The World According to Michael

From private chef to cruise ship videographer, paper sculptor Michael Velliquette came a long way to find his creative niche in the “absurdly awesome.”

“You should apply to Madison,” she said. “The trees here are realllllly pretty.”

People close to me know how prone I am to suggestion. I’ve made numerous, slapdash choices over the years, and my friend Heather’s offhand remark was all I needed to consider another major life change. In hindsight, this impulsive streak is what’s propelled me into my most memorable escapades and noteworthy breakthroughs. My steady side though…that part of me identifies with being an artist. The studio is my shelter—that familiar place I’ve returned to again and again over the years to process the swirl of the world around me.

During the summer of 1996 I was a cook at a vegetarian restaurant in the chill, gulf coast community of Siesta Key, Florida. I grew up not far from there in a sleepy little town of suburbs and surfboards called Bradenton, and had moved back to the area after completing my BFA in sculpture at FSU in Tallahassee a few years before. Surprisingly (!) fine arts degrees don’t always segue into conventional career tracks, so I supported myself during and after college working in kitchens. I wasn’t making much in the way of art then—a few drawings here and there—my real priority was food. I was into Macrobiotics, a holistic diet believed by its practitioners to have reparative benefits by balancing one’s inner “energies”. Outside of my shifts at the restaurant I was also cooking for a select clientele. I soon became known in the small Macrobiotic community for my flair with brown rice and kale.

At 25, I had a private cooking business that was starting to take shape. It had its perks. I was making good money and there was ample space for creativity, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d just rather be making art. This was the first time I faced this particular dilemma: continue doing something relatively stable and that I’m good at or roll the dice on an artist’s life.

An Artist Inside

This wasn’t always a choice I had to make. I started out in college vaguely as an English major (though at the time my real areas of interest were bong hits and Dead shows.) It wasn’t until I took a few credits in the Art department that I found this calling. On a field trip to my drawing instructor’s studio the strongest feeling of déjà vu came over me. Like many studios, his space functioned as both a workshop and laboratory, playroom and curiosity cabinet. Staring at his creative clutter and pin boards, his sketches, works in progress and supplies, I felt something kick in my core. Even though I had never really been in a formal artist’s studio before, I knew this space. It was the feeling you get when you’re having a really great flying dream or you’re running super fast. It felt boundless. I just wanted to stay there and above all, get to work. And when I finally got my first studio that’s just what I did.

MFA at UW

I graduated with a ton of creative momentum, but I had zero knowledge in funneling that into a profession. My career plan at the time included hitchhiking around the Pacific Northwest. I did so until I ran out of money and had to move back home to Florida. That’s where I found myself a few years later on the phone with my friend Heather. I had decided that I needed to go back for another degree. I looked into Macrobiotic cooking schools, but my boyfriend at the time, a real pragmatist, encouraged me to think twice about venturing into a profession vulnerable to the subtle fluctuations of yin and yang. He thought I should go back for my MFA. I had already applied to clown college the year before on a quirk and had gotten rejected; I figured an advanced degree in studio art couldn’t really be that much different. So following his advice, I applied to a handful of programs, got accepted to UW, and loaded up my ’93 Toyowagon for a journey to Madison.

I hadn’t had a serious studio practice in about five years, so getting back into that space—figuratively and literally—was uncomfortable at first. I chose Madison in part because I only knew one person here. I expected that the social isolation coupled with the long winters would force me to stay in the studio. And that’s what I needed, just to be in there. As blissfully cozy as a studio can be it can also sometimes feel like you’ve walked into a bad hangover. There’s a lot of fumbling around and inability to focus, perhaps a little regret over what you may or may not have done. And like a hangover, there are no quick fixes; you just have to ride it out. It took me almost the first full year to really get back in stride.

I worked mostly on performance-based videos during grad school. I built a set to resemble a cabaret, and the camera was the lone member of the audience. I danced around in dog collars and sailor suits, lip-synced to Donna Summer and Maria Callas, and delivered long, stream-of-consciousness monologues about the coming out experiences of my early 20s and my bad luck with men. This was not good work per se, but it was necessary. An artist’s vocation is sometimes (ahem) distinguished by the way we literally work through our experiences.

Out at Sea

By 2000 I’d finished my MFA and was adrift again, this time literally. The video work I’d been doing gave me some editing skills and I was targeting jobs in the Miami area. I wanted to be closer to my family and in touch with a more active contemporary art scene. I got a call back from Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines (RCCL) that they were hiring a video technician for one of their ships and within a few days I was on a plane to Antigua to join the crew of the Monarch of the Seas.

I was a videographer, which meant I taped passengers in all their glory at limbo contests and belly flop competitions and then compiled the footage into a “cruise memories” video they could buy at the end for 20 bucks. After a few months I was promoted to run operations on a ship doing four-day booze cruises from Southern California to the Baja peninsula. A year into it, I still held an inner distinction between this cruise gig, and my “real” job, which was being an artist. I often used the ship’s camera and editing equipment to make my own goofy, self-conscious videos, and I would draw every night in my cabin before I went to sleep. I could have stayed with RCCL and made a very comfortable life. I had a good salary and was paying off my student loans. My daily commute included ports of call from Barbados to Alaska. I was even dating one of the ship’s cute dancers. But the thing as a whole just wasn’t right. The vision of my life as an artist would rise in mind every night like the tide. When I got offered another promotion on one of the new mega-ships, I saw the choice as another test of my will. So, a week shy of my 30th birthday, I disembarked in Miami and resigned.

Coming Out as an Artist

Really coming to terms with being an artist is not that unlike coming out. You deal with a lot of messy preconceptions about what this identity means, not only from others, but yourself too. Does this mean I’m destined to be a financial failure? Do I have to be tortured? Am I good enough? Will I need a beret? Despite some cultural stereotyping, most artists I know are actually competent and emotionally stable, organized and hard working. True, a certain amount of eccentricity and solipsism are hazards of the job, but what do you expect when an artist’s value to society is so dependent on their ability to express individuality? Still, most artists I know have a healthy sense of self-deprecation, and spend just as much time contemplating the outer world as they do their inner.

Once ashore, I reconnected with friends from graduate school who had settled down in San Antonio. We talked about opening our own artist-run project space and really getting serious about our work. So when I moved my base of operations to the Alamo city in 2002, I began a sequence of events that oriented the direction in my life towards my one true goal.

Texas is where I really first got established. I set up a good studio, started exhibiting my work, made my first real art sales, and got picked up by my New York gallery. I still had a full-time job aside from making art, as the assistant director of a commercial gallery. When the director resigned I was given the opportunity to step into her place and that was the last time I had to make a choice between two careers. I left my position at the gallery shortly thereafter and took up teaching part time. Teaching has been the best thing that I do “on the side” ever since. It has been the only job I’ve had in tandem with my studio work that doesn’t make me feel like my soul is being crushed. Quite the opposite—teaching directly feeds into and back from my own studio interests. I love the dialogue around art making at all levels of experience. I genuinely love being in the classroom, sometimes as much as I love being in the studio.

Back to Madtown

In the spring of 2005 my former graduate adviser emailed to see if I was interested in coming back to Madison to teach a summer class. Some things in my life are cyclical. I’ve often returned to live in the same place at different phases separated by big chunks of time. So it shouldn’t have been surprising to me that coming back to Madison would also bring with it the prospects of a much longer stay. Boyfriends have also come in pairs. I’ve dated two different guys named Jason, two Patricks, two Matts, and two Bryans. But there only has been and will only ever be one Tehshik. He and I met that summer over brunch at the El Dorado Grill. He just moved from Boston to take a position at UW in the Chemistry Department. He ordered coffee and I ordered a Bloody Mary. We’ve been together ever since.

Since my second move to Madison in 2007, I work more or less full time on my art. I’m no longer burdened by the feeling that I’m supposed to be doing something different with my life. I’m an artist. I’m known primarily for my elaborate sculptures with cut paper. But if I’m feeling philosophical I’ll tell you that it isn’t so much what I’m making as how I make it that seems to bring the most purpose to this path. It’s a desire to manifest an interior sense of self, an unshakable vision that wants to take shape in the world, pretty trees and all.