When Wellington artist Michele Bryant needs inspiration, she looks to the skies. She shares how her art explores a sense of belonging and meaning.
Ever since she was a child, Michele Bryant has been immersed in flight.
The Wellington-based artist, whose large prints and black resin aeroplanes evoke the power of aircraft, became obsessed with the top-dressing planes at her family’s Hawke’s Bay farm. “We had an airfield on the farm and my siblings and I would lie on a hill watching the planes take off over us,” Michele says. “The shape of an aircraft holds a lot of meaning for me.”
Hers was an arty household. Her mother crafted, and her father was “like MacGyver – able to make whatever we wanted”. But it was the art teachers at boarding school who really opened her eyes to the possibility of a creative career. Drawn to the work of Auckland painter and printmaker Stanley Palmer, Michele inveigled her way into his studio. “I told him I’d work for free in the holidays if he could show me what to do.”
So she did, spending five years of her school holidays learning all she could about the ancient art of printmaking. Next came design school in Wellington, as well as papers in art history and a diploma in teaching art.
While teaching in Auckland, Michele got a phone call that would change her life: Would she like to do the costumes for The Lord of the Rings?
She moved to the capital and spent four years crafting metal armour for the blockbuster trilogy. This was where she met her husband, artist and paint-effects specialist Jonathan Brough, when they were both creating actor Viggo Mortensen’s costume.
After working on Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai film, and a stint as a costume tutor in Nelson, Michele had her first child, Jack (now 17), followed by daughter Evelyn four years later.
Ignoring the naysayers who said it was difficult to make a living as an artist, in 2003 she installed a printing press in her Island Bay garage, and she’s been working as a full-time artist ever since.
Today, Michele makes large prints of travel-influenced images such as planes and suitcases, as well as animals and trees.
“A lot of my work has to do with a sense of belonging, of tūrangawaewae. I have a second studio on my parents’ Hawke’s Bay farm, which is somewhere I feel very grounded. I’ve planted lots of trees on the farm, so that’s also a recurring motif in my work.”
Michele hand-draws these images before printing them on Italian paper, usually the bigger the better. “Large images and symbolic shapes can carry a big initial graphic punch. If you then lean into the work, it’s possible to find further information and meaning.”
She’s also well known for her resin aircraft, which have an ever-expanding list of place names etched across their wings. Larger planes are made using a mould she painstakingly carves from wood.
Although Covid scuttled some of Michele’s exhibition plans, she’s now working on a series of large metal sculptures, some as high as 23m, which she hopes to exhibit this year.
“They’re to do with flight and I’ve gone big with them because it’s getting close to the scale of the functional objects I’m inspired by.”
When Michele isn’t splitting her time between her Wellington and Hawke’s Bay studios, she can be found running along Island Bay beach or in the hills behind her home. “I’ll often use that time to work out a process or how I’m going to create something,” she says. “Having a rush of oxygen to the brain really helps the artistic process.”