When risk-taking, art-infused Michelle Laxalt decided to move cross-country, she didn’t concern herself with suitcases, boxes and goodbyes. She bought herself a parting gift instead: her first and only tattoo. The intricate floral design of columbine, lavender, sagebrush and aspen leaves is a colorful keepsake from her Reno, Nevada-to-Atlanta relocation.
The work of Laxalt, a 28-year-old ice cream-loving, email saver (her inbox has thousands) can be seen these days in a solo show at MINT titled Husk (through October 5) and in a group show at Kennesaw State University’s Zuckerman Museum of Art titled Fruitful Labors (through November 10).
Laxalt, a MINT 2019 Leap Year Fellow and Georgia State University alumna (M.F.A., ceramics), works from a studio at the Goat Farm Arts Center and continues to make bold moves. She says she’s happy and busy, with an occasional side of “art anxiety.” She recently completed a residency at The Hambidge Center and is the gallery manager at Swan Coach House Gallery. So it’s no surprise that her mantra is “make a move and respond.”
Laxalt paused long enough to share her energy, intentional ambiguity and more in a conversation with ArtsATL.
ArtsATL: What influences your creativity first — the materials or the ideas of manipulating materials?
Laxalt: I don’t want to fetishize the process too much, but often I just have no idea what the heck pieces are going to look like until I get them out of the kiln, like, “Whoa! Where did you come from?” My approach is to have a little bit of an idea of the form and the gesture and then respond to it until I get to a place where I feel it’s like beautiful ping-pong — realistic/nonrealistic or disturbing/grotesque — ending up with some unique thing on its own.
The hardest part is deciding when to stop, especially when it takes more time to glaze than to sculpt. I tend to overthink things like under glazing three to four coats and sometimes six coats on top. Should I be tedious with every glaze or just slap on the glaze to allow it to do its own thing? But there are surprises too. Like when my hairstylist gave me bags of hair she collected that I weaved with the wool. And my using wool is serendipitous. My grandfather was a sheepherder in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
ArtsATL: What do you mean when you say you’re haunted by your own mortality?
Laxalt: I’m definitely thinking about anxieties about the body’s mysteriousness, that you are who you are but are not who you are at the same time. I go back to my own experiences with caregiving. I worked in day care at the same time my parents took care of their parents. It was this parallel where we were all taking care of bodies, people who couldn’t take care of themselves. I’m questioning what life in these bodies is all about, what we do about it and what happens afterward. I’m not trying to provide answers but to make sense of it the best way I can while I’m here.
ArtsATL: Did you ever want to be anything other than an artist?
Laxalt: Definitely. A marine biologist, a nurse or a forensic anthropologist, but that could just be me fantasizing about Law & Order. I also wanted to be a teacher, which may be why I nerd out on Thesaurus.com and explore etymology when naming my art. I also look at physical characteristics of the work and try to find words that match what’s going on. Like “phantom/cleave” in Husk. Cleave can mean to sever but also the opposite, to cling to.
ArtsATL: If your childhood was an art exhibition, what would you title it? What would be displayed?
Laxalt: Hmmm, Enchanted Anthology. No, wait, Confused Enchantment is much better. Hey, this just might be a show one day! Things made out of gingerbread, candy and lots more sugar . . . shoes full of sweets, hair hanging in trees and weird Catholic sculptures everywhere, not religious in any sense, but they’d probably belong in a garden.
ArtsATL: Do you collect anything?
Laxalt: I have several curio cabinet shrines of things from the natural world: bones, feathers, stones, shells, pods, petrified wood and a jar full of my cat’s whiskers (there’s probably more in the jar than on his face)! Put it this way: if my house is burning down, I’ll reach for all of these.
ArtsATL: Any pet peeves or things that make your skin crawl?
Laxalt: [Responding with uncontrollable laughter] Other than the fact that my favorite glaze color’s been discontinued, hands down, the most irritating thing is mouth noises. I hate when people chew food loudly or when people don’t swallow their food before speaking. I can be in a room full of people, and if someone’s doing that, I’m hyper-focused. Interestingly, I have my own bad habit of chewing gum, and, when I get home, I put it on a soda can or a cup. One day, there were eight of them around a mug rim, which inspired my ceramic “gum-wad vessels.” If it’s the most annoying thing I do, I’m gonna do it to the best of my ability to create a piece of art.
ArtsATL: What is your favorite family tradition?
Laxalt: My family has a lot of weird traditions, but one of them is that if you like a present you’ve received, you stick it on top of your head to let others know that you’re happy to have received it. We can be totally bizarre in a great way. So, if you don’t do that and you’re with us, well . . .
ArtsATL: What’s your favorite crayon color?
Laxalt: That neon, yellowish green, which is weird because it’s probably a color I’d never use in my work!
ArtsATL: If you could be a fly on a wall, whose wall would you choose and why?
Laxalt: Artist Louise Bourgeois [French-American, 1911–2010]. She was short like me, but she could command a room. I don’t know, though — she might have been a little too intense to observe.
ArtsATL: What do you do when you’re not “arting”?
Laxalt: I’m a big fan of eating Rocky Road and mint chocolate chip ice cream. When I’m driving, my guilty pleasure is listening to Top 40 and Latin pop stations. And I’m trying to do yoga more.
ArtsATL: Which cartoon character do you most identify with and why?
Laxalt: Velma from Scooby-Doo. She’s always trying to do right by others, and I think that’s something I do. Sometimes it can also be a character flaw — too accommodating, too sweet, saying yes too much. But Velma was the smartest one, always solving the mystery. There’s the redeeming quality.