DIY Greek Mythology: Michelle Alexis Newman and Spencer Olson
Michelle Alexis Newman‘s series “Greek to Me” is a new spin on the visual iconography of Greek mythology. It’s colorful and tongue-in-cheek and has some very charming art-and-crafts hacks in the set design. And the star of the series, Spencer Olson, shines—sometimes literally—as each deity. We asked Newman a few questions about the making of the series, and her plans to publish the collection as a children’s book.
PDNedu: How do you know Spencer Olson? Can you provide some background information on how the concept came to be?
Michelle Alexis Newman: Spencer Olson is an actor/artist I met while I was directing a comedy video. We followed each other on Instagram, and about a year later he hit me up about an idea to shoot a portrait of him dressed as Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. When he came over to my home studio for the photo shoot, he found D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths on my bookshelf. We both shared a childhood love of the book and, while I was shooting his Dionysus photograph, Spencer expressed interest in shooting more of the Greek Gods as contemporary portraits. Instead of making a standard portrait series with several subjects, as I have done in the past, I was interested in developing a connective narrative between each of the images. After knocking the concept around in my head, I came up with the idea of Spencer playing a narrator that was so fascinated with the Greek gods that he transforms himself into them—each one serving as a separate portrait. We collaboratively spun this idea into Greek to Me: A Mythological Retrospective. It’s a kid’s book, but with a wink and a nod for adults. Each image will be accompanied by text about the god or goddess, bringing an educational aspect to the book.
PDNedu: Did you work with set/costume designers?
MN: In general, I like the aspect of creating components of an image by hand. My aesthetic can be very DIY. For Greek to Me, Spencer made all the costumes and sets from a very limited set of materials and a lot of elbow grease. I handled the lighting, shooting, and post-production, making sure all of the images were cohesive. One of the best parts of this project has been the way Spencer and I work together; our skill sets are incredibly complementary.
PDNedu: Describe the production process: Did you storyboard? Where was each image shot? What was it like working on set?
MN: Spencer and I were really in sync with most of the planning for this project. He would sketch out the scenes and I would offer feedback. Most of the time it was: “Great! Let’s do it.” We used my home studio space, normally just the two of us. Spencer would come in and build the set, then while I’d figure out how to light it, he’d go transform himself in the bathroom. We both wore many hats. During the shoot, I would literally be running back and forth. I was the photographer, stylist, assistant, makeup person all in one.
PDNedu: What’s the status of the book?
MN: At the moment, we’re on the hunt for a print publisher. We are done with shooting and going into the design process.
See more at michellealexisnewman.com
All photos © Michelle Alexis Newman