5 Local Artists Share Their Inspiration

Even the most artistic souls need fresh inspiration from time to time. Five local artists share their go-to sources to kick-start creative thinking.

Micah Mermilliod

Micah Mermilliod

Micah Mermilliod can still recall the fateful December day when he first discovered the camera. Back home for the holidays, the then-college sophomore was rummaging through a spare bedroom closet when he came across the forgotten Canon AE-1, the camera his dad had used for all their family photos. 

“I remember bringing it to my dad in the dining room and expressing an interest in learning to use it,” Mermilliod reminisces. “And that led directly to my first lesson in the relationship between apertures and shutter speeds.” 

Hungry to learn more, Mermilliod enrolled in a photography course at the University of South Alabama. Developing his first image in the darkroom was a pivotal experience. He recalls the moment he first saw the image emerging on the paper. “It was magical. I was instantly in love, instantly hooked.” The very next semester, he changed his major from biomedical sciences to studio art. He is currently working on an MFA in photography and printmaking at his alma mater, where he was offered a full assistantship, and in the fall, things will come full circle as he begins teaching Intro to Photography classes for the first time. And even though his photographic practice has evolved a good bit over the years, the old Canon AE-1 remains his regular traveling companion!  

10 Things That Inspire Me

1. Community Walks
An immense amount of inspiration for my work is born out of going on walks throughout my neighborhood in midtown Mobile.

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2. Reading About Aesthetics 
When reading for artistic inspiration, I am influenced most by works which look at art galleries and museums as democratic spaces. 

3. South Alabama’s Graduate Fine Arts Program
In the fall, I will be starting my final year in South’s MFA program where I concentrate in photography and printmaking. The faculty there, particularly my mentor Margarita Skiadas, have been phenomenally inspirational and have been invaluable in helping me grow and improve as a professional artist.   

4. Indoor and Outdoor Gardening
I spend a good bit of time each week tending my plants both inside and outside, and I find that they make regular appearances in my work. I have been a big fan of Stokley’s Garden Express since its opened!

5. Psyched Out Music  
I love the local music scene in Mobile. The Alabama Music Box and The Merry Widow are two of my favorite venues for keeping the psych, punk and weirdo scene alive.

6. Artistic Influences
I find infinite inspiration and guidance in the works of David Hockney, Joyce Neimanas and Lucas Samaras. 

7. Alabama Contemporary Art Center
I am very grateful for many of the galleries and museums we have in the area, but working at the Alabama Contemporary Art Center in particular has been eye-opening to say the least! 

8. French New Wave
I am a huge fan of the French New Wave genre. I’m especially drawn to Jean-Luc Goddard, Jaques Tati and Jaques Demy. I aim for my Instax work to deconstruct the traditional photograph in much the same way that these film directors worked to deconstruct traditional filmmaking.

9. Morning Coffee
Where would I be without coffee?! Nova Espresso and Serda’s Coffee Co. both have a very tasty Guji at the moment. 

10. Local Parks
Some of my favorites to draw inspiration from and also create work in are the Airport Perimeter Trail by Brookley, Cooper Riverside in downtown Mobile, McLean Park off Springhill Avenue and 5 Rivers Delta on the Causeway.

Soynika Bush

Soynika Bush

When Soynika Bush first began painting, she would pour her energy into mastering the techniques of realism; she relished trying to capture the perfect nose and the most delicate eyelashes. So it came as a surprise when requests for her faceless portraits surpassed those for her detailed work. The idea to paint featureless faces first came to her when she decided to create her own version of the silhouettes of children that many hang in their homes. She put her own twist on the tradition by adding colorful clothing to the portraits, resulting in a style she calls “skin-folk kin-folk.” 

What’s unique about Bush’s featureless faces is that even though the person’s face is obscured, the individual can still be recognized by details in their clothing. As artist-in-residence at the Alabama Contemporary Art Center, Bush has been tasked with filling the gallery for her solo show, which opens in October of next year. Nowadays, painting consumes most of her time, but when she’s not making art, she’s teaching art to kids at the Boys & Girls Clubs of South Alabama and Legacy 166. 

As an artist, teacher, wife and mother of four, Bush has a lot to juggle. Her motto? “Shut up and paint.” Whenever the noise of the world is just too loud, Bush turns to her art. “I need my paints,” she says, “and I need my brushes to give me the strength to paint out what I feel.” 

10 Things That Inspire Me

1. A good cup of coffee
It literally sets the tone for my day. I like a mix of Colombian roast and breakfast blend.

2. My childhood
I can now appreciate the small things, like what my grandma’s perfumes smelled like.

3. Oak trees
Oak trees have souls. They can be dainty or gruffy.

4. The city
The different layers of people, traditions, the progression and the laid-back all the same.

5. My art students
They keep me striving to impress them. They are my biggest critics. It’s honest, and it keeps me grounded.

6. A child’s wonderment 
I always tell kids to hold on to their imagination, draw out their dreams.

7. A good front porch on an old Victorian home
I can find bliss sitting on a swing and letting the day pass me by.

8. Storm clouds
That’s the mood for some good painting and a good nap afterward.

9. My family 
They have my back, from hauling paintings to working around my schedule. It’s new to all of us. It’s exciting having my parents see me as an “artist.” My four children teach me love, gratefulness, work ethic, encouragement and confidence every day.

10. My playlist
After working late nights in my studio at Alabama Contemporary Art Center, I have a full concert with those great acoustics. It’s a mix of jazz, soft rock, gospel and 80’s jams. Thank goodness no one sees me dance. 

Rachel Warner

Rachel Warner

With clients like Macy’s, Groupon and Chili’s, artist and designer Rachel Warner is used to meeting high expectations. After graduating from The Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), the budding creative headed to Chicago where she held positions as art director and graphic designer at an advertising agency. In 2019, she made the switch to freelance when she and her now-husband Joseph Brennan moved to his hometown, Mobile. Rachel is an expert at creating streamlined designs for clients, but when it comes to making art, she prefers to let it all go. 

“I’m a chronic over-thinker, so I do my best to let my art be loose, imperfect, and let it communicate things to me, as much as I am trying to communicate things through it,” she says. Over the years, Warner has developed her own style of portraiture. She believes that some emotions just can’t be put into words, and that belief is what drives her to make these bold and gestural drawings. At the start of each new piece, she selects a reference photo and begins drawing what she sees. But as her pen moves across the page, she stretches the lines, simplifies the spaces and allows the form to morph into something else. The end result may not look like the picture she started with, but the emotion is palpable. Her biggest tip on channeling creativity? “Live life like a sponge,” she says. “Soak up every little piece of inspiration you can from wherever it comes, and be open to inspiration finding you however it wants to.”

10 Things That Inspire Me

1. Henri Matisse 
My absolute favorite artist. From his paintings to his cut-outs, his use of color and representation of the human form is so unique and vivid. 

2. Sufjan Stevens 
If there was only one musician I could listen to for the rest of my life, it’d be him. He constantly reinvents himself through genre — who else can so effortlessly master the banjo and the synthesizer? 

3. Moleskine sketchbooks 
An empty sketchbook represents so much potential. This brand is the one I can’t live without. Whether I’m sketching, journaling or just making a grocery list, I really do live in these.

4. Coastal living 
If I’m ever feeling stuck creatively, I can hop in the car and in about 45 minutes be staring out into the endlessness of the water. Very cathartic! 

5. Egon Schiele 
The first time I ever saw his edgy and raw work, I felt an instant spark of inspiration. It really clicked for me, and I’ve never to this day seen anything quite like what he did.

6. Therapy 
Shout out to my therapist! I love the feeling I have leaving a good therapy session. It opens me up to the world and helps me see inspiration in places I may not have looked before.

7. Millennium Actress 
Yes, sorry … I am a total anime nerd, and this is my absolute favorite film of all time. It leaves me totally inspired and a bit of an emotional wreck. Bring the Kleenexes!

8. Drinks at Callaghan’s 
You can find me here at least once a week. Really, nothing beats sitting outside with a cold drink and leisurely watching the world go by. 

9. Anything by J. D. Salinger 
The first book I ever read as a middle schooler that I actually enjoyed was “Catcher in the Rye.” No one writes quite like he did.

10. Laying in my hammock 
I have a hammock hanging between a Bradford Pear and a giant palm tree in the courtyard of my apartment. It’s the best place to daydream.

Randy Moberg

Randy Moberg

From the time he was a boy, Randy Moberg has had a cast-net in hand, so it’s no surprise that fish are a prominent theme in his new sculpture series. Moberg was born and raised in Mobile, and growing up, he would spend his summers tramping around the marshes of Weeks Bay. Moberg currently resides in Fairhope, where he has built a solid studio practice. 

Throughout his career, commissioned paintings consumed most of his attention, while sculpture was more of a personal experiment. But recent days have allowed Moberg to realize his dream of making the work that truly inspires him. It all started with a day-trip down to a favorite spot near Fowl River. He noticed some glass glimmering in the water and began scooping it up. Moberg reckons that the shards were once bottles that had been thrown in the water from a nearby bar. They had probably been swept around for years until they developed a soft, milky patina. 

As he was sitting with his newfound treasure on the shore, he set the glass next to a pile of sun-bleached wood (also discovered on his expedition). The combo just clicked — he felt the two materials were meant to be next to each other. 

“There was sort of an elegance to it,” Moberg remarks. What started out as an impromptu scavenger hunt soon escalated into fusing one-of-a-kind color combinations in his own kiln. What does it take to be an artist? 

“In a word,” he replies, “perseverance.”

10 Things That Inspire Me

1. Books 
Some authors who inspire are Chuck Palahniuk, Cormac McCarthy, David Sedaris, Rick Bragg, Shelby Foote and Augusten Burroughs. I also love Winston Groom’s “Patriotic Fire” about the War of 1812.  

2. Joan Mitchell
The large canvases by artist Joan Mitchell (not the folk singer) made in the 1950s through ’80s are gestural and expressive.

3. Damien Chazelle 
Anything by writer / director Damien Chazelle, like “La La Land” or “Whiplash,” captivates me.

4. A good song
Almost every song written and performed by Adam Duritz and  the Counting Crows helps me feel creative, and also Bob Dylan for “Tangled up in Blue.”

5. Movies you can watch over and over again
“Almost Famous” by Cameron Crowe, “Fight Club,” “Dead Poets Society” and “Cold Mountain” top my list.

6. Philosophy 
Deep thoughts as presented by Stoics and Friedrich Nietzsche keep me pondering.  

7. History
I always go back to Winston Churchill speeches and all historic references chronicling the life of Abraham Lincoln.

8. Easy mornings
A good cup of coffee and a friendly game of chess.  

9. Sandy shorelines
The shores of Mobile Bay, riddled with stumps, fallen trees and the myriad of debris deposited from the shifting tides and summer storms, stirs my soul. My sense of aesthetics is awakened.

10. Cash
Cold, hard cash — the chief ingredient in any creative project.

Michelle Jones

Michelle Jones

Before college, Mississippi native Michelle Jones had never taken a formal art class. Pursuing a career as an artist was not even on the radar of this former pre-med student. But after a semester of tedious chemistry lectures, Jones realized science just didn’t capture her interest. Eager for change, she enrolled in an art elective, whereupon she immediately felt she had found her calling. She went on to earn her BFA in painting at Ole Miss and later an MFA in painting from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. After 11 years of hustle and bustle in Boston, she and husband Nathan moved to Mobile for his work as a port engineer. For Jones, the key to being a successful artist is maintaining a routine. “Art is not one of those things that’s just going to happen,” Jones says. “You have to set aside time for it.” 

And she does. Every day from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., Jones is sketching, snipping and mixing up dreamy color combinations in the studio. Letting the materials speak for themselves is a must, she says. She begins with random strokes and splashes of paint and then uses her artistic sensibilities to reign it back in. Creating a space for chance opens up unforeseen paths and pushes her to “follow the breadcrumbs out of catastrophe.”

10 Things That Inspire Me

1. Neon anything
I can’t escape the pull of bright pops of color.

2. Palm trees mixed with live oaks laced with spanish moss
This combination feels otherworldly and infiltrated my paintings shortly after we moved here from Boston.

3. Rebecca Solnit
Her writing rings true and helps to center me in my process. My favorites are “The Faraway Nearby” and “A Field Guide to Getting Lost.”

4. New tubes of gouache
There is nothing like fresh art supplies.

5. Big cats and snakes
Predators and the lore and mythologies that surround them are fascinating.

6. A visit to Alabama Contemporary Art Center
Viewing other artists’ work who are currently working provides context for my paintings and renews my excitement for making.

7. Artist Colleen Comer
Her work vibrates. She paints twisting figures in an explosive palette to explore themes of motherhood, domesticity, boredom and expectation.

8. “Fever Dream” by Samanta Schweblin and “Swamplandia” by Karen Russell
Novels that explore the consequences of chance and extreme circumstance are thrilling.

9. The moon rising over the ocean
This is a spectacularly beautiful and mysterious phenomenon that happens repeatedly. I am in awe.

10. Anhinga
These water birds, also known as snake birds, must stand with their spotted black and white wings spread wide to dry after a dip in the water to catch their prey.

Inspiration images by Elizabeth Gelineau

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