Goddamn. There are some really talented folk in this world. Like, talented where their creativity and imagination gives you hope because, damn, if someone can create that then mankind is not hopeless.
On December 15th 2013 the WonderGround Gallery in downtown Disney opened its show, ‘Good Versus Evil.’ The art that comes out of the gallery reminds me of classic Disney concept art when artists such as Gustaf Tenggren and Mary Blair created amazing pieces for films like ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland’, work directly influenced by a story but separate from it as much as it is a part of it.
Featured in the show were the paper cut designs of artist Michelle Romo, whose ‘Sleeping Beauty’ piece was prominently displayed — a gorgeous blend of intricately spliced paper full of beauty and depth. Romo’s work walks an inspired path of the magical and the adorable, creating a cast of characters that have become prints, plushes, and textiles.
ET: I was just in Disneyland and saw your work at the WonderGround Gallery for their ‘Good versus Evil’ show. How did your relationship with Disney come about? Did you approach them or did they come to you?
MR: An intern who was working for the gallery planner (of the Wonderground Gallery) had attended an art show of mine. She approached me about doing something for Disney but couldn’t say what it was because at that time the gallery hadn’t opened yet. She took my info. and contacted me and a few months later I was working with Wonderground!
You also did a stint previously as an artist in residence at the WonderGround Gallery. What exactly does that mean?
It is a month long program, where every weekend you create artwork live in the gallery, and interact with the guests! The artist rotates out every month. It was a lot of fun!I would paint and assemble things and people would watch me from the window or come in and talk to me about what I was making. I finished 2 Disney pieces – an Ariel, and a Mickey piece.
You create so many of your own colorful and funny characters – what was your approach to working within the Disney universe? How did you choose which characters to tackle?
They tell you the theme in advance and ask you to pick your top choices that fit within that theme. For the most recent show my #1 choice was Sleeping Beauty/Maleficent. Sleeping Beauty is my favorite movie from when I was little. I re-watched it recently and the design is just so beautiful.
The art style had been influential for my personal art – so doing that piece really felt like everything came full circle.
When doing illustrations for WonderGround or Crate & Barrel through their ‘Land of Nod’ line, are you given free reign to create what you want? Is there ever a struggle of trying to weigh what designs will sell versus what you want to do?
With Wonderground there is a theme set in place that you have to stick to, and you have to keep the character integrity so there are some rules! With Land of Nod it’s more like a product project – for example they might email me and say they have an interest in doing puzzles, then I send over artwork that I think works best for that puzzles.
Or sometimes they just like a piece of art and build a product around it – it’s different every time. I feel like it’s not so much what do I want to do – but how do I create the best art for each situation.
There’s a familiarity to your designs. They feel like classics already. A touch of children’s book illustration mixed with a sophisticated sense of pattern and strong composition. How did you land on your style? Did it evolve over time?
Thank you!! That’s a really nice thing to say! I hope I’m getting better? It definitely evolved over time. I am self taught and I really didn’t know what I was doing in the beginning. Haha! My style came about from me trying to incorporate my favorite things from when I was a kid into my artwork. I like to say that it’s a style that came from both of my grandmas – My grandparents on my mom’s side from Japan visiting and bringing me exciting goodies, my grandparent’s on my dad’s side had a kitschy 50’s style house that I grew up in.
Both of my parents are artistic also! I try to add a level of positivity to my art also. I am trying to pull the best parts of myself and put them into my art. I can be a negative weirdo but you would never know from looking at my artwork. Haha!
Some of your pieces are incredibly detailed, like the ‘Super Mini Universe’ and ‘Magical Times’ image on the tote bag. When doing something so vast, what do you start with? Is there a rough draft stage? How planned out is something like ‘Magical Times’?
It usually just starts as an idea – Super Mini Universe was something I worked on a little bit every day for 6 months. I wanted it to be a year long project – but other priorities kept popping up. I would usually just sketch out chunks and then re-draw them in Illustrator. For Magical Times – that was just a 2am idea drawn in 4-5 hours. Sometimes things just happen!
Your work ends up as plush toys, bags, prints, and 3D cut out pieces. Do you approach each differently? Does each design start out the same despite what the end product will be?
Usually it just starts with a bunch of character illustrations and then I work it into the product and add elements so that it makes sense.
How do you know when a design is done? How aware are you of working on a piece too much?
Not to be corny – but I think you just know! I know when things aren’t going the way I want them to and I will walk away from a project. Or just delete out the pieces I don’t like. I can tell when I try to force things. Sometimes I finish pieces with parts that I don’t like.
Then those parts always stand out to me! But sometimes you just have to finish something. Plus no one has to know about your inner turmoil, the universe might love it just the way it is.
Have you done Comic Con or any type of convention like that to get your work out there? What worked best for you in terms of getting your work seen?
I have done Comikaze! Which is a new comic convention in Los Angeles. The lady who started it is a good friend of mine, and I also designed billboards for them. They are wonderful humans. I also did Designer Con last year which was super! I think conventions are a great way to get your work out there. The first one I did was the Bazaar Bizarre (which doesn’t happen in LA anymore 🙁 ) and I got an awesome response. It’s a great way to interact with people!
I think what works best for me is just the magic of the internet! I try to post regularly – even in progress shots of what I’m working on constantly!
The world of Crowded Teeth has a very strong sense of purpose, which is awesome to see an artist totally going for it and creating a consistent identity. How did Crowded Teeth as a business come about? Did you go straight into working for yourself? Did you ever start down the path of working in-house for someone else?
Thank you! Crowded Teeth started with me falling in love with the line Paul Frank and wanting something like that for myself. I started under a different name (Yellow Toothpick) when I was 18 and I bought a heat press and started putting my graphics on t-shirts. From there I got my own screenprinting equipment and started making screen printed tees.
I did a few trade shows and started to get more attention. Over time I learned I didn’t like the business and production part of what I was doing and I got really burned out. Now I focus on the artwork, and license it to other companies who produce and distribute the product.
For a long time I was really stubborn and didn’t want to let go of controlling everything, I had trouble asking for help – and in the end it stopped me from growing. I lost focus and forgot the reason I started! Now with licensing things are back on track, and I am much happier. On the plus side I know how to do all kinds of random stuff!
I still work part time in-house part time for 2 companies! I am a designer at Loungefly. They are an accessories company that I have been with for 9 years. And I do graphics for Japan LA Clothing Company, a rad new ladies’ line out of Los Angeles.
When you get the itch to create something, is there a process where you have to stop and think, ‘How will I sell this?’ How much of your time is spent just goofing off with a drawing?
With drawing I just draw to draw. I figure that none of it is a waste of time, I will eventually use an element of it for something (I hope!). If it’s a personal design for product design a lot of times I don’t think about how I’m going to sell it – I just want to figure out how to make something and make it. For me it’s about figuring out how to do something new. For art shows, clients, or licensees it’s just – ‘how do I meet this deadline?’
How do you spend your workday? Do you try and keep a regular schedule of working a solid nine hours a day?
I do try to keep a schedule. I work in house for other people 3 days a week, so the other 4 days I balance the rest of my projects. I also work nights. My schedule is just – work a lot and get very little sleep – haha!!
You can check out more of Michelle Romo’s work at Crowded Teeth or Japan LA and of course LoungeFly.
Hey! She’s also @monstromo on Twitter!
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