While the 28-year-old has worked hard to become a full-time artist, her profile got an enormous boost from a recent illustration she did in support of farmers.
Her ‘No Farmers. No Food. No Future’ design proved an immediate hit and perfectly captured the sentiment behind the recent Groundswell protests. After being shared thousands of times, her run of stickers sold out almost immediately.
“It was completely unexpected,” she says. “I was teaching myself how to use Procreate on the iPad and doodled that little illustration and posted it on Facebook on the morning of the protest.”
The sticker has since been a hot commodity and can be spotted on farmers’ utes and supporters’ vehicles around the country.
For Michelle, the creation is just one of the thousands she has done over the years. The prolific artist has been painting since as far back as she can remember.
“I was always interested in art. Back in kindergarten days, I remember my poor mum having to haul home hundreds of garish poster paint ‘masterpieces’ to stick on the fridge.
“I don’t think I was born with any particular talent for art, just a passion. And I worked bloody hard to get where I am. People often say: ‘oh you’re lucky, you were just born with talent’; but I don’t really think that’s true. I just worked really hard.”
Having grown up in Otorohanga surrounded by cattle and horses, Michelle’s affinity with animals and nature is evident in her artwork. Her Dad is a keen hunter and fisherman in the North Island so she grew up with a passion for that environment.
Specialising in watercolour illustrations, Michelle’s art has evolved over the years and now encompasses paint, photography, digital creations, stickers, and even children’s books.
A common theme is around horses – unsurprising, as Michelle has been a competitive equestrian for many years. While her artwork is now at the forefront of her business, Michelle still attends a number of major horse shows, usually photographing most weekends throughout summer.
“Horse of the Year Show and Takapoto Show Jumping are two of my favourite destinations. I’m also the South Island photographer for Show Circuit magazine and love doing editorial work for them. It’s the side to my job where I get to be social, as the art side of my business (apart from trade shows) is quite lonely at times, but I’m an introverted person so the combination suits me perfectly.”
Michelle has been less active than usual lately following a horse-riding accident in July, resulting in a fractured shoulder, broken pelvis, and ligament damage to her wrist and knee.
The injuries have severely curtailed Michelle’s ability to paint, but fortunately, she’s been introduced to the world of digital art.
“My amazing friend Jess Land brought me an iPad to tinker with while I recover. It’s opened my eyes to digital art and been an absolute life-saver. Between that and Level 4 lockdown again, I think I’d be going completely mad if I didn’t have some sort of artistic outlet.
“I’m not much of a Netflix binger, so being able to create cartoons and new ideas has been really fun. Because of the accident, I decided to make my calendar this year with digital artwork rather than watercolour cartoons like last year.”
Among the calendars created is a Farming calendar and an Equestrian calendar. Also recently completed is a striking Hunting series, featuring a stag, a tahr, and a chamois.
Aside from her unexpected deviation for recovery, Michelle’s artistic path has never been smooth – even more so in the early days. After moving to Christchurch in 2011 to pursue a degree in Fine Arts, which she thought would set her firmly in the right direction, her experience at Whitecliffe College had the opposite effect, resulting in a lack of confidence and halting her artistic aspirations altogether.
“When they say it ruined art for me, that’s no exaggeration. Not a single ounce of artistic talent was required to pass that class as long as you could write an essay about the splash of paint you threw at a canvas and convince somebody there was a philosophical and cultural meaning around it, then that was a pass!
“I didn’t do that. I can’t write essays. I’m not good at learning in a class environment. I painted some wickedly cool stuff, but because I never had the reasoning and essays to back up anything I did, I failed every single assignment.
“After nine months, a lecturer pulled me aside and told me I wasn’t going to pass first year, and I should look into testing for learning disabilities. So, I left the classroom that same day and didn’t look back. I also didn’t paint for two years after that.”
Michelle returned to working in the vet industry, which she had always enjoyed, and picked up her cameras again, returning to photographing horses and horse events, which she had done successfully from when she was about 15.
“My version of today’s business started back then. I had a small photography Facebook page and in the later years of high school, started photographing horse shows for some extra pocket money.
“I invested into a decent camera, and it grew from there. It wasn’t until after I started painting again following the failed art degree and started posting my paintings on social media that I turned my page into an art and photography page. I created a website too, but it was never intended to be a full-time thing; more of a side hustle.
These days, The Art of Michelle Clarke has an impressive following of fans, with a steadily growing range of products. Even Michelle is surprised at the direction things have taken.
“In the beginning, I thought the only way to ‘make it’ as a living artist was to have gallery representation and sell works for five figures. However, I also thought the Fine Arts degree was going to tell me how to become that (also wrong)!
“Things have gone in a much cooler direction, and one I could never have imagined. Now I sell and create things that everyone can enjoy: open edition prints, nursery art, children’s books, stickers, calendars, and stationary. I’m not an elitist brand, which is what so many artists strive to achieve, and not many achieve it either (mostly deceased artists!).”
While Michelle still specialises in large original paintings and commissions, her range includes animal prints, nature prints, and cartoon commissions, alongside stickers, calendars, and other illustrative work.
Home is where the heart is
Living in Canterbury with her husband Stephen, who is a farmer, Michelle is surrounded by inspiration. Following her first book A Horse Named Sydney (based on a true story about her unruly thoroughbred horse Sydney), Michelle followed up with a delightful tale called A Calf Named Penelope.
While still not back at full capacity since her horse accident, Michelle has been using lockdown to try and boost her online presence, particularly as Level 4 hit just as she was in the throes of setting up for one of her biggest events of the year.
“Both Horse of the Year Show and the Auckland Baby Show are key events for me, and I’d done all the work and gathered a lot of stock for these shows – only to have them cancelled.
“It’s been pretty hard-hitting, as the prep that goes into these events is huge. While I’m lucky I don’t sell a product that has an expiry date, it still means I end up with heaps of excess stock sitting around and a lot of time and invested wasted, unfortunately. Small businesses are hugely affected by these lockdowns, and I really feel for everyone in the same boat.”
For more information, visit michelleclarke.co.nz.