Michele Brody – Embodying Daily Flux

Michele Brody, working in home studio in The Bronx on handmade paper body sculpture for Annual Earth Celebrations Eco Pageant, paper made from recycled linen table cloths and caning, 2020.
Photo by Olivier Marcaud

A fourth generation NY builder, artist Michele Brody loves working with materials. She recalls how her father groomed her early on to become an architect so that she could continue the family tradition of builders and land developers. Although she excelled in the study of Architecture, she was not attracted to pursue it as career. ” I prefer building with my own hands,” she says. So in 1994, instead of getting a degree in Architecture, she graduated with an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from the Fiber and Material Studies Department.

AS: In your bio you say that you work in a process of collaboration with communities as “a means towards developing an interpretation of the sense of a place as an outsider looking in.” Can you elaborate on that?

Michele Brody: This practice is best illustrated by a public art project I produced in France in 2002. I was invited by the northern town of Arras to design a series of Burguet (cellar doors) for their central square. Arras is a popular tourist site for its unique architectural ensemble of 18th century Flemish-Baroque-style townhouses. Below each house, accessible only by the exterior sidewalk cellar doors, are a vast underground network of rooms and caves that were carved out of the limestone foundations for the ruins of a nearby 12th century Abbey. The designs I generated were based on careful studies of the townhouses’ architectural details, as well as some of the historic uses of these underground spaces such as a horse stable, brewery, cobbler and print workshop. While working as an artist-in-residence I was asked to present the project to a group of local school teachers. While showing them my drawings and documentation they expressed how surprised they were to learn so many new things about the town and buildings, even though they had lived in the area all their lives. There were details in the surrounding architecture I captured that they had never noticed before. It was as if it took an outsider with fresh eyes to help them see their home in a new light.

Michele Brody, Les Burguet, Public Art Commission, Arras, France, laser-cut steel, 2002-2011 , Left: Documentation from Dedication Reception in Le Petit Place for Burguet Installation, 2011, 4’ x 6’ ; Right: Les Burguet, Prototype Design Light Box with sandblasted plexiglass, Le Que de la Batterie, Arras, France, 2002, 4’ x 6’ x 5” . Photos by Luc Brevart

AS: It seems that Tea is central in some of your installations. Let’s look at your installation Reflections in Tea, an interactive community-based public art project. What is the idea and process behind this project (2007-2020)?

Michele Brody:Every morning I start my day with the simple ritual of brewing and drinking a pot of tea. This daily practice developed into the long-term project Reflections in Tea, which has evolved into an interactive community-based public art project inspired by the worldwide tradition of drinking and sharing tea. The ritual performance of preparing loose-leaf tea within special paper filters is shared with individuals and groups. Participants’ conversations are then preserved by being transcribed onto the stained tea bags that have been dried and flattened as note papers. The process culminates in the creation of an ever-growing set of fluttering paper quilts, which from afar form an overall composition of a craggy mountain range reminiscent of the mountain sides where tea grows. Up close you can see they are pieced toget her with over a thousand individual handwritten notes and unique drawings.

Initially envisioned as a mobile teahouse, the main component of Reflections in Tea is the invitation of the public to enter and sit within a semi-private space to share a pot of tea and their stories and memories. By taking the time to cross the threshold of the teahouse, each participant is introduced to how the drinking of tea is practiced throughout the world as a transformative custom.

Since moving to The Bronx in 2013, Reflections in Tea has been serving regularly to senior citizens and communities though SU-CASA Residencies, and a series of multi-media performances and poetry centered events called CommuniTeas. The culminating goal behind these events and installation is to reflect back onto the community both a visual and virtual experience of their collective memories and experiences. Where their variety of voices, languages, penmanship, poetry and stories come together to create a unifying expression of the diversity that holds communities together.

Michele Brody, Reflections in Tea, Copper Teahouse (5’ x 7’ x 6’), Bronx Museum Installation, 2016, over 1,000 tea stained paper filters (7” x 4”) embedded with community stories, poems and drawings hung from copper pipe with netting as fluttering quilts (3’ x 4’ each) Installation Dimensions vary
Photo by Kareem Gonsalves

AS: In Harlem Roots (2013-16) you seem to explore the historic technique of watermarking which has been used to embed company logos in the paper fibers, referring to urban development and gentrification. What is the genesis of this project – the idea, process, form?

Michele Brody: The genesis of Harlem Roots focuses on the mixed blessings of gentrification I experienced while living in Harlem in a new lottery building from 2006 to 2013. I wanted to illustrate the complicated and layered history of urban development i n contrast with historical, environmental and community preservation. I incorporate the technique of watermarking by embedding the paper with the architecture of a set of Harlem row houses in various stages of decline and repair in order to reference the process of building the imagery as a metaphor from the foundation up. Where the actual structure of both the paper and buildings are revealed when lit from behind like an X-ray. I am also interested in expressing how the influx of Branding as a marketing tool can be re-imagined to express the process of building up each layer within the handmade papers embedded with the watermarks and sprouted seeds, which spread their roots. When merged, these ghost-like images represent Harlem’s complex history of development, renaissance, decline and community pride in response to its gentrification.

Michele Brody, Harlem Roots: West 119th Street, Harlem NY, 2013, Handmade Paper on copper/glass shelf, sprouted seeds, fluorescent light, 11” x 21” x 4.5”
Photo by Michele Brody

AS: You have done both public art and large-scale site-specific installations. There also seems to be a strong performative element in your work. Can we take a closer look at one public art and one site specific installation of your choice that include performative elements and compare your approach in each?

Michele Brody: The essence of my practice is based on representing the daily flux and naturally occurring entropy surrounding us, and how memory and time simultaneously erode and enhance the interpretation of experience. The performative elements of these ideas can be seen through the following two pieces: the site-specific installation Land-Scaping (1998-2000) and my public art project Re-Covering the Cityscape (1998-2002). Both pieces were not fully activated until they were physically experienced by the viewer. They were both created to change over time, so that with each return visit a viewer would have a different experience. I started both of these pieces while in residence at the Marie Walsh Sharpe Foundation Studio Program when it was first housed in Tribeca in 1998.

Land-Scaping, was an installation of nylon fabric walls double sewn in rows to support the growth of grass seeds were watered by a circulating drip irrigation system located under a wooden platform where sat a grass sprouting chair angled precisely to look through my window out over the Hudson River. Viewers were invited to sit on the wet grass, as if they were outside, to witness how the landscape of grass grew over time, slowly obstructing the view of the River.

Re-Covering the Cityscape: Impressions of History Underfoot is a public art project that proposed commemorating lost New York City history through the installation of a series of uniquely cast manhole covers. The first manhole cover installed was the Assay Cover with a radiating surface design inspired by the architecture of the Assay Office: Branch Bank of NY that once stood at 30 Wall Street from 1823 to 1915. As a form of relief sculpture, the Assay Cover subtly accentuated the existence of a familiar fixture within the cityscape, while quietly rewarding the attentive pedestrian with an art form that preserved the rich graphic tradition of manhole cover design, as well as pay tribute to a part of vanished NYC history.

Both pieces only survive through the memory of documentation and the experience of their viewers. Land-Scaping was built to fit the size and view of my year-long studio space at the Sharpe Foundation. The Assay Cover was accidentally replaced with a new insulated manhole cover to prevent the cast iron from conducting heat from the steam pipes below ground. Ironically enough, it blended in too well with the rest.

Michele Brody: Left: Land-Scaping, 1999, Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation, New York, NY, Fabric, wood, grass, watering system, stainless steel, 10’ x 8’2” x 8’2”
Right: Re-Covering the Cityscape: Assay Cover, 2002, Cast Iron manhole Cover at 30 Wall Street, 36” diameter. Photos by Michele Brody

AS: What are you currently working on?

Michele Brody: While isolating at home during the Pandemic, I started to re-work the ideas behind Harlem Roots. Instead of focusing on the exterior architecture of the buildings and gentrification, I was inspired to capture what people were left to see of the outside world from behind these facades. I asked friends to send me photos of their views, including what is both in front of, and outside their windows. I then began interpreting their photos utilizing a combination of paper making processes by layering the paper with watermarking and a new technique called pulp painting. The results have been extremely satisfying, especially for someone like myself who is not a painter. As I finish each piece, I ask the owner of each view to write a little poem or statement describing their views and feelings during this time of the Pandemic and sheltering in place. I am excited to announce that I will be expanding the scale of these paper window pieces to life-sized windows as I prepare for a one-person show at AAA3A Gallery in Mott Haven, Bronx for December, 2021.

Michele Brody, Left: Joyce’s Window (Full) Handmade flax and abaca paper, watermarking and cotton pulp painting, September, 2020 – 8.5” x 11” ; Right: Maya’s Window (Backlit detail) Handmade flax and abaca paper, watermarking and cotton pulp painting, September, 2020 – 8.5” x 11”
Photos by Michele Brody

AS: What are your thoughts on the road ahead?

Michele Brody: The Great Pause for the Pandemic gave me much needed time that I had been craving at home to work, think and prioritize. I am at a point where, once it is safe enough, I hope to get back to creating new site-specific installations at a residency again such as Governor’s Island or the one I was supposed to have in Scotland this summer, now delayed to 2021. These ide as include the continuation of the sustainable modes of production I had been developing prior to the shut down. This process involves regenerating the natural cellulose detritus from a place left behind by seasonal changes, or an event as a form of mapping my experiences of a place in the form of handmade paper collage/drawings.

The more recent 2-D work I have been creating is still a very new format for me, one in which I do not have as many established venues for exposure. I am excited for the opportunity to exhibit at AAA3A Gallery next year with my first one person show since 2017, while I focus on putting together more proposals for other venues such as Smack Mellon, Wave Hill and The Arsenal Gallery in Central Park.

Michele Brody: Ghost Palms, Handmade paper pulp produced from recycled coconut shells, cast in the shape of coconut palm leaves, hanging from plexiglass screening with monofilament, handmade floor lights, January, 2020, 3’ x 12’ x 8’ . Photo by Michele Brody

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: artspielblog@gmail.com