Michelle Lisa is a Florida born, Haitian-American artist with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Florida International University. Her work explores the delicate nature of human interaction through textiles and photographs. This most recent work combines a previous series of self-portraits, Dancing With Myself, which explored her relationship with herself away from the guidance of her parents, with a new body of work documenting trips and interactions with her parents, If Home Was Home.

Eddie Arroyo
Howdy.

Michelle Lisa Polissaint
Hey!
Ready to start?

Arroyo
Of course.

Polissaint
Okie dokie! Shoot!

Arroyo
Talk to me about the “Dancing with Myself” series.

Polissaint
The series started when I decided to employ an old standard from my high school art teacher, “If you don’t have anyone to draw, draw yourself” except I wasn’t drawing anymore, I was photographing. With drawing it was really easy to draw myself because I could manipulate the drawing as much as I wanted. Photography was different, I had to be just a tiny bit more honest.

I was photographing the spaces, I was living in at the time, because I had just move out of my parents house, and in with my best friend here in Miami, more specifically North Miami Beach. I was struggling a bit with living on my own so I got kind of fascinated with the life I was creating for myself. The self portraits became this new part of a series that was already on going.

Arroyo
This seems to be the only series of self portraits your sharing right now. Your body is an incredible presence it would be interesting to see more. Tell me about this going series.

Polissaint
I don’t know if this series still connects with me in the same way. So once the images stopped coming to me naturally, I allowed the series to come to a close. I haven’t really taken any self portraits outside of these, aside from the occasional selfie or headshot for my LinkedIn account.

Arroyo
Yes, you seem really content with this new found solitude. How did “If I Was Home” approach you?

Polissaint
That series is really me turning the camera around and finally getting to know my parents on a deeper level. For a long time my parents were just authority figures to me. The people who told me yes and no, the people who guided my steps because they loved me and wanted me to do well. When I graduated from FIU, they took me on a month long trip to Haiti. A trip I was hoping for, for years. The last time I had gone, it was to see my grandmother. She died just a day or so after we got back to the US.

During that trip I got to spend the most time with my parents that I ever have really. Being on vacation, we got to talk and cook and go on walks.

I finally got to talk to them about things I hadn’t before, politics, religion, love. My eating habits were a big topic of conversation.

Arroyo
How so?

Polissaint
I stopped eating meat in 2012, so being in Haiti as a vegetarian was tough. Especially at the time I was there. We were going through a drought, so there weren’t a lot of vegetables in our town 4 hours drive from the capital. Just a silly thing that seemed to come up a lot.

Arroyo
Has Haiti changed since the last time you visited?

Polissaint
Yes, definitely.

Arroyo
In what way?

Polissaint
When I was last there it was pretty soon after the earthquake. A lot of the roads were still kind of a mess. There were still a lot of people living in tents, that was in 2010 or 2011. By the time I went back in 2014, things had been cleaned up quite a bit and it was clear that people were moving on. Foreigners have started moving in more but the UN officers are still there. And there are a lot more cellphone companies and towers now. Which was helpful since I was working online a lot.

When I went in 2010, I had to assume that I wasn’t going to use the internet until I got back home, this time I had 3G access and my cellphone still worked. A lot of this is due to where we live in Haiti though, we’re far from the capital and it’s a lot sleepier than other areas.

Arroyo
What’s the name of the area?

Polissaint
Vieux-Bourg-d’Aquin Ouest

Arroyo
Mmm…Vieux-Bourg-d’Aquin Ouest, very nice.

I remember having a similar feeling when I visited Lima for the first time. I was young and my father wanted the family to know Peru. People and relatives were very nice, however, there was this presence that shifted my perception. A tank in the square of the city soldiers or officers carrying machine guns on the street. Boiling water, cold showers, and economic challenges. “Que Viva Peru” was how they would enthusiastically end the anthem. Their spirits where high on nationalism which was both good and troubling. Being in my early teens it left an impression. Needless to say its differences between Miami were clear. I have never had the impulse to return but who knows, right.

In retrospect, how did you find your experience there this time?

Polissaint
This time was refreshing.

Minus getting sick.

The economic side didn’t effect me as much. Maybe because I had access to the internet, we had a generator so I didn’t have to deal with the electrical issues, which can become a major bother and we don’t have as much military activity in that area.

Arroyo
Did you get sick from eating meat?

Polissaint
No, I got a pretty bad fever and spent a couple of days in bed. I didn’t really eat meat while I was there, just some lobster and fish from time to time. Lobster was ridiculously cheap which was amazing.

Arroyo
How are there differences in relation to Little Haiti, besides the ridiculously cheap lobster?

Polissaint
Well I live in Little Haiti now, and it’s easy to say it’s so similar but that would be mostly a lie. The similarities mostly lie in the romantic things like the food, and the comfort of hearing Creole spoken openly, or the familiar signage, and bright colors. The differences though are mostly economic, and social.

But somehow those differences parallel.

Arroyo
I had a similar feeling when I came back from South America. Its amazing what good food and a couple of buckets of paint can do parts of a city. Its obvious how it changed Little Havana and Hialeah in that sense. There is a collective freedom in it. Your kinda going through the same thing personally. Not living with your parents. Making a place your own.

Polissaint
Basically, I’m getting the opportunity to really decide where I fit and what I want. That’s always been important to me, and I think my parents are starting to see how much that benefits me.

Arroyo
You mentioned earlier that photography requires you to be a bit more honest. In comparison to drawing and painting. Honest in what way?

Polissaint
When I was more focused in drawing and painting, I seemed to steer away from hyper-realism. I was more interested in layering colors and mixed media. For some reason my brain couldn’t see photography in the same way. I rarely edited images or manipulated them to the degree that seemed to be pretty popular at the time when I was first starting. I remember a lot of my classmates were interested in layering images and double exposures and just a lot of manipulation in the darkroom but I just couldn’t get my brain to view the world in that way.

I was also very concerned with composition, as boring as that might sound. I just wanted “attractive” images. That interest eventually shifted to light when I started shooting in color, my mind responded to color in a different way. My choice not to manipulate the images beyond what was true to the eye. The camera isn’t always prefect, especially when you’re working with a TLR, so there are definitely images that I’ve had to edit in some ways but for the most part the images are pretty true to life.

Arroyo
What helps you decide if an object or situation is worth photographing?

Polissaint
It ranges. Sometimes, I’m more concerned with the idea that the image will convey or what story it will tell and if I don’t think that it will do that successful I won’t shoot. Other times it’s all about how attractive the image is, and the warmth that comes through. And unfortunately, sometimes I decide based on how much film I have left.

Arroyo
What thoughts do you have about the narrative in your work?

Polissaint
I’m not sure what you mean by that.
My feelings about the work?

Arroyo
In reference to the story it will tell.

Polissaint
I hope that people who see my work, especially my self portraits, can understand that the narrative is unique to me. And not a blanket narrative for all women who look like me, specifically black women. I do appreciate that some people will relate to certain themes in the work because I understand that many of my experiences are shared and I think that’s an important part of existing as an artist.

www.michellelisap.com