Michelle Vitale is an inspiration. An accomplished artist, working a day job – and also a mother – she devotes a significant part of her life to volunteering for good causes. Researching her catalogue of works for this series, I was left in equal parts humbled and uplifted. In this first article we learn of Michelle’s deep-rooted heritage of textiles, handed down through generations from both branches of her family tree, and of her most recent cause: the Gimme Shelter project for the homeless.
In my family craft was more than a hobby – it was tradition
“Craft was a huge part of my youth” recalls Michelle, and “for many reasons, craft was more than a hobby – it was tradition. It helped stretch the dollar and was a form of expression. Everything of mine was handmade from my bedspread to my first-day-of-school shirt and I was involved in the entire process, choosing the material; cutting and sewing the pattern. Generations of Michelle’s family are seamstresses and crafts-persons; “the maternal side of the family were lace makers that had studied in Roma, and my mother’s mother was an avid knitter. Even though I was part of all of this – I always also liked to draw, colour and paint. So I think telling a story with fiber became a natural part of my adult art-making process.”
My grandmother sewed American flags for a living
“My paternal grandmother was a seamstress in Italy and her father sent her to America because he felt she was smart and tough enough to handle it. She actually tried three times to take the boat over from Italy to America and the third time she finally got on. At this time, America was letting a limited number of Italians in, and the reason she was allowed to stay here was due to her British passport. Her family had tried once before to come over to America. They made it to Canada, where she was born (which was under British reign hence British passport) but they moved back to Italy after six months. She then came over in her late twenties and stayed with her great uncle and soon found factory work sewing American flags for a living.”
The influence of Art History
I enjoy volunteering – people need support
Whilst at College, Michelle “drove a van for Meals on Wheels, helped demo a house in West Virginia for Habitat for Humanity and volunteered for the after-school program, Good Shepherd Ministry. After graduation, I lived and worked as an Art Instructor on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. I enjoy volunteering – people need support – in all ways. I watched my family work very hard growing up and I can relate to wanting for better – which is why I also feel I have worked with non-profit organizations for the last ten years.”
The “homeless homeless”
“I worked for the United Way for four years and was the Hurricane Sandy Recovery Committee Coordinator for my county. My county was the third hardest hit region in New Jersey. During this time, we started using the word “homeless homeless” to refer to people who used the shelters regularly before the hurricane and the new flux of homeless due to hurricane. Then the United Way partnered with Garden State Episcopal CDC (a leading NJ non-profit who provide affordable housing and emergency shelter services) and I participated in their Longest Night Campaign, which runs annually to raise awareness. I also participated in their Homeless Memorial Service. It was extremely moving to see a community of people gather to morn the loss of homeless friends.”
“I felt I needed to react”
“In late spring that same year, I heard the homeless count had increased 16% in the state of NJ – which is HUGE and felt I needed to react. I don’t like feeling helpless – so I thought let me help fill the gap of transitional time needs and create weatherized blankets. I wanted to make something that could be replicated easily. I placed myself in a person’s shoes who may be in line for the shelter in the winter, or out of the shelter during the day and needed immediate warmth. A lot of people give them blankets, but when it rains, a heavy wet blanket is not something I’d want to lug around all day long.” Michelle came up with the innovative idea of soft, insulating blankets created from recycled fibers, which could be wrapped up in a waterproof tarp, that doubles as a night-time shelter.
“As artists–we protest everyday. We inspire change”
The next stage was to get her local community involved, and the concept of Stitch Ins was born. People would be invited to “bring a needle and thread and add your personal touch to the Gimme Shelter Project.” Participants come for a variety of reasons and “our first was at City Hall, The Caucus Room–which I loved. It really encompassed the spirit of the project. In a way, I feel we as a community are protesting the homeless increase in a positive way through designing a supportive alternative while bringing awareness. As artists – we protest everyday. We inspire change – whether it be to paint a new landscape or dye a fabric a different color – So I think a Stitch In is a natural step for creative types.”
If you want to get involved, help spread the word or just be inspired, you can find out more below.
Words, art and photographs: Michelle Vitale
Interview: Beck @artistscribbles
Categories: Art Charities