Michelle Fornabai
Picture 8

May 2013, Near Columbia University

Great Pretender

This past semester you taught a studio about pretending, an idea that most (first) associate with children/childhood. Were you a big pretender as a kid? Is your imagination as fluid and vivacious as it always has been?

Pretending is particularly interesting to me as someone who makes things because the material of the “pretend” is the same substance as the “real.” Both are experienced through the same sensory pathways but they’re processed differently in a cognitive sense. A banana is still a banana, even when it’s a phone.

While it’s “only pretend,” pretense actually creates new neurological pathways and pretending is especially important in developing empathy as a child. Of course, I did a lot of pretending as a kid–it’s a time when the line between yourself and the world is particularly blurry which helps the fluidity.  But I think it is even more essential to me to pretend now–to maintain an openness to the imaginary potential of the objects and circumstances around me and to remain curious and connected to the people with whom I collaborate.  Certainly, I am much better at imagining than I was as a kid–I’ve continuously sought to cultivate the more unusual and unexpected aspects of my imagination over the years.

Pretending is vital to training imagination–finding ways to elaborate and “make-believable” the most exceptional things you can imagine is critical to actualizing them in reality.

What’s your favorite color?

Black, of course. Perhaps that’s why I paint in ink. In Chinese ink painting, the black tones impart the inner spirit of things rather than cloaking or hiding, and it is even said that the artist is “utterly revealed in ink.”  In Rorschach testing, one is scored according to whether the blackness of the ink is read as contour, tone, texture or color.  Often, I am covered in ink and I think about these things.

As I was staining my clothes with ink routinely, it helped that I habitually wore only black for more than two decades.  In New York, black creates anonymity, but I discovered in New Orleans it was quite the opposite. Also, I love someone who is red/green colorblind but he sees the minor differences in black so to him I am quite colorful. Wearing only black, my focus shifted to silhouette and texture.  Recently, I’ve made some experiments in color, but a friend of mine who is a fashion designer said that I am not really working in color, but rather in texture through pattern. I think this means something significant in Rorschach testing, but I’m not sure what it is.

What’s your preferred way of getting somewhere? – bus, train, plane, planned, or accidental?

The movement of the train helps my thinking and often inflects my paintings literally with accidental marks.  I can paint, work, sleep, or even drink red wine and read on the train–so civilized. But I think the romance of train travel is most evident when I walk the length of the car and see all the people sleeping, beautifully unguarded and childlike in their suits in such a public place.  I always wonder what they are dreaming.

Against the routine and precisely scheduled train, I love the accidental–in an instant segmented time shifts to timelessness–which allows me to become absorbed in my surroundings or my imagination. Out of time, the accidental heightens place in an out of place way.


I recently read that “true elegance is conviction.”

I’ve known Michelle my entire life but I vividly remember the first time I thought of her as an autonomous person (besides being another of  my Parent’s friends). I was in my early teens maybe even pre- and we were visiting Michelle and Martin’s apartment in Brooklyn. Her entire closet, which was huge (really huge for NY) was full of only black clothing. There was one white lace dress that had been last year’s Halloween costume. I remember thinking first, “weird” and then, “that’s an  amazing idea.” Now I’m a New Yorker, most of my winter wardrobe is black, and I know many monochromatic closets of friends but when I was that age Michelle’s loyalty to a style was pretty awe-inspiring. I want to use her 90′s closet as just a representative sliver of Michelle’s dedication to conviction. As you see above she’s now working in textures but the thought she puts behind everything in her life is pushed by this same all-encompassing confidence of individuality.

As a Columbia Architecture grad professor, she’s quite well known by a few young architects I know and as an ex-babysitter of mine  I get a few questions about her enigmatic personality. She’s dedicated to her singularity but in a way that has almost nothing to do with anyone else (besides the teaching part). She follows every mental permutation available and I’ve heard her describe her process as “following branches” to the extent that she feels remorse when one path has to be chosen over another. It’s all in her head but everything that makes it onto paper or into words or class syllabi is astoundingly original and conceptually vigorous.

I have a hard time describing her so usually I go with, “she’s one of the smartest people I know and her brain works on a completely different plane than anyone else’s.” She is and holds her own.

- Anna