In the early work of painter Michelle Jader, it seemed like things were always in motion. Jader, who begins with photos of her subjects and then builds a painting on multiple layers of acrylic panels, would take models to trampoline parks, where she would photograph them jumping, leaping, and diving, capturing their moments of free-fall. As it happens, she was channeling her own feelings of excitement and uncertainty through her work, because becoming a painter in the first place was a leap of faith.
Jader’s educational background was in graphic design, thanks to what she good-naturedly calls the “strong encouragement” of her parents, who didn’t want her to end up as a starving artist.
“I actually hate it when people say anything about starving artists, but they just wanted my path to be as smooth as possible,” Jader says, “so they encouraged me to go the business route.”
At least in terms of her professional life, that strategy worked, and Jader ended up spending two decades running her own marketing consulting business, working with various Fortune 500 companies. But even as her business became more and more successful, she felt a pull towards more artistic expression.
“The most fun I had doing that job was collaborating with all the creative people in design and advertising agencies,” she says. “That was something that I truly loved.”
Finally, in the late 2000s, Jader could resist the urge no longer and began taking painting classes, and it opened up a whole new world for her.
“I fell in love with it,” she says. “It felt like home. I was hooked.”
In fact, she was hooked to the extent that she decided to pursue painting, and the feelings of apprehension, excitement, and uncertainty she felt were immediate influences on her work.
“My work for the first couple of years was all about falling off of the cliff,” she says. “I really didn’t know what the future held. The work I did was all about transition and how you deal with life when you make a big change. They told me in my classes to paint what I knew, so I captured these models in that free-fall moment where there’s that excitement and the sheer joy of trying something new mixed with the fear of not knowing what was ahead.”
As time went on, though, Jader (now balancing painting and marketing work) wanted to further explore the idea of motion mixed with emotion, and she found herself drawn more and more to places like carnivals, circuses, and amusement parks, places where fear and excitement were constantly battling one another.
“I wanted to further explore in a more dynamic way,” she says. “I’d already worked with themes of transformation because my own life feels like it has an amusement park ride. It climbs and drops and spins, and I simultaneously want to stay on and I can’t wait to get off. So amusement parks made sense to me because of the excitement, the joy, the bright lights, the spins, and the whirls.”
This is where the idea for It’s Showtime, an exhibit of Jader’s paintings which opens at Robert Lange Studios this Friday, came from. In her work for this exhibit, there are spinning carousel horses depicted in bursts of color, trapeze artists in mid-air posed in perfect symmetry, Ferris wheels seemingly spinning faster than car wheels, and carnival performers staring at the viewer with an air of mystery. The exhibit is a sensory-overload of color and texture, much like an actual trip to the amusement park can be.
And there’s little to none of the adult darkness we sometimes work into depictions of the circus or a carnival; in these paintings, even the fear of going on a scary ride is tempered with exhilaration.
“You step into a new world at a carnival or an amusement park,” Jader says, “and you also end up challenging yourself to break away from your fears. Depending on the age you are, the rides challenge you to confront what might be a fear of yours. You might be taken in by your imagination or a fantasy world, and it makes you suspend your hesitations. When you’re in that world, you see it with this childlike sense of wonder.”
In a sense, then, It’s Showtime might just document Jader’s transition from excitement and fear to excitement and bravery.
“There’s bravado when you ride that rickety roller coaster,” Jader says, “or when you’re walking by the midway. Are you ‘man’ enough to swing that hammer, or will you scream when you walk through the haunted house? You’re kind of challenging yourself to break through your fears. Most people have walked through those areas and have felt that energy and excitement and perhaps a bit of the fear that happens whenever you’re on one of those rides.”