A Conversation With: Contemporary Pop Artist Michelle Vella
Known for her distinctive contemporary pop-art portraits of cultural icons, Michelle Vella, got her start in the NY fashion scene after leaving a ten-year career as a graphic designer. In 2015, just months after starting to paint full time, fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg discovered Vella on Instagram, requesting to purchase her WIDE BIG EYES portrait of the icon; now the piece is a permanent fixture in Diane’s art collection at the DVF Fashion House in NYC, and Vella has gone on to garner commissions and collaborations with corporations and collectors internationally. Featured on CNN Style, The Marilyn Denis Show, Elle Canada, and W magazine, to name a few, the artist’s star is on the rise. We recently caught up with her about her artistic influences, her evolving style and what she has on the horizon.
How has your signature style evolved and matured in the past few years after finding success?
When I started painting portraits in 2015, I was influenced by fashion illustrators and had a loose brush stroke, painting on paper and today my brush strokes are much more refined, flat and defined. My Wide Big Eyes are still my signature but the eyelashes changed from feathered quick strokes to defined triangular lashes. My early portraits took 3 to 4 hours to paint whereas my portraits today take days to weeks painting on canvas. I have also added words into my portraits, telling a story about the person I am painting.
You’ve referenced Francesco Clemente, Alex Katz, Andy Warhol, and Gustav Klimt as all influencing your work or inspiring you in one way or another, what are the qualities of these artists work that you find most inspiring?
In 1998 Francesco Clemente’s art was used in the movie remake of Great Expectations. I was mesmerized by his big eye portraits, which stuck with me all these years and influencing my work when I started painting portraits in 2016. A full circle moment happened when I was waiting to meet and present Diane von Furstenberg’s portrait to her, I was sitting below Clemente’s portrait of Diane. Alex Katz influenced my first painting (on canvas) figurative series, Lake Life and Eyes of Desire. He painted life around him, and that is what I painted in both these series. Andy Warhol screen printed square portraits influenced my WIDE BIG EYE Portraits that I paint today, creating art that is fun and cheerful, bright colours and square format. Gustav Klimt influenced my portrait of Diana Ross after seeing his portrait of Women in Gold at the Neue Gallery in NYC.
Pop-Art has managed to stay relevant and en-vogue in Pop Culture and Fashion for decades now, why do you think this?
I can tell you my opinion and what I hear from people that look at my work… it makes them feel happy. It seems like we need an escape from what’s happening in the world today, and pop art has a sense of humour.
Your work most often depicts fashion and pop cultural icons. What are the traits and characteristics of a person that most entice you to paint them?
Ever since I was young, I had an affinity for nostalgia. From old movies, tv shows, to music. I love painting portraits of people that are not only nostalgic but had a place in history, and an influence on me in some way, big or small.
What are you most proud of in your career as an artist thus far?
I have a number of proud moments, but what stands out most is that I have created a successful career as an artist with determination at 50, finding success within months of starting, creating my own unique Wide Big Eye style, growing my business as my own dealer, expanding my brand to fashion and home, and believing that anything is possible.
What is a piece of advice you would offer to emerging artists?
Art is a business, be professional and keep creating, be authentic, don’t compare yourself to others, be grateful, think positive, show your work, be confident, live in the moment, let go of anything negative, learn from mistakes, embrace opportunities, create opportunities for yourself, don’t stress about finances, keep your eye on the big dream, then dream bigger, and most of all enjoy yourself and have fun.
How would you like to challenge yourself as an artist going forward after so much early success?
I am doing more than just painting, challenging myself with expanding my business into Fashion, accessories and home collections, creating ways to grow, from doing PopUp shows and shops to finding a new market in doing the Interior Design Show.
I am working on a big project right now that has got me thinking broader, about the possibilities of a wholesale/retail market. With all this, my priority is painting, with all the growth I must make time for painting because creating is at the core of who I am and the basis of my business.
Cody Rooney is a Glossi Mag contributor.
He is a photography aficionado, masters candidate, fashion enthusiast, avid Ariana Grande fan and lover of all things aesthetically pleasing.