Michele Usibelli | Dappled Light

Painter Michele Usibelli takes a pixelated approach to a wide range of colorful subjects

By Norman Kolpas

Michele Usibelli, Floating the Big Hole, oil, 24 x 60.

Michele Usibelli, Floating the Big Hole, oil, 24 x 60.

This story was featured in the March 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art March 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

Survey even a small portfolio of paintings by Michele Usibelli, and—while you would immediately recognize the bold self-assurance of her composition, palette, and brushwork—you might find yourself hard-pressed to categorize her work. Just when you’re ready to label her a landscape painter, one of her graceful figurative works might catch your eye. Then, an intricately lit architectural scene draws your attention, or an energetic cityscape, or a portrait that sensitively connects with the spirit of the person she portrays. Not to mention the fact that, while she executes many of her paintings in oil, a good number are acrylics, while still others are painted in the opaque form of watercolor called gouache.

So, how do you pin Usibelli down? You don’t.

“I have the need to paint multiple subjects,” the artist says. “The thought of being strictly a landscape or portrait or still-life painter….” Her voice trails off briefly in consideration. “I don’t think I could keep my paintings interesting to myself.” The same goes for her mediums. “I like having the freedom to choose, because it keeps me interested and excited, just like the subject matter. I need to mix it up to keep it exciting.”

Variety has always been the spice of Usibelli’s life, not only in her subjects and mediums but also in her career path itself. The 55-year-old Seattle-area artist has always pursued the opportunities that have most engaged her, wherever they may lead.

Born and raised in the metropolitan area she still calls home, she showed an early inclination toward visual creativity. “I always was getting in trouble in grade school for doodling and drawing,” she recalls. At first, she dreamed of becoming a fashion designer. “My mom taught me to sew, and I designed and made my own clothes all the way through college.”

In her sophomore year at Bishop Blanchet High School, her goals became even more concrete after she took a technical drawing class. “I loved the precision, linearity, and structure,” she says of her decision to become an architect. She earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Washington in 1985 and instantly landed a job at the large local commercial firm where she had interned starting in her junior year.

Unfortunately, she found her assignment—working on ceiling and lighting plans for a grocery-store chain—far less creative than she had hoped architecture would be. A call from a friend who was leading a tour group through the Canadian Rockies ignited a spark of wanderlust, and in 1988 she changed careers: She went to work in marketing for Aramark, the leading concessionaire in the National Park Service system, where she led groups of travel writers on tours of America’s natural wonders and opened the company’s Salt Lake City office in 1994. A year later, missing Seattle, she returned home as a marketing director for Holland America, in charge of the cruise line’s land-based tours, including excursions to such destinations as Denali National Park in Alaska.

That’s how, on a business trip to Fairbanks in 1995, she met geologist Mitch Usibelli, who was from the town of Healy, 60 miles away. They dated long-distance for two years and married in 1997, with Michele moving to Healy for two years before they relocated to Seattle in 1999.

That Christmas, Mitch gave Michele a gift he knew would be very welcome: a gift certificate for lessons at a local art studio. She signed up for classes with well-regarded teacher Julann Campbell, who had studied under the great Russian-born colorist Sergei Bongart. Every Friday, she hired a sitter to look after their young son and daughter (another daughter would come along in 2001), gathered up her gear, and headed for class. “That was the first time I had ever really picked up a paintbrush,” Usibelli says. The lessons truly opened her eyes. “Julann taught me to see color,” she says. “She taught me to see deeper, to loosen up and be freer.”

At first, trained as she was in a discipline involving precisely drawn lines, Usibelli found it all a struggle: “In my mind, I was an impressionist. But in my ability, I was a very tight painter.” One memorable breakthrough came after about two years of dedicated effort. “I was painting a city scene of downtown Seattle, based on a not-very-good photo that was pixelated. That created the energy and motion I was trying to achieve, seeing the world in pixels of color,” she says. Though she still considered herself “an amateur,” she found herself struggling less and less to express herself freely.

About four years after she began painting, a gallery owner she’d met in Fairbanks invited her to submit a handful of works for a Christmas art show. All of them sold. In 2005, her paintings were accepted into the Oil Painters of America Western Regional Exhibition and the American Impressionist Society’s annual national exhibition. Every year since, more galleries have come on board and more prestigious recognition has followed.

The pixelated approach became a hallmark of Usibelli’s style, characterized by what she describes as “bold, expressive brush strokes. I’m always pushing the limits and not afraid to slop on the paint. When I put a color down on my canvas or board, I don’t touch it again.”

Rather than being haphazardly freewheeling, however, this painting process is, in fact, the result of deep deliberation. “When I approach a studio painting,” she says, “actually putting the paint on the canvas is probably about 30 percent of my entire process. First, I paint it in my mind for two or three days before I start, going through the composition and all the steps and the colors. Every painting I do has a goal for what I’m trying to achieve.”

By way of example, Usibelli offers SUMMER DAY, created in the studio above the garage of her family home in Woodway, WA, based on reference drawings and a plein-air study she did at a small hobby vineyard beside an old home in the wine-country town of Glen Ellen, CA. As she does now for all of her works, regardless of the primary medium she uses, she first toned the surface with a thin layer of acrylic gold paint. “That gives a real warmth and glow to the finished painting, almost like it’s lit from inside, especially since I do a lot of scraping and carving to expose that color underneath.”

Next, she quickly drew in the overall composition using a faint wash of burnt umber—“not very detailed, but more about making sure the house was set in the right spot and my vanishing points and perspective were right.” Then came the brush strokes of color—oils, in this case—starting with her darkest darks, before beginning “a constant dialogue of dark values and light values, thin to thick paint, warm to cool,” until the entire painting was completed.

One more step remained, however. If her keen eye finds it necessary, Usibelli crops many of her paintings in order to fine-tune the composition, a process that explains why she now paints primarily on RayMar canvas-covered boards rather than on stretched canvases in frames. With this particular vineyard scene, for instance, “I cut off a couple of inches from the right side, and maybe an inch off the top, to bring more focus to the dappled, pixelated light over the vines and to make it a little more intimate.”

The level of bravura professionalism found in such meticulous efforts has brought Usibelli continued recognition from her colleagues, with this particular work receiving a silver medal in 2015 from Oil Painters of America. A more recent painting, the acrylic beach scene WINTER ESCAPE, received the Dickinson Signature Member Award at the American Impressionist Society’s show in Park City, UT, last fall. “To get that kind of recognition from my peers is tremendous,” she says simply.

But Usibelli is not content to rest on such laurels. Ever motivated to go on learning, and eager as always to keep her work fresh, she keeps looking for new challenges—or revisits old ones. “When my kids were growing,” she says, “I would pay them $5 per painting to model for me, and I also used to host a weekly painting session where I would bring in live models every Friday. I am thinking about opening up my studio to portrait- and figure-painting sessions again.” Whatever subject she paints, she envisions her work becoming more and more simplified, even to the point of abstraction. “It creates a better experience when I choose to omit things, leaving them for the viewer to fill in,” she adds.

She also thinks about exploring a different medium entirely. “I want to do some sculpting,” she says, “similar to my approach to carving paint on my canvases, starting with clay and ultimately experimenting with casting bronzes. So I think maybe I’ll take some classes and see what that whole medium is about.”

Considering what resulted from the series of classes Usibelli took 18 years ago, it may not be long before she’s achieved mastery of that three-dimensional medium as well.

representation

Cortile Gallery, Provincetown, MA; Reinert Fine Art, Charleston, SC; The Fairmont Gallery, Sonoma, CA; The Mission Gallery, St. George, UT; Frame of Reference Fine Art, Whitefish, MT; Michele Usibelli Fine Art Studio, Woodway, WA.

This story was featured in the March 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art March 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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