Michele, who is also a professional photographer, has “channeled” Picasso to the extent that many observers have said they cannot tell her paintings from the real thing.

by Len Lear

For Michele Corbman, 65, who has lived in Chestnut Hill for eight years and been outstanding in several creative disciplines, the pandemic has not been all negative. “I have been able to rely on my creative process to pass the time inside,” she said. “Painting and appreciating what I do is sheer enjoyment. No pressure, no computers, just me, paint and a canvas … Painting has filled my time and creative spirit. I learn so much each time I study a painting, mix colors and figure brush strokes. I love the process of seeing a blank canvas grow each time until completion. I truly feel channeled by Picasso; it fills my heart with gratitude. I step back and wonder, ‘Did I paint this?'”

Michele started her creative career as a buyer for Bloomingdale’s in New York City right after graduating from Adelphi University in Long Island. “I really wanted to become a professional ballet dancer,” she said, “but I knew that I had missed too many years of training. I danced my way through college while working part-time teaching crafts — jewelry making and hand-stitched leather handbags — at the Student Union art center.”

The Hill resident’s first placement after Bloomingdale’s rigorous training program was in the notions department. She bought sewing accessories, ribbons, buttons, travel and hair accessories “and all sorts of very cool things from around the world. The most fun part of my job was the mandatory artistic displays required for all departments, particularly mine, located on the first floor by the elevators, a prominent location.”

Michele eventually moved to California “to get out of the rat-race city” and worked in the garment industry, running design rooms for the next five years. Drawing, overseeing pattern making and sewing workers (in Spanish only), buying buttons and fabric. She then started her own hair accessory business, all made from buttons, selling them on Venice Beach while on roller skates.

That business grew all over southern California, the most famous client being Fiorucci in Beverly Hills, a major Italian fashion label. Michele moved her company back east, though, when her mother became very ill. In this area she became a self-employed sales representative of high-end accessories, traveling throughout five states and selling them to department stores and museums, including The Smithsonian.

“After 15 years on the road, though,” she said, “I missed my life as an artist and wanted to get off the road, so I quit my company and took one year off cultivating my artistic endeavors. I spent two months traveling in Europe, drawing my way through France and Italy. Returning home and inspired by Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona, I spent the next year making ceramics and mosaics, selling them locally at art shows.”

Although her formal art training only consists of two classes at Fleischer Art Memorial in South Philly, Michele started painting the masters, starting with Matisse, on shells 35 years ago at the beach just to pass the time. Her first painting on canvas, called “Portrait of Marie Therese,” was done 25 years ago. “When I needed money about 15 years ago, a friend of mine, a gallery owner said, ‘Sell your Picasso.’ I said, ‘But who would buy my painting?’ He then put it in his window, and it sold for $1500!”

For many years, though, Michele did not take painting seriously since her life as a professional photographer, yet another self-taught artistic skill she mastered, took up all of her time. Shooting on the weekends, running her photo studio during the week. “I only painted a couple paintings in the past 20 years until two years ago … to get away from the computer and my digital photography life … and because the internet and cell phone cameras killed so much of our business.”

Michele had a spacious studio for 15 years in the artists’ building called 915 Studios. She had a shooting studio, darkroom and design meeting room. She photographed commercial work for catalogues and product photography, portraiture of families and individuals, weddings and bar mitzvahs) at all the large ballrooms in the area. Her photos were exhibited at the Perkins Center for the Arts, The Philadelphia Sketch Club and Phillips Mill Art Center, and she won a Best in Show award at a juried National Geographic Show.

“When I wanted to quit my life to become an artist,” she said, “I was so scared of leaving the professional world. A doctor friend told me, ‘Just one step at a time, and you will get there.’ So I have been doing that for the past 25 years as a self-employed full-time artist.”

When it comes to Chestnut Hill, Michele insists, “I just love living here. I am part of a historic village with gorgeous houses and landscapes that remind me of Europe. It is a convenient walking life without the city hustle but everything I need close by. I adore the Wissahickon. The nearby historic stables inspired me to start equestrian riding lessons again. I feel so lucky that I get to live in this very special place.”

For more information, visit michelecorbman.com. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com

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