Ever since she was little, Chelsea Michal Garter’s been more interested in capturing the feeling of a person, animal or experience than making a picture-perfect recreation. Her abstract (sometimes semi-abstract) art has made her a name around town, this year winning Best Artist with tons of votes in Revue’s Best of the West readers poll. Raised in Lowell and homeschooled all the way up to college, Garter said she had plenty of free time to hone her abilities and express herself through art. She also attributes her abilities to all the great instructors she’s had over the years who continue to push and inspire her. We talked with Garter about her artistic journey and where her inspiration comes from.
How did you get involved with art? How has it evolved?
When my career took off, I was painting these large abstract animals. They would just sell. They were abstract and I used different colors but I would still get a little bored. People would be like ‘Oh, you paint animals!’ and I'm like, ‘Hey, I don’t know if that's the vibe I want to go with.’ It was awesome and a great start to everything, but I sort of used the same color scheme and started doing abstract work. It was really hard to transition because people now still come up to me and say, ‘Oh, you're the one who paints animals,’ but that's people that knew my work from 10 years ago. I just started painting large abstracts.
What about when you were first making art?
The first thing I did when I was little was portraits all the time. I was obsessed with trying to make perfect faces and it's hard, so I started doing line botanical studies. I started doing those first as simple lines and ended up transitioning into work on faces and such. I was just dabbling and having fun with it and I ended up wanting to do much more with it.
What is a recent piece you're proud of?
I have one hanging at Linear restaurant downtown. I painted it in 2017, so it isn't super recent, but I love it. I’ve kept it at my own house on my walls and haven’t had it anywhere until this August. It means a lot, because I painted it while my grandpa was declining in health, so I definitely feel close to it. It was a weird time in my life — I journal with my paintings and it really signified a certain season or chapter in my life.
What is your planning process, or is it in the moment?
Usually I have some planning, a few images with color palettes that are inspiring to me and then go with the emotion I'm trying to portray. I have so many journals and I put my ideas in there. There is always a thought for a new piece processing, written down somewhere. It’s kind of like little dances and ideas of what the next abstract will look like. For line drawings, I just see people and faces I love and it's fun.
What do you want people to see when they look at your art?
I think I want it to evoke emotion for sure. Everyone experiences it differently. It’s kind of funny and ironic actually; when I'm sad, I tend to paint with really bright colors. I think I want to bring joy and life and good emotions when people look at the paintings and drawings I’ve done. I think it's OK to be sad when looking at them too. I paint with neutrals sometimes to create a calming or peaceful look. I think my faith has guided me to want to paint vibrant colors to show there is a light in the darkness. I just really want to change my little corner of the world with color and using paint.
Who are your artistic influences?
A big one of mine is Helen Frankenthaler. Otherwise, I would say some other artists that inspire me would be Kooning, Franz Kline, Cy Twombly, Laelie Berzon, and Matisse. They're all amazing artists who helped me find how I want to paint and do my art.
What are you working on right now?
I have a few murals coming up! I have some that will be in downtown I’m really excited for. It's so fun to see these little drawings I have done or been inspired by get blown up. I also have a few shows until the end of the year at Ferris Coffee and Stovetop Coffee Roasters.
What is your biggest goal with art?
My biggest goal is to sell enough to keep me painting. It’s just something I am really grateful for.
You do a variety of art. What’s your favorite size to work in?
I love using four-by-five foot canvasses. I feel so free when I paint that big, I think the space just makes it feel more open. I have never made a huge one I don’t like, so when I get to paint that large, I trust it. I would love to paint bigger, I just haven’t found someone to make canvases bigger than that yet.
Do you think West Michigan is a good place for artists?
Absolutely. It’s so good over here. I feel like it’s growing and there’s something happening here. It’s got such an energetic and artistic vibe coming from the youth, and people are so excited about art here. It makes it easier to sell art here, because you know people appreciate it.
Left: For better or worse. Middle: Chelsea Michal Garter. Right: June. Courtesy Photos
What is the best advice you would give to a new artist?
Just start. Find an artist you like and copy their pieces. Practice their art, but don’t show off their work you copied though! Work on that with other artists until you intertwine what you really like and make it your own. Then you can start showing off art and create your own vibe. Start putting it out there, don’t be afraid.
What is the best advice you’ve been given?
It would have to be from one of my writing professors a long time ago. He told me to ‘write a picture,’ and I take this same advice for my paintings, ‘paint an expression.’ This is why I am drawn to action painting and abstract expressionism, because it is only in that same moment you can express or ‘write’ the feeling/emotion. In the same way, my line faces are not meant to be pretty, they are done quickly and meant to be an abstraction of the people’s faces that I see.