By Bonnie Gangelhoff
Outside Michelle Torrez’s window, snow is tumbling down from the skies, wrapping blankets of white around two maple trees in her front yard. Inside her home studio, it’s cozy and warm. She likes to call it “a cluttered cave.” The 8-by-10-foot space contains the usual: books, easels, paints, and canvases. Perched on a faux Greek column there’s a lamp that casts a warm light on her easel, and overhead a set of ceiling fan lights shed a cool light—together they simulate natural illumination. Torrez rents a 2,000-square-foot studio a few blocks away, but lately she prefers the ease of hopping out of bed and going right to work in her nearby creative cocoon.
On this particular day she is reflecting on the past year and realizes a pattern has emerged in her recent works. “Mostly I’ve painted beautiful women,” she says. “But the women I paint, even when they are seductive, are strong women. These are not victims or delicate flowers. No one bought the women in my paintings the dresses they are wearing; they bought the darn dresses themselves.”
Indeed, in reviewing her current oeuvre, the observer is left with the sense that the artist’s cadre of females includes some tough cookies. The women may wear sexy, elegant gowns, but they stare out from the canvas with a take-no-prisoners look. The stares, glares, postures, and body language of the Torrez women convey strength while just as easily projecting other aspects of the female persona—joy, thoughtfulness, or mastery of an artistic skill such as ballet.
That said, a Torrez painting bears other signature elements as well. Her expressionistic strokes often evoke a symphony of movement. The lines go a long way in defining her forms and creating an energy that vibrates from the canvas—whether it’s the sensuous, liquid embrace of two tango dancers or the carefree joy of a young girl prancing across a windswept field.
Kim English, a well-known Denver painter, recalls that Torrez first entered his class at the Art Students League of Denver nine years ago. She was like many beginning painters, he notes: “They smear around the paint and try to make the painting resemble what they are looking at. Michelle did that for awhile, but she was never happy with the results. And then she started making interesting lines—big, bold lines. She also started making big, free strokes. They were a little out of control at first, but she reined them in. And then she just took off.”
Today, Torrez paints in informal figure drawing sessions with English and a few other Denver-area fine artists. English says he is always impressed with her paint application because, like her lines, there’s always a feeling of motion. “There’s a lot of energy,” he says. “She is most creative about what she picks to paint and how she sees the world.”
Torrez is the first to admit that she may see the world differently than many other artists. For starters, she didn’t have the easiest childhood or take the typical route to a fine-art career. She grew up in a tough Denver neighborhood, the oldest of four children. With both parents working, Torrez was frequently called on to babysit her younger brother, who is severely autistic but was undiagnosed at the time. It was an era when there wasn’t much support or information about the disorder. And the household was chaotic. “We could wake up at 2 a.m. and my brother would be moving all the furniture to the middle of the house. Or he might be cutting off my hair. No one slept in that house for years,” she remembers.
From an early age, she turned to art as a refuge. “I often invented a very happy, beautiful world—a place where I wanted to be,” she recalls. “I loved to color and make things. I would go into the alley and find cigarettes and matches and make miniature hospitals out of them.” Later Torrez did drawings for her junior high yearbook. And she learned how to survive. In her rough urban school, she entertained the toughest girls with pictures of naked men. Delighted by her handiwork, they in turn protected Torrez.
Torrez describes herself as rebellious back in those days. She was kicked out of high school, married at 17, the mother of two by 20, and divorced by 23. But education was always important. Around the time of her divorce, she earned her GED and went on to study passive-solar design in college. But jobs in the field were scarce, and she returned to her first love, art.
In 1987, she graduated from the Colorado Institute of Art in Denver with a degree in advertising design. She and her two daughters moved to Dallas, where she worked as a graphic designer. But more and more her heart belonged to fine art. Growing weary of days spent in front of a computer, she decided to return to Colorado, where she opened a mural and faux-finishing business to support her family. She also started taking classes at the Art Students League of Denver with English, whom she credits with teaching her how to paint. Soon her work was selling at the league’s art shows and hanging in galleries.
Although her road to a career in fine art was more difficult and circuitous than some artists, she has learned a lot on her particular journey. “I think it has taught me to look deeper,” she says. “For example, I had to read my brother all the time to determine what mood he was going through. Now, I try to read people to create a work that communicates on a human level—so you can understand and connect with the person in the painting.”
With a successful career established, Torrez isn’t content to rest on her laurels. She relishes stepping outside her comfort zone. In 2003, when she heard about a Swiss human rights organization that was going to Sudan to attempt to rescue people out of slavery, Torrez signed up for the trip.
“Radical Muslims had taken over the government and they were trying to eliminate all dark-skinned races. It was genocide,” Torrez says. “They were killing the men and raping the women and training the children to become soldiers. I wanted to document this and put a face on the human suffering there.”
She spent two weeks with the organization in Sudan and sketched and took reference photos—material she turned into a series of paintings when she returned home. The paintings were displayed in a show at Denver’s Abend Gallery and also at the Denver International Airport. In 2007, Denver’s Mizel Museum mounted a group show, 10 Global Artists Interpret Genocide, and Torrez again was asked to exhibit her African paintings. She donated all the proceeds from the sale of her works to help purchase food and medicine for the Sudanese victims.
“It really gave me a sense of purpose. That I could do something I love and make a difference in the world,” she says. “I want to create meaningful work that lifts people up and connects people to each other and offers a deeper understanding of humanity.” Torrez figures she inherited her social conscience from her mother, who eventually became one of the founders of the Autism Society of Colorado, a resource, research, and support group. “I was raised with the idea that if you can help someone, you do it,” Torrez says.
As this story was going to press, Torrez was hard at work in her studio creating paintings for a February solo show at Shaw Gallery in Naples, FL. A bevy of strong women are emerging on her canvases. When asked about the reoccurring theme, she replies, “because that’s the way I am. My paintings are about strength, but they also reflect different aspects of myself and my experiences in the world.”
Saks Galleries, Denver, CO; Shaw Gallery, Naples and Bonita Springs, FL; Vail International Gallery, Vail, CO; Morris & Whiteside Galleries, Hilton Head, SC; www.michelletorrez.com.
Colors of the Night group show, Saks Galleries, February 5-27.
Solo show, Shaw Gallery, Naples, FL, February 12-26.
Solo show, Saks Galleries, October 15-November 6.
Featured in January 2010