Artists can find inspiration in the most peculiar things. When Canadian novelist Robertson Davies envisioned a woman hit in the head by a snowball, it spurred him to write the 825 page long Deptford Trilogy. When cartoonist Jack Kirby witnessed a woman lift a car in order to save her baby from being stuck under it, he came up with the idea for the Incredible Hulk. Moorhead artist and art teacher Michelle Sailer has found the inspiration for her work from a similarly unlikely source: cancer cells.
A few years ago, one of Michelle’s colleagues had to miss the beginning of the school year because she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Michelle and her art students wanted to do whatever they could to help their friend, so they got to thinking about ways to help her cope during treatment. They looked at healthy cells under a microscope, appreciated their characteristics, and together created a big healing collage of cells for her to look at every morning. Michelle was taken with the meaning behind their work, so Cell-ebration was born.
All of the pieces in Michelle’s Cell-ebration series are inspired by microbiology. Her portraits of cellular cultures are microcosms, swarms of colorful jellybean forms playfully jumbled together. She uses other media like fabric, paint, and gemstones to make larger, framed original art. A great many of Michelle’s pieces are themed after the color of a type of cancer awareness ribbons — pink for breast cancer, emerald for liver cancer, and so on.
“Many people who take my art home with them are suffering from the form of cancer it represents, but not always,” explained Michelle. “My artwork inspired by lung cancer was difficult to conceive at first, because that awareness movement’s ribbon is clear. For it I chose transparent media like sheet foam and glass, and I tried to make natural light as much a part of it as anything else. The lady who purchased that piece didn’t have lung cancer, but she found the sculpture uplifting, positive, and renewing nonetheless. That is what I strive to attain my work.”
“As a disease, cancer isn’t inherently worthy of special consideration,” Michelle continued. “There are many other ailments which deserve artistic interpretation. Cancer is unique to me, however, because its cause is so elemental, a disorder at the level of our biological building blocks. I’m better able to understand a thing that starts at one, specific point, in cancer’s case a cellular change.”
“To me, art is about unraveling my emotions into something I can convey physically. Art is also about telling stories, as we have used it to convey ideas since long before we could do so in print. Art additionally is meant to heal, and I am blessed that my work can so directly help the people who view it.”
Michelle donates a great deal of her work to charity events, and most recently contributed a purple piece to the annual Pancreatic Cancer Vigil and Walk fundraiser here in town. Her Cell-ebration artwork is also available at Fargo Stuff’s gallery at 310 NP Ave N in Fargo, online at cell-ebration.com, on Facebook at Cell-ebration, and on Instagram at cell_ebration. Go and see what art born from the most unlikely of inspiration can look like.
By David Scheller