On Saturday, Oliver Francis Gallery will open “Empathicalism: Michelle Rawlings,” a solo exhibition of the Rhode Island School of Design master candidate and daughter of Dallas mayor Mike Rawlings. Last week, the show generated some buzz when a provacative portrait Michelle did of her dad started making its way around the Web.
On Wednesday night during a break from organizing her show at the gallery, she discussed the autobiographical nature of her artwork and why she finds the personal experiences so fascinating.
Art&Seek: What would you say is the focus of your work?
Michelle Rawlings: I think the experience you have growing up – childhood, adolescence, becoming a young adult – those awkward stages you go through and how other people in the community and the culture around you and images around you influence who you are and your identity. Trying to fit in, trying to rebel and however you respond to that is just fascinating to me.
A&S: What’s the scope of this show?
M.R.: The scope of this show takes its roots in personal experiences I had growing up, actually specifically in Dallas. I was inspired to speak to experiences I had growing up in Dallas. All of the work is autobiographical and personal in some way, but I think it also relates to the viewer and maybe experiences they had or identity issues they had growing up.
M.R.: When I was at [Rhode Island School of Design], I had a teacher who suggested that I try making a work of art that was confessional in some way or embarrassing to me. And I really loved that idea, because on principle as an artist I try to make myself as vulnerable as possible in order to relate to the viewer. I was actually really embarrassed about this time in my life in high school. … I wasn’t quite sure how I fit in or what to do about that, so I think my response was to try to imitate other people in my high school or to pretend to be like other girls I saw. When I got to RISD, I felt a little bit embarrassed about that time. Most artists, the idea is that they were rebellious in high school or they had that rebellious persona. It was almost a dirty secret for me that in high school I was a cheerleader. It was galvanizing to take this document – which was my senior year yearbook page – and just blow it up and make a huge tapestry of it and say, “You know, everyone’s been a teenager, everyone goes to high school, and people have these experiences that are both incredibly normal and also terribly weird and bizarre, too.” I think everyone feels that way and has conflicting experiences.
A&S: Members of your family show up in a lot of the pictures in the show.
M.R.: I think that’s just what inspires me – me and my family. It’s a myth in art that the artist can be objective and talk about universal ideas and transcendent things that would apply to everybody. It’s not really true – you can only really talk about your own experience and your own subjectivity. But that’s what makes it special, and that what makes your ideas powerful is that you do have a unique perspective on the world.
My parents particularly – my mother and my father both fascinate me as individuals. My mom is a singer and she’s just a very theatrical person. … And then my father has this role in politics and a lot of my art tends to be political as well. It has a lot of political and sociological messages, and so that is a weird thing that really inspires me, too.
A&S: So when your dad became the mayor, did that affect your thinking at all as to how you approached your artwork?
M.R.: Not at all. He’s always just been incredibly supportive and just knows that being an artist is a personal experience. … I have been a little bit afraid because I know a lot of my images tend to maybe make the viewer a little bit uncomfortable. But that’s what I do, and that’s what I feel is interesting.
A&S: Some of those images also include your dad. So how to you think that will go over when you have the show here?
M.R.: It’s important to note that that image isn’t going to be a part of this exhibition. I’m not really sure how that misunderstanding came into being. It just happened to be on my website, and that work was almost an aside – it was part of a group of portraits I was making, and it just went in the context of that group of portraits. But it’s not like I do that or will keep doing that in the future.