A Purple Daydream
I'm not sure when it was, exactly, that I first became aware of her work, but I do remember that she grabbed my attention to the point that I had to double back and take a second look. She has an affinity and appreciation for the historic, the vintage, the abandoned and the run-down; she seeks them out and renders them with a practiced, if untrained eye. I'm speaking of Michelle Summers, the proprietor and force behind the Etsy shop, SouthernHippie. I recently had an opportunity to have an extended conversation with Michelle, a conversation that was interrupted, almost in mid-syllable, by the recent tornadoes that laid waste across northern Alabama; she lives in Birmingham, just north and east of Tuscaloosa. I came away from our conversation with a sharper appreciation for the artist and her work; I'd like to share that conversation with you now.
Steve: In order to know more about who a person is, I believe it's useful to learn about what came before; so, Michelle, what can you tell us about your early years? You know, where are you from? What was it like growing up? What's your family situation? What are some of the pivotal points along life's winding path that brought you to where you are today?
Michelle: I was born and raised in
, a quintessential small town. My childhood was filled with a vast imagination; from as early as I can remember I was always in my "own little world". Maybe used as an escape from the difficulties of growing up, I could see the world in a very creative way. Anniston, Alabama
While maybe not what some would call "book-smart", growing up I learned real quick like that I was better with a paint brush than a math book. So it was that after high school I enrolled in a local university's art program; but, with the many distractions life presents us with, I left school without obtaining my degree....something I will surely kick myself for all the rest of my days.
For most of the next decade I abandoned art in every form; I became a robot to society. I was tending bar when I married in 2005; a year later we had our first child and I became a stay at home mom. I had the cute little family and life was good.
But always feeling like something in my life was missing I was depressed to have nothing to be passionate about; I needed to "find myself" again. So with a $200 “point and shoot” digital camera, I started going out with nothing more than a water bottle and road map on what I like to call "photo hunts". I would post my finds on my personal Facebook page and before I knew it, I started gaining some attention.
S: Growing up, was there anyone among your family or friends that influenced or encouraged your creativity? How old were you when you got started, and what sort of media or activities did you focus on to express yourself?
M: I really don’t know where I got the art bug; no one else in my family seemed to share my interest. I was in middle school when I started doodling cartoons, and by early high school I decided I wanted to go to college to become a cartoonist. I wanted to create my own cartoon to hopefully be published in the newspapers one day.
I always had a love for photography, though! I admired it from afar but never imagined I would one day pick up my own camera. I have had no schooling with a camera or in the use of editing software; I’m totally self taught.
Music is just as important to me as art...for essentially they are one in the same. As a child of the 90's, grunge and alternative bands appealed to me, but The Beatles were my haven. And to this day, I still find inspiration from The Beatles.
S: What were your cartoons about? Was there a message you were trying to get across? Did you favor any particular subject matter?
M: My cartoon was about my little brother and me. I think our adventures growing up were a lot like Calvin and Hobbes. We actually dug up Mom's landscaping once looking for dinosaur bones. The only message is that you can never have enough fun with some outdoor play and imagination.
S: Very cool! I can just visualize the two of you on your very own paleontological dig in the backyard...and bringing in the thigh bone from a T-Rex to show your mom. What a hoot!
You said just a moment ago that you "... always had a love for photography” and that you “admired it from afar..."; what was it that drew you to photography, what was it that you admired?
M: We were a hoot! Trouble even ;) I feel bad for our Mom, but now looking back, those were some funny adventures. Although, it does make me nervous about my two boys growing up, no telling what they will get into.
A Place To Call Home
The idea of capturing a memory in time, timeless pieces; what a treasure photography can be! Like when I photograph old abandoned houses, I like to think I am giving them immortal life.
Before I snap the camera, I can see the end result. I can see what I want the picture to become after editing and framing. So photography gives me a chance to release those images in my head and show the world through my lens.
S: When did you pick up your first camera? Do you have any film experience, or is it all digital?
M: Ha-ha, as a kid I was NEVER without one of those disposable cameras...back then, everyone had one. Now for the earth and all, I am glad we have moved past them.
I never worked with film, unless you count the disposable cameras. I got my first digital in 2005....just a simple point and shoot $200 Cannon. I didn't start taking photography seriously until August 2009, so I am about to hit my two year mark.
S: Clearly, photography is a passion; what inspires you?
M: Being a HUGE history geeker, anything with a past attracts me. I love to imagine the stories behind old places, the people who once lived in them. My photography has a southern feel to it, an ambiance that can only be found here in the
Deep South. I would say that my style is a blend of rustic history with a dash of old southern charm.
S: When you get that itch to go shoot, what attracts your lens? What is a normal photo outing like for you? Do you have any favorite places you like to go to capture images?
M: What attracts my attention to photograph? Anything with a past; old anything; abandoned anything. I know nothing about cars but I can really appreciate an older one. I love the thrill of an abandonment. It's somewhat haunting to explore an old place. I am also extremely girly so flower photography has a place in my heart as well.
A normal outing for me is usually well planned. I map out my route and bring along a water bottle, a sack lunch and a list of places I plan to find. I usually do research ahead of time to discover the history behind a particular home or site I wish to explore.
Of course, with the use of GPS, going off the beaten path is my ultimate joy. I like to avoid interstates and busy highways. I want a good county road or dirt road...maybe even a no trespassing sign or two. ;)
I feel it's better to apologize later rather than ask permission, and I have only been chased by dogs a handful of times. It all comes with the territory and thrill of the hunt.
As for my favorite places, I usually don't give those away :) I love rural scenes the most though.
S: Do you have any favorite photographers or roll models? Is there anyone you particularly admire, try to emulate or are inspired by? Can you share some of that with us?
M: I wish I had a better answer...makes me want to improve on this topic. But I don't have a favorite photographer; sad, I know.
I admire tons of Etsy photographers...lots of talent out there in the photography world but to name a particular photographer, I am afraid I cannot.
The Road That Leads To You
And I don't try to emulate anyone, I do exactly the opposite. I really want my photography to unique; one of a kind.
S: So, Michelle, what does the future hold for you? Where is photography taking you, or where are you going to take it?
M: What does the future hold for me? Here's hoping I can live in a world of arts, always...that I can maintain my passion for photography. May I continue to learn and improve....I am hoping I can create a legacy for the places I find and photograph. Give them life even after many years have passed.
It's sad, I once photographed a little old country store (the print is actually for sale in my Etsy shop) and I recently found that the store had been torn down. I had thought I'd go back to photograph it again but it's just gone.
I think all the photographers out there who are photographing all of these places that tell of our history are helping to keep it alive. Conservation...and that's important for the generations to come.
So here's to my plan to continue to do something that makes me happy and keeps me feeling passionate in life :)
Lost In Thought
S: That sounds like a fine plan to me, Michelle; it's hard to go wrong if you're pursuing your passion and doing what makes you happy. I wish you the best of luck with all you do! Also, I want to thank you for taking this time with me, especially with all that's been going on down there with the tornadoes and such. I hope all remains well for you and yours in the weeks and months ahead.