Gina Michaels’ life has all the elements one might expect to find in an artist’s biography: time spent living in New York City, a connection with the natural world, fluency in French, deep spirituality, a quirky studio – it is all there.
But there was a time before Michaels lived the life of an artist. A time when she did not even consider taking up the artist mantle.
Art seemed like a male’s world. “I knew artists, but they were all men,” Michaels said, recalling her youth in Westport, Conn. Michaels’ grandfather, Irving Brodsky, collected art, and took her to visit several artists’ studios, but all were male.
Michaels thought her life would follow a fairly traditional trajectory. She would find a husband, get married, start a family. Then she graduated high school, and in the limbo between secondary education and college, Michaels’ life changed drastically.
She had expected to spend her post-graduation summer playing cello in a music program in Italy. But when the program rejected her application, Michaels’ summer suddenly opened up. Her mother suggested she study art in southern France through a Sarah Lawrence College program.
“She just said ‘Oh, you like to speak French, you like art, why don’t you go?’” Michaels said. With nothing to lose, she packed up and shipped out to southern France where, she said, “They handed me a hammer and chisel and put me in an abandoned limestone quarry. And I was just totally transfixed.”
Michaels said her grandfather, an enthusiastic art aficionado, would have loved to see some of her work. He never got the chance. A week after Michaels arrived in France, her grandfather was dead.
But, in a way, he got to be her first patron. Just before Michaels left for France, Brodsky gave her some money to use on her trip. Michaels’ parents had intended to visit her in France later that summer, but Michaels’ mother was an only child. She could not leave Michaels’ grieving grandmother alone so soon after Brodsky’s death.
So Michaels stayed. Using the money her grandfather had given her, and picking grapes for a little extra cash, Michaels stayed in France and carved stone for five months. It was her first real experience with art.
After earning her degree in Art and Art History from Oberlin College, Michaels moved to New York City, a hotspot for artists.
“And I thought, ‘Well, if I’m going to be an artist, then I need to know New York, and I’ll probably stay here about two years.’ And then I stayed 15 and really thought I was never going to leave,” Michaels said.
But she did leave. New York was expensive, and the city could be overpowering.
“New York, at that time, was a pretty tough place and I very much loved it but I also felt that I had become tough. And I wanted to see what would happen if I dropped the New York artist persona, who would be there,” Michaels said.
So, in 1990, her soul-searching brought her to Philadelphia, where she earned her Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Pennsylvania. Within a few years, she wound up in Germantown, near John Phillips’ studio.
Phillips, an artist who renovates and restores statues around Philadelphia, was living out of his studio after breaking up with his first wife. The two met up, collaborated and a few years later were married.
Then, in the late 1990s, Phillips arranged a sand-casting party that would change Michaels’ life forever. “All I knew is I was going to go like that in the sand,” Michaels said, holding her arms up, elbows together and fingers outstretched, demonstrating the symmetrical form she made that day.
Michaels pressed her figure into the sand and watched as molten metal was poured into the form and hardened. Then she saw what she had created.
“I turned it over and I was totally blown away. And my work completely changed,” Michaels said.
She began working in bronze-casting, forming shapes in the sand with her hands and feet, and then using molten bronze to make those shapes a reality. Soon Michaels began noticing common threads linking the artwork she created – the pieces all looked like plants, she thought. And suddenly, everything made sense.
“All of this work comes from that one moment, and then that one realization that hands really were leaf-like, that arms are branch-like,” Michaels said.
Today, Michaels toils away in an old sheet metal shop that has been converted into a studio. Artwork was scattered about the open area inside the Lena Street building, all bound together by one, guiding principle: to highlight the natural connections between human beings and plants. She happily ticked off their various similarities: they both have circulatory systems, they both exist vertically, the list went on.
And Michaels said she believes that pressing her body into the sand and casting the resulting shapes helps her channel that connection. “I like that I’m recording gestures, that I’m recording movements and that there really is that direct body connection,” Michaels said.
It sounds almost like a spiritual experience – and for Michaels it is. “I actually consider this work to be my practice, my spiritual practice,” Michaels said. And as with her art, Michaels’ spiritual life also consists of fusing two seemingly disparate elements into one complete experience. Michaels is a Jewish Buddhist.
Some people may find this description contradictory. Michaels would disagree. “They’re about encountering the world,” she said, discussing the two religions’ similarities.
Though she also admits that Judaism and Buddhism are not without their differences. “I feel that studying a religion that really has a contiguous connection to its ancient roots gets me to a place that Judaism has lost,” Michaels said.
Her affinity for ancient roots extends beyond plants and religion and into the family tree as well. She has been thinking a lot about family history recently, especially her great-grandfather, Aaron Brodsky.
Michaels never really knew the elder Brodsky. Still, she sees reflections of her life in his. Like Michaels, Brodsky was an artist: a blacksmith who did decorative ironwork on the George Washington Bridge.
“He died when I was 1, the great-grandfather, and the shop had been long closed so it’s not something I ever saw. I barely even knew about it,” Michaels said. “And now here I am, with my own anvil.”
See her work at https://www.ginamichaels.com