Among Detroit’s talented visual artists and creatives, Michelle Tanguay is carving out quite a niche for herself. While nurturing the city’s art scene as co-founder of the Pop Up Detroit gallery, Tanguay made a name for herself painting life-sized portraits of women. Equally photorealistic and impressionistic, the oil paintings are often awash in color, geometry, patterns, and an occasionally dreamy haze. But Tanguay isn’t afraid to create works that feature darker hues and subject matter, be they paintings on canvas or large-scale murals.
Tanguay, who grew up in Niagara Falls and dropped out of school at age 17, found in Detroit a city and people that were inspiring and creative. After earning her GED, she studied Fine Arts at the College For Creative Studies. 10 years on, Tanguay tells The Creators Project that she cannot imagine living or working anywhere else. In Detroit, she has all of the artistic support she needs. But the city has also given Tanguay a network of women who serve as inspiration, often appearing in her paintings. Some appear in the series Girls&Sweets, which will be appearing this month at POW! WOW! Hawaii, a week-long celebration of art and murals in the Kaka’ako district of Honolulu.
“I paint what I know,” Tanguay says. “I am surrounded by strong, independent, hardworking, and beautiful women.”
“Themes change, depending on mood and environment but women are always the leading role,” she adds. “Historically women are often depicted as an accessory, but the lively women that I paint would never allow that to happen.”
The Girls&Sweets series grew out of these relationships, but it also had its origins in a toothache. Tanguay says it was the result of her sugar addiction and overindulgence in sweets.
“The intense, loud color was inspired by the colors I found in the candy I was consuming,” she says. “The cinematic appearance can be attributed to my attempt to capture a moment of seduction. More specifically the moment when the power shifts to the seductress. My studio was/is often filled with beautiful temptresses and large bowls of candy. I found myself seduced by both and I simply painted what was in front of me.”
Tanguay’s use of color in Girls&Sweets, and certain other works, is an echo of her childhood. Severly dyslexic and a self-described “awful student,” Tanguay, like many, felt misunderstood and alone. While other students took notes, she doodled. At the back of one of her schoolbooks she drew a circle containing an eyeball. Whenever she felt alone, Tanguay would flip to this page, where she would always find someone looking back at her.
“The current political climate has left me feeling defeated, scared, and alone,” says Tanguay. “I found myself subconsciously retreating to my elementary coping mechanism and drawing eyeballs in notebooks looking back at me. Sketches turn into paintings and paintings need an environment.”
“People are so unpredictable and emotional, it was important for me to create an environment that was the opposite of that,” she adds. “Patterns are predictable and safe. I wanted to create a safe place for people from all walks of life to come together and feel that they are safe and not alone.”
Tanguay’s creative process varies depending on the project. Though she also takes photographs, Tanguay says that oil painting is her preferred media. Gravitating toward photorealism while in school, she spent a lot of time trying to master different oil painting techniques.
These days, many of Tanguay’s paintings are done in oil on canvas, but her larger-scale works and murals are done in acrylic and house paint. To find subjects for her paintings, Tanguay often hands out business cards to every beautiful woman she passes on the street.
“Photographing hot babes sounds like a lot of fun but is actually quite boring,” she says. “I typically have something in mind when shooting them, so the process is usually really quick and only takes about 15 minutes.”
As her upcoming appearance at POW! WOW! Hawaii suggests, Tanguay’s work is impressing eyes far beyond Detroit. At the 2016 Murals In The Market, an annual mural festival held in Detroit, Tanguay met Jeff Gress, a talented artist in Hawaii who asked her to participant in POW! WOW! Hawaii. Although gallery shows and even commercial work excite Tanguay, she likes the spontaneity of the streets.
“A collection of lollipop paintings were enlarged to 20' tall in vinyl and currently cover the exterior of a building in Downtown Detroit,” says Tanguay. “I had a bet that in a week a giant penis would appear across one of the lollipops.”
“The paintings were up for over a year before I received an ecstatic phone call from my ex-boyfriend, laughing hysterically and yelling into the phone, ‘Theres a giant dick on your face!’,” she adds. “I thought it was great: a collaboration between two likeminded strangers. With my other works my hope is that they evoke empathy. Our world can be a dark and scary place at times, I want people to know they aren’t in it alone.”
Click here to see more of Michelle Tanguay’s work.