A Beauty Behind Art: Michelle Papillion

In a world where the term “artist” is overused and wrongly identified as a term befitting anyone who can rhyme over a beat or sell a movie ticket, Michelle Papillion is a breath of fresh air.  Raised in Oakland CA, Papillion is an actress turned creative artist turned art gallery owner with an impeccable sense of style and an enviable air of grace.  In true earth goddess form she describes herself by saying, “today I’m maybe this but tomorrow I can be someone totally different. In general there’s a goal of the kind of woman I want to be…incredible and amazing…that I am working towards everyday”. Coming in contact with her would live one stunned at the very thought that she could possibly find herself anything less than incredible having accomplished so much already.  While always being immersed in the arts in her childhood and adolescent years, Michelle studied classical civilization and art history while attending Howard University, where she also minored in archeology.  Well there goes that “artists are dumb” myth, huh? She is immensely inspiring and has this way of expressing her purpose and journey through this life with such ease that talking to her makes one reevaluate their focus.

A self-proclaimed “self-starter”, Michelle owns and operates Papillion Institute of Art, which opened its doors to the public on April 15th, 2010.  “I don’t like to wait for opportunity to present itself, I make opportunities” Papillion explains, “I like to see people reach their highest potential”. And through P.I.A, Michelle has been able to give artists the space to have their work introduced to the world. Though pursuing acting for most of her adult life, Papillion considers herself a student of art as well as a world traveler. And it was on one of her many trips around the world that the very first foundations of P.I.A were laid. “At the time I was still studying but not knowing what my next step was all I had was a secret desire to be an art gallery owner in my twenties” Michelle says,  “I was working at my friend’s gallery in Nigeria and he would introduce me as Michelle Papillion, owner of Papillion Institute of Art—he would basically make up this whole story about where it was and how wonderful it was and he didn’t even know my secret”.  It would take a move to Los Angeles from New York and a few years for Michelle to begin to realize the dream she had for a place where artists felt comfortable trying, failing and working on their craft. “P.I.A is a culmination of ten years of me being a student of the arts, a work in progress, I’m learning things everyday as an artist. As I keep learning and growing it will continue to flourish”.  And flourish it has. With artists inquiring from all over to be a part of exhibits, what Papillion has begun is a coming together of mediums, expression and ideas to create an artistic playing ground that is inclusive and one of a kind.

To date, P.I.A has been home to two beautiful exhibits. The Hello Show: Inaugural Group Exhibition: April 15, 2010 and Afrikaan Bazaar: June 12, 2010. Both exhibits featured art by young minority artists from all around the world in different mediums, many who Michelle commissioned after stumbling upon their work elsewhere. Papillion doesn’t shy away from the fact that she makes executive decisions; after all, she’s the owner.  “ I don’t show anything I don’t like and when I say like I really mean love…I’ve never really seen a piece of art that I just liked—there’s no grey area when it comes to art” she explains “it’s really just as simple as if I love it and it works for the theme and for my space—I’m going to use it”. It is no happenstance that walking into an exhibit at P.I.A. sparks ideas, conversations and emotions. Every aspect of the experience, from music to food, has a touch of perfection that is also reflected in the work presented. Though the gallery is a place where professional artists can have their work praised, Papillion stresses that the space is also a safe environment where they can come to grow and learn. But it is not some elitist group where only people who know the difference between a colour and a color can come for intellectual discussion. With its location in the heart of what was once known as South Central, P.I.A is truly an institution of learning. “When I was looking for a home [for P.I.A] I wanted it to be in a community where it would be appreciated and needed—I wanted to expose people to art who may never come in contact with it otherwise”, she says.  “It’s as simple as someone coming in to ask me about art and then it extends to artists coming in and teaching people” she explains “we’re all about finding out what people need and what their problems are and finding an artistic solution”. The neighborhood that Papillion Institute of Art calls home is surrounded by what most would call poverty. It is a community where assuming that one has been to a museum or has been introduced to the works of Jacob Lawrence, Vincent Van Gogh or Gordon Parks is a long shot and so the presence of a free art institution is bigger than it seems. “The first week we were here, people would stop and look in the window and not come in…by the third week people were coming right in and asking questions—being involved”. And so Michelle has already decided that the Institute should open its arms to children in the area who want to learn the basics in visual arts. The Papillion Institute of Art Summer Art Academy offers children a series of classes and workshops, totally free of charge, from working artists who agree to volunteer their talents and time.  “If you build it, the people will come—I honestly believe that” Michelle says. And they have.  Already the summer art academy has had to expand to include older children in the area who have taken an interest in arts or who’ve had it all the time and yet never had a space they felt safe to practice in.

Along with the opportunity and space to practice and appreciate art, Papillion has simple desires as to what she hopes people will take away from their visit to the gallery. “I just want them to feel SOMETHING, to have a thought. Anything more than that…I’m highly appreciative of…but if we can just simply achieve the thought—I’m good.” And is that not the purpose of art? To inspire, to enrage, to evoke any and all emotions that come to mind, to challenge people’s ideals? As it is with a play or a great song, so it is with a piece of art. Papillion is intensely serious when she explains “art is for everyone” and that it is not her job to force her ideas of what each exhibit means or which pieces speak to her.  But Michelle’s space is about allowing everyone to have his or her individual experiences, to let life be art if only for that moment that he/she is standing in the space surrounded by visual brilliance. Art no longer only exists in stuffy corridors with wine and cheese being served. It exists next door. It exists wherever you’re willing to create it. It’s living, breathing and growing at Papillion Institute of Art.


For upcoming exhibits and more information visit papillionart.org

Written By: Iman Milner

Photos By: Ashley B. Nguyen

BCTV: The P.I.A. “Hello Show” from Broccolicity TV on Vimeo.