Michelle Rouch drew fashion models on Mars

Welcome to STUDIO SPACE, a new ROCKETGUT! series where we profile people who work at the intersection of art and science!

This week, we’re talking with Michelle Rouch, a Tucson, Arizona-based artist who has a knack for painting portraits of astronauts, celebrities and historical figures in surreal settings. Not only is Michelle an artist, she’s an engineer who has worked for the Department of Defense for 28 years and is the vice-chair for the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), Tucson section.

Michelle said she uses her art skills as a way to encourage kids to go into science and engineering fields. For our first episode of STUDIO SPACE, we asked her about her creative process, the concepts behind some of her pieces, and how she balances work, life, and art.

How did you get started as an artist?

I have drawn all my life and call myself a self-taught artist. My best murals were created with crayons in the back of a closet with big, swooping strokes. They no longer exist because I had to clean the walls when I was grounded. I can remember as far back as 5 years old, getting scolded by my mom. Blue was my favorite color because it stood out on the white wall.

What or who has been your biggest inspiration in science and in art?

Leonardo da Vinci has inspired me the most in both science and art. The scientific and artistic breakthroughs during his time have not been repeated. No one person has performed this type of intense perfection and I admire his inventions, designs, and artistic abilities.

Describe your creative process. How much planning goes into a piece of art?

As an engineer, I approach every project like a program manager and use the Agile methodology. Unfortunately, I can only scrum with a team of one. All aspects of the design must happen at the beginning to reach a feasibility state, with me asking myself, "Can I undertake the project while working a full time job?" Looking back at my projects, the planning phase is about four times as long as the implementation of the artwork.

Describe the concepts behind Astro Girls.

My Astro Girls were inspired while furloughed by the U.S. government in October 2013. The inspiration came when I reluctantly went to a coffee shop with my best friend and saw 1950s fashion models displayed on the wall in the women's bathroom. Instantly, I wanted to draw these models wearing astronaut suits.

Regardless of the environmental safety factors, I designed snug-fitting spacesuits on a series of sexy-looking 1950s models holding laser guns — with the girls clutching the weapon like a purse. The reason the women hold their weapons like that is because the government doesn't always offer good training after giving weapons to warfighters. After a year of drawing the series, I finally drew them holding the weapons correctly.

Astro Marilyn, © Michelle Rouch

Astro Marilyn, © Michelle Rouch

Astro Girls, © Michelle Rouch

Astro Girls, © Michelle Rouch

Do you have any works in progress that you'd like to talk about?

I am currently recreating one of my favorite pieces, "Ethereality," an original painting enhanced with abstraction. I am inspired by Buzz Aldrin’s vision for space exploration and a mission to Mars, and the painting depicts a colorful representation of a heavenly area on the Moon. The first Ethereality size was 11-by-14 inches and is now on permanent exhibit at the Museum of Flying in Santa Monica, California. It was unveiled at the California Hall of Fame when Buzz Aldrin was inducted. The one in progress is much bigger and more complex; it's 22-by-30 inches.

A new, in-progress Ethereality, © Michelle Rouch

A new, in-progress Ethereality, © Michelle Rouch

How do you balance your job/family with your studio time?

I find creativity in every possible moment when I have some time alone to think. It works very well for me. I visualize, organize my thoughts on current and upcoming projects, plan, and gain inspiration while driving in the car with no music on, taking walks, walking from the car to the office, in the bathroom, waiting for meetings to begin, during lunchtime, after work, and on weekends. There are a lot of minutes where I am idle and can find a moment in the stillness to balance my art career, family, and job.

When do you paint?

Some of my best works are developed when traveling. Imagine creating and completing artwork in a car or plane. My USS Arizona was painted while sitting in the back seat of the car, while my husband and son were driving to Port Hueneme Navy Lodge. It's 8-by-22 inches long. I created the Astro Katz series flying to Greece in April 2018, and on my return flight I created Astro Mona, my version of Mona Lisa on Mars.

Astro Mona, © Michelle Rouch

Astro Mona, © Michelle Rouch

Astronauts are featured in so many of your paintings. What about them allures you?

Humans have achieved great engineering accomplishments, and with great sacrifice comes great success. I gain inspiration in hearing the stories of astronauts and pilots, and make paintings to reflect my emotions.

One piece of artwork is called "The Spacewalk from Hell" — a quote from astronaut Gene Cernan's book. It reflects similarly with David Bowie’s lyrics to ‘Space Oddity.' On the Gemini 9A mission in 1966, Cernan went on the second U.S. spacewalk. It was time to leave the capsule, stepping through the door, floating 'round the tin can, but after an exhausting 2 hours and 8 minutes and multiple attempts to retrieve the Astronaut Maneuvering Unit (AMU), Cernan barely managed to get back into the capsule. Major Tom was a fictional character who lost communication and floats into outer space. However, the commander of Gemini 9A, Tom Stafford, never gave up on his pilot, Cernan.

The Spacewalk from Hell, oil painting on 23.5-karat gold leaf, © Michelle Rouch.

The Spacewalk from Hell, oil painting on 23.5-karat gold leaf, © Michelle Rouch.

Michelle Rouch, left, and astronaut Gene Cernan discuss "The Spacewalk from Hell" at the 13th Annual Living Legends of Aviation in Beverly Hills.  Courtesy of Michelle Rouch

Michelle Rouch, left, and astronaut Gene Cernan discuss "The Spacewalk from Hell" at the 13th Annual Living Legends of Aviation in Beverly Hills. Courtesy of Michelle Rouch

Thanks for reading episode 1 of STUDIO SPACE. Are you an artist inspired by space, or do you have an artist you’d like to recommend for a future episode? Email us at rocketgut@gmail.com!

STUDIO SPACEJason Davisbottom3