Michelle LeFade is a Toronto cartoonist, illustrator, graphic designer, you name it. Renown for her signature female characters, Michelle's art oozes of sensuality, empowerment and sexy female presence. I invaded her home studio not long ago and we had a stirring conversation about her art, influences and the exposure of personal experience.
What inspired “Body Party”, your first series of illustrations?
Body Party was inspired by moments with my friends out dancing and having fun. The first little cartoon that sort of got the ball rolling was based on this night where a few of my friends were winding on the wall. I remember looking over just in time to see my girl contort her body around and makeout with her boyfriend without anyone being the wiser. (laughs) I drew the cartoon and sent it to my friend as a little joke, after that I would draw more and more of these moments until I realized I had a big collection of them on my hands.
What was it like showing the series for your first show at Capital Espresso?
I’d never shown my work before so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it was something light and playful so I was excited. A lot of my friends hadn’t known that I was working on this series so it was a nice way to introduce people to what I was about. I feel like my community likes to see people come out of their shells and they become inspired to work with you when they like what you do. After the show other artists were reaching out to collaborate on projects or involve me with what they were doing. On a personal level, showing work makes me feel very vulnerable but what I’ve come to understand is that it’s so necessary to be vulnerable if you want to have more immediate connections with people. Feeling that people understand you and relate to you is very motivating.
Did the development of your signature characters emerge while you were studying graphic design?
Sort of. My dad was a political cartoonist and I would always watch him draw when I was a little girl so I’d say my work is definitely influenced by his style most of all. I sort of rediscovered my own aesthetic when I took a cartoon class with Fiona Smyth, a really talented cartoonist in the city. It really opened me up to seeing the range and possibilities of graphic novels as an art form. I learned a lot about ways to dissect the narrative and rebuild it and rearrange it in countless ways. Fiona exposed me to so many feminist cartoonists and she always looked at everyone’s individual style for it’s strengths and taught you how to build on them. She never pressed anybody to change their aesthetic or conform to any current trends and I think that’s how I came to develop my personal style.
You’ve created everything from comics to murals to custom-painted sneakers. What has this experimentation with surfaces been like for you?
I feel like there’s some control in terms of my aesthetic which allows me to work on all these different surfaces and people still see me in the work no matter where it is. I’ve sort of gotten to a place now where I am obsessed with drawing the female body, I’ll photograph myself for reference and then embellish parts of my body as the narrative. There’s so much to explore when you put that body in different places, when you take it to a different scale you’re putting it in a different context.
What did you learn when transferring your art from paper to wall?
For some reason it’s easier for me to draw on a larger scale. I can get the shapes that I want because I feel like I have more room, more space to breathe. It’s relaxing. Size and scale is interesting to me. My friend Jalil Bokhari recently did a project that involved one of my paintings that was quite large, he took the piece outdoors and placed it in different environments: on a balcony, thrown over a car…all of a sudden the woman was smaller had a totally different feel, the scale really effected the mood of the piece for me.
Have you ever struggled with putting out personal and – specifically- sexual experiences in your work?
It’s a little troubling because I want my girls to be sexual but not sexualized, not objectified. I want them to be confident and have a presence and I like the idea of showing the body stripped down but sometimes strange things come out of people’s mouths and you can get discouraged. The way that people interpret women’s bodies is all over the map. At the This Is Not For You show at Edward Day Gallery for example, some people would be saying that it was really cool that I drew a fat girl and I was like, really? I know just from speaking to people that the way that they’re reading that body isn’t exactly what I’m aiming for when I put it out there but I guess you can’t control that. At the end of the day, my girl was hanging high in the gallery and had a position of respect, so that’s hopefully the idea that stuck.
Do you notice a difference in male and female reaction towards your art?
I was actually just going to get into that. I think that curvier bodies are automatically sexualized a lot of the time. Someone with a slimmer body could pose in some way and when that same pose is taken with a larger body it often seems vulgar and inappropriate to a lot of people. People also feel entitled to touch a large, curvy body, slap a big butt or whatever. A lot of derogative comments are coming from dudes but they will play them off as jokes like “Ugh, I just wanna fuck the girls you draw”. Women on the other hand, that I’ve had conversations with when I’m showing my work are what keeps it going. Women will see themselves in different parts of the body, like only the thighs or the waist and identify with the piece.
What do you think makes your work resonate with women on this level?
I mean struggling with body image is something a lot of women can relate with each other on. At whatever point in your life, I’m sure there’s been a time where you weren’t super stoked on whatever you were given. As we grow older we come on this path of discovery where we learn to appreciate things about our bodies apart from being obsessed with somebody’s perception of perfection. I think that’s what I like most about showing my artwork, what I was saying earlier about people feeling like they understand you right away…on a female level we get each other right away when it comes to this topic.
Would you define yourself as a feminist artist? How do you define feminism?
For sure. Feminism is just belief in equality. It’s everyone’s own choice of course, but I personally wouldn’t agree with any woman who says she’s not a feminist. So, if I think about whether or not I’m a feminist artist, I think being a feminist is a big part of who I am and being an artist is a big part of who I am and both of these parts need to be and are strongly represented. It’s less about politicizing my artwork than it is about expressing who I am and how I want to feel, strong. I’m lucky to be surrounded by a group of strong-minded individuals and when I’m creating these images of women we’re always having conversations about how they’re perceived and what kind of message they send. You just have a responsibility as an artist to be aware of who you might be reaching and if you’re not comfortable with the message you’re spreading then why are you sending it?
Are you working on any current projects that have had a special influence on you?
I’m working on something at the moment that I’m not quite sure where it’s going but it’s definitely giving me a fresh perspective. I’m taking photobooth videos or videos from my phone that I’ve made and sent to people and exploring the whole idea of vulnerability that surrounds that activity. You know that feeling you get where you press send on something and have this split second where you’re letting go of the reigns? Sometimes I trip for a second and imagine if it got into somebody else’s hands. We see it with celebrities especially: girl could be naked in any number of publicized editorials but when intimate moments are leaked their naked body becomes shameful all of a sudden. Got me thinking about things I’ve sent to people and whether or not I’d feel shameful about them, and how I could exonerate those images. I want to work with other women too and pay tribute to these past sent, sexy moments alone.
Do you see your illustration as a form of influential social commentary in Toronto?
I hope so, that would be ideal. Although sexual energy is a strong aspect of my work, I think what I’m trying to achieve is for people to look at the domineering presence of a woman as having it’s own energy rather than always being attached to sexuality. People will draw what they want from what you do but I’m always going to strive for a powerful presence that stirs something up and creates tension.