By Michalla Bolton

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On June 26th, 2015 in Miami, Florida a group of diverse and talented artists came together to unveil their work. The artistic pieces were revealed during the official opening of Edgewater’s first public park, IconBay, created through The Related Group. The four National YoungArts Foundation alumni were sculpture competition winners, each with their own unique visions and story. Positive Impact Magazine had the opportunity to interview the artists. We spoke with Nicole Mourino, Iliya Mirochnik, and Michela and Nikolas Bentel, in order to find out what moves them, how they got to where they are, and where they are headed in the future.

Nicole Mourino

PIM: What inspires you as an artist?

Nicole: People-watching, materials organized by hue and value, radiator covers, Safavid Miniatures, Masterchef Australia, Burlesque Couture, Gel Polish, Concrete Screen Blocks, and Chinatown Cakes.

PIM: Tell me more about the Home Alone project and your current involvement.

Nicole: Home Alone: The Nomadic Artist Residency is a project I began formulating during my time as a Hunter College YoungArts Fellow. Nomadic arts projects/institutions like LAND and The Contemporary are becoming a necessity in the US where a generation of highly educated and in-debt renting professionals have blossomed. Running a nomadic project means not having to invest in a permanent structure, more opportunities with diverse communities, and travel.

Thanks to AirBnB/HomeEscape/BedyCasa etc. we know that thousands of homes are sitting vacant around the world, owned by the same enthusiasts that sustain the Arts globally. If 50% of an artists practice is spent researching and writing grants/proposals, what could a group of focused urban artists accomplish if given the opportunity to reside in one of these spaces? The goal is to create a system of cooperative economics between Vacation Homeowners and Artists, where a home is donated to Home Alone and the artists account for their travel and food expenses while maintaining a base elsewhere.

Our first home has already been donated for June ’16 in the Berry Islands and can accommodate up to 10 artists including resident Chef and YoungArts Alumna Salimatu Amabebe of Bliss House Foods.

PIM: Can you share information about the social action degree program?

Nicole: Social Practice Queens is a symbiotic degree program between a university known for their activism (Queens College), and an arts institution known for its community engagement (The Queens Museum). The program allows me to study closely with powerhouse Judith Bernstein and move freely between my studio and arts administrative interests. Stop by for a visit, the studios are fabulous!

PIM: I love your use of color in your work. This seems unique to you as an artist. What do you love about color and what you can create with the variety of vibrant hues you use?

Nicole: There is something about growing up in Miami and this light quality that just keeps your eyes buzzing with color. Edward Hopper was interested in capturing a similar sensation relative to New England Light- and when you look at his paintings you can taste the briney overcast air…its magic. It wasn’t until I moved to NY that I realized I missed and wanted to simulate this in my painting. Working with Guerra pigments allows me to push the most delicious combinations, re-examining color that would otherwise be indicative of kitsch…its a science and undeniably magnetic to the human eye.

 PIM: What impact would you like your art in the park to have on viewers?

Nicole: While installing Kaleidoscope87 at IconBay Sculpture Park I was stopped by landscapers, construction workers, electricians (still developing the park) recounting memories of being in Cuba and watching their families pour, polish, and care for encaustic tile in their homes. For many, including my family from Mariel, this was the first type of flooring to exist within the home and the tiles became an oral and lived-on tradition. With the collaborative support of YoungArts and The Related Group, Kaleidoscope87 is both a manifestation of this pride in tradition and investigation into modern pigments.

PIM: What are your future desires?

Nicole: I am currently working towards my thesis; an exhibition of paintings and projects including Home Alone and a new collaboration with Jewelry Designer Liz Vallenilla.

2016 marks the first session of Home Alone which I hope will become a sustainable practice, not just for myself, but for the countless urban artists who need the support in pivotal moments of their careers. Aside from that, I imagine moving back home with my partner Ryan Till and transforming a small building into a live/work hub.

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Iliya Mirochnik

PIM: What inspires you?

Illiya: The world around me is a constant source of inspiration. I am particularly inspired by interactions with my family and friends, as well as my personal and family history. In order to truly see these relationships, however, as images or forms which can give rise to a work of art, I find I have to place myself outside of them. When I am taken out of my everyday routine, a certain change in my state of mind occurs and I am able to view the world as an observer, which allows me to better understand how I am connected to it. Of course, the creation of the work of art is, in itself, an attempt to understand my relationship to my surroundings.The common thread in my imagery stems from the desire to explain as directly as possible the manner in which I think, and then trying to convey this to the viewer. The subjects of my works are mainly personal, intimate, and are taken from my immediate surroundings and my reactions to them. They are rarely meant to directly tackle large social issues.

PIM: Do you have a favorite form or theme you enjoy working with and why?

Illiya: I am primarily a figurative painter. However, in terms of technique, I do believe the nature of the profession isn’t so much about any one medium or form, but more about finding ways to interpret the world in any given medium based on personal experience. I enjoy moving between media, as it is often true that the medium itself changes the thoughts behind it. We think through the medium. This is why I found the Icon Bay competition so invigorating. It provided me with the opportunity to abstract a strictly visual impulse and give it meaning through a form which was less familiar to me.

PIM: Where do you draw inspiration for your portraits?

Illiya: The only condition necessary for a portrait concept to develop is that I have to know the subject or subjects intimately. I do not paint any portraits of strangers – or, at the very least, no portraits I feel are successful paintings. I have to come to a point where I believe I know a person, begin the portrait, and realize, through the work of art, I discover much more about them than I expected.

PIM: I noticed that your nudes are not fully nude and this is unique to you as an artist. What made you decide on this level of viewing?

Illiya: This was initially completely out of my hands, and then continued in a similar manner. I studied painting at the the I.E. Repin Institute of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in St. Petersburg, Russia; a school with 260 years of an uninterrupted history of academic painting and drawing. “Covering” the male model is a remnant of its inception and history, and was done due to religious and social norms.This happened to be the case in many of the academies in Europe 300 years ago – however, as these traditions slowly disintegrated in the West; Russia, being more conservative, preserved the more modest cloth.

PIM: Can you tell me more about, Realism without Borders?

Illiya: Realism without Borders was begun by a collector and an art magazine editor a number of years ago, and aims to bring together artists who are trained in a particular variation of French impressionism and Russian academic painting. The marriage of these two styles became known as Russian Realism (sometimes Russian Impressionism) in the 20th century. Realism without Borders primarily shows contemporary artists who were trained in this tradition, as well as pieces by well-known painters from the early 20th century. They mainly exhibit finished works and studies from life, painted in oils with a direct and broad alla prima style. It has been a great opportunity for me to garner their support, and be able to exhibit work of mine which fits that particular genre.

PIM: Since you started teaching what are your hopes for students? What lesson is most important for them to take away?

Illiya: There are three important lessons I want my students to take away from my instruction. Firstly, they need to learn to think visually. Painting is a language. It is fundamental that they fully immerse themselves in it, in order to achieve fluency in formulating their own artistic and personal intentions. Secondly, I want them to understand there is always a long way to go in figuring out what they actually do intend to get across to the viewer, and I want them to be able to independently resolve by what means this is to be done. Thirdly, they need to engage thoroughly in the history and technical aspects of not just art, but architecture, literature, etc., in order to discover how and where they fit in the millennia-old artistic and intellectual tradition, of which we are all a part.

 PIM: How would you like your art in the park to impact viewers?

Illiya: I want it to be a calming and meditative experience. I think the general forms, as well as the individual elements, exhibit a thoughtful silence which is assisted by both the placement of the sculpture and its surroundings in the park. The fact that it is placed off to the side, amidst trees and shrubbery, and surrounded by conveniently placed benches from which to see it, allows the viewer to wander off, sit, and establish a direct associative and emotional connection.

Michela Bentel (M.) Nikolas Bentel (N.)

PIM: As individuals what is your signature? What makes your art unique and do you find any similarities in your work?

Michela: I think that as twins, our earlier work has similar qualities probably because we had similar life experiences growing up. We had access to the same materials including marble, wood and welded metals, similar tools and had the same training. This has made it easy to collaborate after years of practice together. Our more recent individual work is still aesthetically similar, but it is thematically unique. In other words, while the subject of our art differs owing to our individual interests, our approach to making things is rooted in the same soil. In my case, I work at the intersection of nature and human technology. For example, I am fascinated by human made objects whose design is influenced by natural conditions such as the force of the wind or the turbulence of water. In the piece we did for ICONBAY, my contribution was the idea to create stylized representations of the leaves of indigenous plants and to create those in steel using the computer based metal cutting technology.

Building on my artistic interests, I am currently studying industrial design and, in particular, automotive design which allows me to merge my love of metal work with my fascination for the influence of fluids such as air and water on the shape of objects which move through them such as cars.

Nikolas: I agree with Michela with respect to our common artistic instincts arising from our shared training. Like Michela, I gravitate toward materials such as stone, wood and metal which I understand and know how to work. But I tend now to be interested in light – both natural and artificial – as a medium of expression. I recently apprenticed with a lighting manufacturer and have developed designs for light fixtures. The incorporation of light in our ICONBAY sculpture is an outgrowth of that experience.

My recent study of Modern Culture and Media has shifted my focus to the ways in which certain kinds of images such as the stylized leaves of our sculpture, when repeated, convey powerful subliminal messages by virtue of our common associations with them. Recently, I have been making conceptual art online. It is work that is not solely visual art but work that operates at the intersection of contemporary design and contemporary culture as it is influenced by virtual technology and social media.

PIM: How did you both decide to get involved in art and music together? Did you grow up with a passion for it or did it develop over time?

Michela: We’ve grown up with each other (and with our older brother, Lukas, who is also a musician, composer and visual artist) as best friends and colleagues, which gave us the perfect environment for inspiring each other. We studied together and performed together as a string ensemble called, The Bentel Trio and our collaboration continued from there. Art and music can be lonely pursuits. But, for us, it has always been a family affair. That has meant, among other things, that we are never alone or at a loss for an audience.

Nikolas: The ability to collaborate on a moment’s notice is also more than a convenience. It means we can respond to a call to perform as a group quickly. Lukas recently graduated from RISD and Brown University – both schools we all attend. He was asked to perform at a ceremony honoring the members of the Talking Heads. He turned around and asked Nikolas and me to help him come up with a novel piece which we did – with the help of two of his buddies from the Brown University Music Department. In two days, we composed a great medley and played to a standing ovation. The ability to turn it around like that is not something everyone has access to. We are really lucky – or blessed – or both.

PIM: What inspires each of you?

Michela: The work being done by my brothers (check out Eternify, BiteLabs and McMass by Lukas Bentel and Data Arbitrage by Nikolas Bentel) is inspiring because of its huge impact on people. My parents have a successful architecture practice. They work all over the country designing hotels, restaurants and buildings. It is amazing to consider the impact of their work on the people who use their buildings. Personally, I am inspired by powerful design which may include architecture, car design, culinary design, fashion and music.

Nikolas: I love gizmos – complex mechanical systems that produce an unexpected effect. That is why I am interested in lighting systems and media systems operating over the internet. Tools also get me excited. There are few things that offer as much potential as well designed tools that leverage and extend human potential – whether it is a blow torch, a stone chisel or a computer network.

PIM: What are your future aspirations and goals?

Michela: I am working toward a career in automotive design but I would like to also explore a possible future in architecture. I still hope to continue to compose and perform violin/fiddle as a hobby, which will continue to inspire me in my artistic goals.

Nikolas: I am eager to see where industrial design and digital design take me. I have a few more years of college. I am working with two conceptual artists in New York City (Sebastian Errazuriz and Adam Harvey) whose working method and approach to studio work is a model I would like to emulate. Their work is conceptual and physical at the same time. Sebastian makes amazing products and stages conceptual events. Adam also creates products which appear outwardly to be consumer items but which are in fact objects of critical design which challenge the way we engage society. I hope to be able to pursue a similar critical design practice.

PIM: What impact would you like your art and music to have on viewers and listeners?

Michela: I want the impact of my art/music on viewers to be lasting. If viewers/listeners continue to be inspired and motivated by my work to yield beautiful results, I succeeded.

Nikolas: I want my work to change the way people see the world, to put them slightly outside their comfort zone so they question their most deeply held convictions and normative behaviors. I want my work to be beautiful but intellectually challenging. If I can do that, I have succeeded.