Interview: Michelle Chandra of Dirt Alley Design
At first glance, Michelle Chandra’s work strikes the viewer with its symmetry, its perfection, and the detailed line work that reveals itself as one edges closer. Design exists because certain configurations, layouts, and art feels good to us when proportional, linear, or balanced. This sense of OCD satisfaction that arises when viewing Michelle’s work is only expounded upon when you begin to understand how we turns math into art with these calculated works.
It was fun delving into her background, process, momentum, and creative perspective in our latest interview with the woman behind Dirt Alley Design.
Evan La Ruffa: Hey Michelle! So glad to have connected with you. My eye is drawn to symmetry as much as the next person and after seeing a bit more about how you create your work, I had to reach out. How’s it going? What’s new?
Michelle Chandra: Things are good! There are a lot of things coming together right now with my new spirograph prints that I am really excited about. It feels like there is a lot of good energy propelling things forward for me as an artist, which is reassuring.
EL: Tell us a little bit about your background & where you’re from.
MC: I am originally from Arizona and California. I am a first generation American, the daughter of immigrants. My dad is from India, my mom is from Ireland, they met in England, and then moved to the US!
EL: That’s awesome. I have a similar background actually …. father from Argentina, mom from Kansas, met in Spain, then settled in Chicago, where I was born. I really love the way you speak about your work. On your website you say “I Create the Art I’d Like to Own: Fun, Interactive, Eye-Catching.” That’s awesome. Was your work always fairly similar to what you’re doing now, or has it changed a lot?
MC: Like many people drawn to creativity and the arts, I have tried my hand at a lot of different crafts starting when I was a kid when the local librarian introduced me to the origami section at the library. As a teenager, I made complex beaded jewelry and thought I wanted to be a jewelry designer. But I also loved the written word, and ended up studying English literature in undergrad. I wrote poems and dabbled in zine and printmaking, then switched interests to photography and abstract painting. A lot of the work I made in my twenties was made for therapeutic reasons, the resulting work was dreamy, surreal, and highly personal.
When I went to graduate school, I was encouraged to make work that while being related to a personal interest of mine, was also work that I made meaningful to others. That’s when I realized I was really into data as an art form, including maps and cartography, and that I wanted to be a self-employed artist.
My interests keep morphing though, which I imagine won’t stop any time soon! I really enjoy creating work that resonates with many people, and enjoy connecting with others over a shared love of symmetry, math, data art and geometry!
EL: I was particularly drawn to your Spirograph prints, they’re also the first body of work of yours I saw. Can you tell us about the process and concept behind both those and the Maze Maps?
MC: My spirograph art prints started as a programming project during one of my classes in graduate school. The initial spirograph program was an animation that drew on top of itself over time. The project sat dormant after I graduated for many years, until I decided to revisit it as a 100 Day Project I documented on Instagram (and recently finished!) A lot of the initial work was simplifying the animation to something that could be drawn using a pen plotter (a robotic drawing machine!) and teasing out the forms I had initially found interesting in the animation version as standalone designs.
When I was in graduate school, I had a tendency to make things more complicated than they needed to be. Since graduating, I have become better at simplifying. When I revisited the project, I knew there was good promise in the initial program, and simplifying the program brought those interesting forms to light in a way that I missed with the first iteration of the project. It’s been cool to see how I could change an old project and morph it into something new a few years later just by bringing different experiences and knowledge to the project.
My maze maps started as an idea I had mid-graduate school — that the experience of navigating a city feels like a maze, and that it would be fun to make maps of cities that were actual mazes! It was my first print line, and I learned a lot about being a self-employed artist. It made launching my spirograph prints a few years later a lot easier.
EL: So cool. The confluence of art and math seems improbable if we think simplistically, but it’s awesome to see various ways of making prints. How did you discover this type of process?
MC: I became interested in generative art (art made programmatically) when I took my first programming class with Daniel Shiffman during graduate school at NYU. There were so many things I really liked about programming art that worked with how I think about things! For instance, the idea of recursion in which the same rules are applied iteratively over and over again. Or the idea of “breaking” things (by perhaps programming something the “wrong” way, mistakes can be revelations!)
When I am making art programmatically, every time I run the program feels like a new discovery. I can create work that is incredibly detailed and precise, to the point that it would be very difficult to draw the design myself.
The patterns I am creating are based on mathematical waveforms, and rotational symmetry, so the resulting forms remind people of many different things like flowers and fabric. I really like hearing feedback from people about what forms they see in the designs!
EL: Your Master’s Thesis also sounds incredible, something about “an interactive map visualization that let you see sunrises and sunsets around the world on Instagram in real-time”? Ok, we gotta know…
MC: In graduate school, I spent the better part of a year developing a program that streamed photo data in real-time from Instagram. I used that data to pull photos from Instagram that were tagged #sunset and #sunrise, then created an animated map visualization that showed the sun rising and setting around the world depending on how “far” away in time the user was from actual sunset and sunrise in the tagged location of the photo. In a sense, I “tracked” the movement of the sun from photos people posted to Instagram! It was a really fun project in which I learned a lot about our fascination with the sun and relationship to how we think about time.
The project resonated with a lot of people around the world, which was hugely satisfying! Of course, today, Instagram is a lot more restrictive about accessing photo data, so it’s not a project I could do again. And while it was a fun project, it does make you wonder about data privacy and the massive amounts of data being constantly gathered by technology companies.
EL: You also mention enjoying the outdoors. How does spending time in nature affect your creativity or art-making?
MC: When I was a kid, my parents took my brother and I hiking every weekend. We also went camping every summer down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and other parks in Arizona. While I hated the routine of it at the time, patterns found in nature have been the basis for a lot of my artistic motivation since. Spending time in nature as an adult is highly meditative for me, which I attribute to the amount of time I spent in nature as a kid thanks to my overly enthusiastic parents.
EL: Do you ever dabble in other art forms?
MC: Not at the moment. Mainly because now that art is my “business,” I like having other hobbies that aren’t art like climbing and hiking! Physical things that get me out of the house and moving.
EL: Can you recall a moment when you were younger where an adult or teacher’s support in your creative pursuits activated you to pursue more of the same? I’m super fascinated with these tiny yet massive moments in our early lives when potential is encouraged and our lives are changed.
MC: I think for me, the key moment was when my local librarian introduced me to origami at a young age of seven or eight. I spent a lot of time in libraries as a kid, and all the things I learned from books (guided to me by ever helpful librarians!) was crucial in helping me pursue creative interests. Libraries (and librarians!) introduced me to entire worlds I would have known nothing about (this was, after all, before the internet!)
EL: As someone who has made their artistic practice a productive side hustle, what advice would you give to an artist looking to do the same?
MC: Persistence and believing in yourself is key. It could take many years to really find “success,” which is why believing in yourself and persisting with it is so important. It’s all about putting yourself out there, getting feedback, and iterating on things until you hit on the right combination and find a community that is interested in what you are doing. Not to sound discouraging, it’s just good to keep in mind that success is not overnight and that many people give up right before they might have otherwise succeeded.
EL: What’s your perfect day look like?
MC: Like a lot of creative people, I like to feel like my day-to-day is less about a strict routine and is flexible with room for spontaneity. My ideal day involves trying a new local coffee shop in the morning or climbing at the local gym, spending the afternoon working on business tasks (a mixture of making new work, but also sending out orders and marketing), before wrapping up the day by taking a long walk and getting dinner with my partner. Which doesn’t sound very spontaneous, but I promise it is!