wall of the Ohio Art League’s gallery, Cilia, was given that name because the ‘hairs’ on this piece were created with actual hair curlers.  Her lichen bear Latin taxonomy, but she doesn’t claim to be creating actual species of lichen.  Having done extensive research in books and online, she has settled on creating her own amalgam of species, just as for her moths.  “Each one is a blend of a hundred different types, plus my imagination.  They are more interpretive than they are scientific,” she said.

Each one of Ms. Stitzlein’s lichen leads you to first consider their amorphous perimeters, and then zero-in for a closer analysis of their components.  Some might find the experience rather meditative, to which comparisons to mandala have been drawn. “I hear that my lichen remind people [of mandala] a lot, and it actually disappoints me!  Mandala are very rigid and inorganic.  I like asymmetry.  But if someone wants to use it to meditate with, I’d be thrilled if they liked it that much!  Everyone takes away something different.”

What they won’t be taking away, however, is one of Ms. Stitzlein’s pieces themselves.  She enjoys exhibiting and putting her pieces in traveling shows, but she’d rather keep them in her home when not being displayed.  When people ask her why there are no prices, she responds, “I like to have my pieces around for at least a little while, I feel like they’re a part of me.”  Perhaps it is because she follows her caprice when she creates, that feels that she cannot create when a sale is at stake.  “I did a couple of commissioned pieces, and they were so difficult to make because they weren’t coming from that ‘passionate place’ [where most of my art comes from].  I didn’t feel like they were very good work, and even worse, the person that commissioned them didn’t even like them!  So I still have them sitting in my studio, just reminding me of that one time when I didn’t stay true to myself.”

To say that Ms. Stitzlein’s talent and dedication to her own vision has attracted attention would be an understatement.  She published Bottlecap Little Bottlecap, a children’s guide to creating art with bottlecaps that can be found in any park or lot.  Soon after, she found herself with a busy roster of traveling to teach from the book at elementary schools across the nation.  She became an artist-in-residence at Millay Colony of the Arts, and currently conducts arts and crafts tours of developing nations with her husband, also an artist.

Teaching children, however, remains her especial passion.  “It keeps me fresh in my studio,” she explains, “Young kids show no fear when it comes to artwork.  They’re not worried about ruining the paper, they just attack it!  When I go to my studio I try to keep that mentality and show no fear.   A lot of people say that, but when you’re around kids all the time and you see their attitude over and over again, it’s very helpful.”

As for what this busy artist strives for next, she reports that she’s only just gotten her feet wet.  A couple of the pieces in this show mark a breakthrough for her, and she would like to move more in that direction.  “I envision being able to do a show in the future with great big walls, so that my lichen could literally grow across them, as if organically.  My ideal would be to get a 30-foot wall to display on.  I would make more and bigger lichen and even combine the ones I already have done.”  In art as in life it seems, small is just not what she does.