Growing up on Kiawah gave Michelle Seay a passion for the sea, but she also finds joy in observing people in all their myriad personalities. Her whimsical seascapes and Charleston streetscapes often include the guest appearance of a personified sea creature — a motif for which she’s become well known. Her work is quirky, joyful, and celebratory of local people and place.

City Paper: How does it feel to be this year’s Piccolo poster artist?

Michelle Seay: Excited. Super excited. I’m really thrilled about the festival and everything coming. It’s such a bombardment of spirit and positivity.

CP: Have you participated in the festival before?

MS: I’ve put on independent art shows, and I’ve put up a lot of installations over the years during Spoleto. I haven’t done many official events. I did do a poster two years ago for a Piccolo Puppet Cruise event.

CP: I’ve noticed a recurring shark character in a lot of your work. Where did he come from?

MS: I’ve spent a lot of time on the ocean. I have my captain’s license and have worked for many years on offshore boating endeavors, so I have a lot of firsthand experience with sharks. I think you rely on your experience as an artist, and the sharks originated because of this experience. Now they’ve led to a whole host of characters that pop up in and out of my work. It always surprises me what comes out. It’s an evolution that keeps developing.

CP: What are some of your other characters that show up?

MS: I have the shark man for sure. There’s a pair of hammerheads that frequently visit. There’s a wolf man, an alligator man, and an octopus man. I’m happy to have the hammerhead musician make a debut for this poster.

CP: He’s certainly a great fit! How did you get selected as this year’s poster artist?

MS: I was approached by the city to participate, which was such an honor. They provided me with full artistic license and encouraged me to make it my own, but the suggestion was made to investigate St. Philip’s Church as inspiration — perhaps because the city was familiar with my streetscapes. I started with the steeple and the gate and then added in the people and celebration behind it. I tried to convey enthusiasm for the festival and the joy that it brings.

CP: You mostly create buildings and streetscapes, right? What is it like working on an event piece that’s even more people-oriented?

MS: Actually, they really go hand-in-hand. I always draw onsite in the field. It’s very important to me as part of the process to stand there and capture the moment in time, and I can only do that by actually physically being there and drawing from life and seeing what’s in front of me. And so, in that regard, these characters that pop up in the poster are made from people I’ve actually seen on the street and around town. By showing up and committing to drawing onsite, I’m involved in the experience, and it becomes a dialogue that continues in all of my work.

CP: So do you choose the animal of these characters based on the personalities that you’re seeing around you?

MS: Well I think that they have many facets. The characters just show up for me and portray different feelings or emotions or a certain human component, and I think that the buildings and streetscapes are an extension of the same. It’s a feeling of spirit and of process. But I do travel frequently, and I’m establishing myself as a traveling artist. Committing to a street and to a town and going onsite again and again to get into the rhythm of the fabric of a neighborhood or street is exciting because I actually participate in the community. I’ll see the same people — the mailman, for example, or the guy that comes out at 10:30 everyday to bike. It’s quite an experience showing up and being involved. If I isolated myself in the studio, I would never get that involvement and connection, so it’s a balance between going out and getting that information and retracting to my studio to figure out what comes from showing up.

CP: You speak of your characters in a way that makes me think of a writer collecting personalities for a novel.

MS: That’s a great relation because I think we rely on our firsthand experience as an extension of what we create. I definitely rely on my surroundings for inspiration.

CP: You have such a celebration for humanity in its many forms which is exactly what Piccolo seems to be about.

MS: Yes! It’s accessibility, getting work out there, and celebrating the spirit of our community.

In addition to her role as Piccolo poster artist, Seay will be hosting an exhibition concurrent with the festival at Cannon Street Arts Center called King Rutledge. The work included in the exhibition was created while documenting a roughly two mile stretch of King Street from The Battery to beyond Spring — an almost daily commitment which took place over the course of several months. A year later, Seay did the same down Rutledge resulting in a total of over 200 pieces, each created onsite and representing countless hours of creation.

Follow Seay’s Instagram (@michelleseay3)
or visit michelleseay.com to learn more.

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