At 50, Michelle Vella Used Instagram to Become a Full-Time Artist

"I was just sitting at coffee with my sister, when all of a sudden I see my phone light up. And it says: ‘@DVF is following you.’"

Since graduating from McMaster University with a fine arts degree in 1986, Michelle Vella has worked nearly a dozen jobs, on either side of the country, in several different industries. She worked as an assistant at a Toronto art gallery, took a job in software telesales, moved into marketing, spent three years in publishing and pursued portrait photography. At one point between all the career left turns, she launched a salad topper business: “when I was 23, and I started Michelle’s Gourmet Croutons. It was the middle of the gourmet food craze, and I had them in Pusateri’s, Holt Renfrew and David’s Foods.”

Then, just over a decade ago, she started a graphic design business called RealSTUDIO. “I thought at 40 I found the career of my dreams,” she says. “Fast forward 10 years, I started to want something different. So I started to pick up a pencil again.”

When Michelle was pursuing the idea of revisiting art, a wise friend advised her, “Oh, just draw fashion. Everybody loves fashion.” So she started flipping through magazines and drawing what she saw: “When a Vogue cover came out, I would draw that.” And everything she drew, she posted on Instagram.

Scroll back to Michelle’s 2015 Instagram posts, and you’ll see just how far her work has come—and you’ll see it didn’t take her long to understand she needed a signature style. “I would look at past drawings, and realize that they weren’t authentically me. I didn’t want to copy anybody. Then I started to see that, in a number of my drawings, the eyes sort of stuck out. And I realized: that’s it.”

How instrumental do you think Instagram was in your journey to becoming a full-time artist? With web democratization, everyone has the opportunity to make it big—you have access to an infinite audience, but you’re competing with a lot of content.

Instagram, for me, was everything. It was the thing that started my career; it was the thing that motivated me. I was drawing and posting every single day, tagging people and connecting dots within the fashion world. At the time, it was so much easier to get people’s attention. I don’t think I could do what I did then, today. Now, the platform has become so saturated. But back then, it was easy to get noticed.

For example, I had painted Diane Von Furstenberg’s portrait and posted it on Instagram. I was just sitting at coffee with my sister, when all of a sudden I see my phone light up. And it says: ‘@DVF is following you.’ Then I see her comment: “I love this. I want to buy this for my collection. How can I do so?” And I just about fell off my chair. I couldn’t believe it.

You’ve changed jobs quite a bit—which is something I think a lot of millennials will do in their careers. How do you think your professional journey lead you to this place?

I think timing really is everything. If I had decided to start painting, let’s say after university, and if I continued to paint as a career, where would I be now? I have no idea.

All of those different jobs—the marketing, the sales, the graphic design, the photography—as an artist, those experiences have helped me to run a business. I’m able to create my own marketing pieces, do my own website, and really be a Jack of all trades. Or, I guess, a Jackie of all trades.

Can you see your current art project evolving into something else? Or do you think you’ve finally found the thing you’ll spend the rest of your life doing?

It already has evolved—and it’s evolving all the time. What I don’t want to do is lose the focus on being an artist, because that’s at the base of everything.

I’m designing clothing, accessories and home decor, and I’m also looking at doing rugs. But with all of these things, I want to make sure that the basis of everything is the painting. I’m always happier when I’m painting in the studio. But it’s great that I get to do all of this stuff because it keeps my work pretty diverse.

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