Agoraphobic painter finds friends at artEAST

November 2, 2010

By Laura Geggel

Michelle Ryan smiles while standing beside two of her polymer clay collage shadow boxes recently at the original UP Front Art gallery. By Greg Farrar

For years, Michelle Ryan could not bear to go outside. She had stationed herself on her living room couch, doing crossword puzzles, watching TV and recovering from a series of medical problems.

Then, a light came into her life in the forms of a paintbrush and the welcoming crew at artEAST, an Issaquah art cooperative.

Ryan’s life has taken her across the country, but she moved to Issaquah in 1990, working as an echo cardiographer, taking ultrasounds of peoples’ hearts. In 1998, her health left her on disability, and she ended up staying indoors for the next four years.

“I was sort of not all there,” Ryan said. “I was in recovery and trying not to do much.”

She took a big step from her living room couch to a chair her mother gave her, and soon she emerged from her haze, picking up crafts, including crocheting and logo design. Soon, her art grew into different media. She painted with acrylics, ink and watercolor, and molded polymer clay. The only problem was she had no feedback or inspiration from other artists.

“It was in a vacuum and nobody saw it,” Ryan said.

Her parents and son, Nicholas Ryan Longtin, encouraged her talent, but she faced setbacks, too. Her parents, who had been living with her, moved out of the house and two of her dogs died. But it allowed her to grow, becoming closer to her boyfriend, Michael Russell. The two of them began training seeing eye dogs, and Ryan got a service dog, a golden retriever named Horton, for herself in 2006.

Horton reminds her to take her medications, reminds her to stay calm and helps her reach objects, since she is limited by a bad back and hip, she said.

With the help of Russell and Horton, Ryan was able to go more places, though, as an agoraphobic, she still feared the outdoors.

Her art propelled her forward when a friend introduced her to artEAST co-founder and board member June Sekiguchi.

Ryan talked so passionately about her work, Sekiguchi didn’t even know she had problems venturing behind her front door, probably because, “When art’s your passion, everything else falls away,” Sekiguchi said.

At Sekiguchi’s suggestion, Ryan joined artEAST and pushed herself artistically.

When artEAST members invited her to participate in the Collective Memory project, she agreed, and found herself paired with Cougar Mountain Zoo General Curator Robyn Barfoot.

The two instantly connected, and Ryan made Barfoot a collage, incorporating elements such as leaves, tiger whiskers and crushed ostrich eggs into the piece.

“I wound up totally crying when I saw it,” Barfoot said. “It was really moving because she was able to capture a lot of me that is not really seen in the public eye. My love of dogs, the strong bond my mom and I had.”

Barfoot liked it so much, she commissioned Ryan to do a pet portrait of Chen, her wrinkly Chinese shar pei.

“She completely captured my dog,” Barfoot said. “She works with her heart in all of her art, which is why she is so successful.”

Ryan started submitting her work to shows. Although an artEAST jury did not initially approve her work for Up Front Art, another jury did a year later.

Once an artEAST member, her career skyrocketed. Ryan now has five shows around the area, including at Providence Marinwood, Yoga Barn, Up Front Art, C Art Gallery in Seattle, and the Creative Activities and the International Organization on Arts and Disability traveling show, “Metamorphosis.”

She also knits for Hats for Happiness, a program that gives hats for people undergoing chemotherapy, makes clay animal necklaces she calls cuddle buddies and paints pet portraits.

Ryan has two new art studios close to home — one in her home that she is building now, and the other in the new artEAST space on Front Street North, in downtown Issaquah, which has its grand opening Nov. 6.

“It feels good to be part of the new space,” she said. “I feel part of artEAST. To those who have been afraid to take the leap, becoming a member of artEAST has been one of the best things I have ever done.”

Laura Geggel: 392-6434, ext. 241, or Comment at

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One Response to “Agoraphobic painter finds friends at artEAST”

  1. Lynne stephens on November 3rd, 2010 9:05 pm

    SO happy for you Michelle! You have come such a long way! You are an incredible artist and it is such an honor to know you through Facebook~ Congratulations on all of your art!

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