Michele Noiset, Associate Professor and Head of the Illustration Department at Memphis College of Art for the past two years, spent the month of July last summer working at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont. I talked to Michele about her experience at the residency, about getting her MFA after a long freelance career, and about balancing academic pursuits with her own work.
You are now teaching full-time, trying to balance that with freelancing.
How is that working?
It has been incredibly hard to find a good balance, I will admit! Becoming a professor after so many years of just concentrating on my own freelance career has proven more difficult then I imagined. I am always looking for tips on time management and setting priorities
Have you learned anything that you can share?
Recently illustrator Lauren Stringer, a children’s book illustrator in Minnesota, suggested that I try the Pomodoro Technique (pomodorotechnique.com). It is a really simple premise, but it is structured so that you focus on one thing at a time and ignore distractions. I have actually been talking a lot about it to students who often have troubles with time management as well.
I know that you just recently joined an online forum as well?
Yes, I just signed up for 12×12 (12x12challenge.com), an forum started by Julie Hedlund. The idea is to get everyone writing, one story a month for 12 months. The forum offers a large online community of illustrators and writers to give you feedback.
You are still involved with SCBWI?
Yes, hosting the SCBWI meetings at the Memphis College of Art once a month keeps me very inspired as. I invite students as well as community members and I have to say, there are some very talented people in the group!
And I’m trying to learn to say no…. just once in a while. That is not going too well.
I do love to stay super busy, but I HAVE to find balance more then anything.
I worked hard to get my MFA and love teaching, but am frustrated with my inability to devote time to my own work. I will keep trying.
Can you tell us a little about the Vermont Studio Residency?
It’s an incredible retreat. Artists from every discipline, as well as writers from around the world, come to focus one hundred percent on their work. Every month they welcome up to 50 writers and artists who have been accepted through their submission process. Here is the link: http://vermontstudiocenter.org/
It is such an idyllic setting!
How did the opportunity to go to the Vermont Studio Center come about?
Memphis College of Art awards this residency to a faculty member each year. I had never done an artist residency. I put in a proposal and portfolio submission and was ecstatic to learn that I had been awarded a spot.
Let’s back up a minute. You returned to school to get your Master’s in Illustration after years of freelancing. Why?
Yep! Best idea I ever had! I felt stagnant, bored with myself. Right before I turned 50, after freelancing for 25+ years, I decided that it was now or never. It changed everything and opened my eyes to so many new things!
Was it what you expected?
It was difficult and juggling school, freelance jobs and family was often a struggle, but I figured it was for a short time. You can do anything if there is an end in sight. I did my MFA in 3 years.
How long ago was that?
I finished my degree in 2011, so close to 5 years ago.
Did you worry about following this path and not finding a job?
Many times! But I had great mentors. My mom brought up 7 kids; my 6 siblings and myself and returned to get her PhD at 50. She moved to North Carolina from Connecticut to teach at UNC Charlotte. She just retired last year after 28 years of teaching.
You did find a teaching post?
I taught for 2 years at UMass/Dartmouth right after I received my degree. I accepted a position at the Memphis College of Art to head the Illustration Department down here just over 2 years ago. It’s been more fun then I could ever have imagined. The Vermont Studio Residency is just one example out of many!
So, yes…back to the residency. What are the accommodations?
Each resident is given a modest room in shared housing.
Your very own room! When was the last time THAT happened?
Residents eat in the main “Red Mill” building where there is additional space for impromptu gatherings or planned meetings. They serve as well as three communal FANTASTIC meals a day. You work and get fed. Can’t beat that!
This is the Wolf-Kahn studio building where I worked. You have 24-hour access.
…And the great group of artists and writers that I met and worked with.
How did you prepare for your month at VSC?
There were two main “camps” of people who attended VSC. The first camp was people who had very specific projects or pieces in mind that they hoped to complete. The second camp were people like myself; wanting to experiment, play, and expand on their existing repertoire.
Working at VSC was the FIRST time since I was 22, as an undergraduate at RISD that I was able to focus all of my time on creating without any freelance jobs or family constraints. It was such a gift!
How was the residency structured?
There are many, many events that residents can participate in: weekly readings by resident writers, open studios, daily figure drawing sessions, yoga and meditation classes, and organized hikes. All of your time is your own.
What did you take away from this experience?
Having the chance to draw every day, just to draw for pure enjoyment, recharged and energized me in a way that I had not experienced in a long time.
How did you organize your time at VSC?
I began each day with 15 minutes of drawing exercise. I decided that getting to the studio and having a specific task prepared me for my studio day
I developed several new directions and developed different ideas.
One was a storyboard and story that I have been working on. I completed the storyboard and continue to evolve the story.
I also worked on an idea that I’m developing with my mom, taking known English children’s rhymes and translating them into French. Providing English music with French words helps children to remember and more easily learn to speak French.
Here is a finish from the series
I also began working on a few rough story ideas that I hope to develop.
For my graduate work, I explored dystopian literature and produced a dark, evocative pastel series very different from my children’s work.
I began an exploration at the Vermont Studio Workshop that was more a continuation of that work. Animal abuse and factory farming was the impetus. Disassociating food with its’ source becomes easy in our modern world. My research grew naturally into a series and has been an exciting exploration and departure from my children’s publishing work.
Any parting words on finding balance?
I will keep on trying! I think that setting up a schedule and sticking to it and not being distracted by social media is a good start. Also, a writer in my SCBWI group just reminded me of “BIC HOK” :Butt In Chair Hands On Keyboard.
I told her I was going to modify it to “BIC HOP” for Hands on Pencil. You can’t get more straightforward then that!
I’m always happy to hear new suggestions though!
Thank you Michele for sharing this incredible experience at the Vermont Studio Residency ! Lots of artists struggle with finding a balance with family, day jobs of various sorts, volunteer commitments, freelance work, personal work and the surprises that life throws at us. Sharing your experiences helps others see they aren’t alone and there are opportunities out there to reconnect with our core….the creative self inside us. It certainly is always a balancing act!