Rising Plymouth Artist Michele Combs

How one local artist creates a visual catalog of life experiences with her impressionistic paintings
Michele Combs at work in her Minneapolis space. Studio 391.

Michele Combs never would have guessed a single painting class would shift her focus from career track to life calling. An occupational therapist by trade, Combs spent her days as a therapist before picking up a paint brush 20 years ago at the Minnetonka Center for the Arts (Arts Center). “I was surprised by what I could do,” Combs says. “I really enjoyed it.”

Wall murals were a popular component of interior design at the time of Combs’ entrance into the art world, so she began experimenting with that painting style. In the late 1990s, she took a class at the Minnesota River School of Fine Arts. “The instructor there really turned my skills around for the better,” she says. And while Combs is not a natural drawer, she says the class “improved my drawing ability and my ability to create realistic images.”

Next, she began by focusing on realism. Gradually, Combs became interested in broken color and an impressionistic style. She loves the rich finish of oil-based paint and says, “The thick, gooey texture of oil allows me to use a variety of tools, paint brushes—even a palette knife.”

Combs now paints full-time, but she’s never stopped honing her talent with classes taught by nationally renowned artists. “Five years ago,” Combs says, “I met an artist named Mary Pettis who’s been a great mentor. Since meeting her, my skills have grown tremendously. I’ve learned to better understand the components that make up painting.”

Those components include line, shape, color, value, texture and edge, which Combs works to incorporate into her impressionistic paintings. Most of her work is landscapes that come from a process of painting from both live visualization and photography. “I like to have both for my studio work,” she says. “I’ll go to a site and paint a small version of the scene, but I’ll also take pictures. I take the small painting and the photos back to my studio to create the larger piece for shows.”

Combs works from both her in-home Plymouth studio and her Minneapolis space called Northrup King, used mostly for hosting gallery shows and teaching painting classes (it’s open regularly from 5 to 9 p.m. the first Thursday of every month). In summer, Combs has her art students meet her at a designated outdoor space to paint landscapes. “An artist can see things much better when they’re actually looking at a scene rather than looking at the same scene in a photograph,” she says.

When asked what inspires her work, Combs first asks herself, “What is the idea or intention I’m trying to communicate?” She then incorporates the artistic elements of painting into communicating those ideas. “For me, painting is a visual dialogue of where I’ve been, what I’ve experienced, dreamed of, hoped for and am drawn to,” she says. “My work is a catalog of my life.”

And art aficionados from across the area are increasingly interested in Combs’ catalog. Her work rotates through area salons and galleries, having been displayed at the Virginia Piper Cancer Institute and Abbott Northwestern Hospital. “It’s been a good year,” Combs says. “I’ve come to appreciate my skill is a gift and I’ve developed gratitude for this gift. It’s touching when others connect with one of my paintings.”

She goes on to tell of a phone call she received from someone who had seen her painting Winter in Loring Park. “The woman had lived in the area and was married at the Basilica,” Combs says. “She told me that made my painting special to her. Through art, I met a kindred spirit.”

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See more of Michele Combs’ work here.