In the fourth episode of Popaganda’s GLAMOUR season, host Carmen Rios visits feminist artist Michele Pred in her Oakland, California, studio and watches her make some of her famous vintage-handbags-turned-mini-billboards.
Michele Pred has been making and exhibiting feminist work for the last 10 years, but her passion for the movement goes back to some of her earliest childhood experiences. In the wake of the 2016 election, Pred’s iconic feminist work—which reclaims the feminine, often through found materials, and in many cases is also lit up by neon wire—experienced a new wave of acclaim and virality. Pred has spent the last few years organizing marches and radical love parades with other feminist artists, decking out riot gear in feminist slogans and—most infamously—transforming vintage purses into political statements.
Pred sat down with Carmen for a wide-ranging interview about the roots of her work and how feminism has transformed her artistry. She also showed Carmen around her studio and even offered her a close-up glimpse into how she makes her handbags—blinking lights and all—and then posed Carmen for the first picture in her latest project.
Photo courtesy of Michele Pred
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CARMEN RIOS: Welcome back to the Glamour season of Popaganda, Bitch Media’s biweekly feminist pop culture podcast. I’m your host Carmen Rios, and today I’m taking you to feminist artist Michele Pred’s studio for a glimpse into the creative processes that fuel her empowering projects.
MICHELE: You know, it’s however you feel comfortable holding it, standing. There’s no like….
MICHELE: You know, it’s sort of like however. And like I said, this is a, this is a—
MICHELE: —new project! I’m excited to start.
CARMEN: When I get to the shared studio space Michele works out of in Oakland, California, I park in a gated lot behind a big, white building. And then we walk up a white staircase in a white hallway, and then we walk through a big, wooden foyer filled with big, wooden tables. And then Michele pulls back the curtain to her workspace, and everything turns into roses.
MICHELE: I grew up in a very political family, and I was not allowed to wear pink because it was too cliché. And I understand and respect that my parents were very tough on this.
MICHELE: And but you know, there was a part of me that loved pink. But I had shame in wearing pink, and so I didn’t buy pink. But the first time I did, I think I was 16, and I really felt shame in my family, like I’m wearing pink. But pink has a vibration that’s very happy, and I’m someone that actually has dealt with, not so much now at all, but in my teens and 20s and 30s with depression. Pink makes me happy. So, if you think about it as a color that actually has a vibration that makes people happy, that’s a reason in itself to like it, for me. But also, I didn’t know it then, but I was reclaiming pink because yes, pink is incredibly cliché, but I felt like I like pink. I wanna wear pink. And it took me a long time to feel okay about wearing pink and using so much pink in my artwork.
And one story, and I think this really changed, this did change me so much, was when I was in college, I took a class with Angela Davis, and she’d been a hero of mine for many years. And that was so exciting. And, you know, Angela Davis, her background is a communist, and I’ve always thought that, you know, if you’re communist and have these great political ideas, you’re not wearing feminine clothing. And she came in, and she would have beautiful outfit day after day and very stylish. And that kind of cracked my world. I just thought, oh! Well, I can be feminine and be a feminist. ‘Cause I like dressing in a feminine manner and being a feminist. And so, that allowed me to embrace pink even more. And as you can see in the studio, this rug here is pink. There’s a lot of pink in my artwork, and it’s reclaiming it and saying yes. You know, we’re all pink inside too, you know. So, we might be brown on the outside or tan, but our vaginas are pink. All of them! [Laughs.]
CARMEN: Everything in Michele Pred’s studio is pink. On the right of me is a white vanity with missing neon letters and two-handcrafted handheld mirrors sitting out in front of a plush pink chair. In one corner is a pink voting booth adorned with a feminist ballot that lets voters choose between “my body, my business” or “my body, their business.” In the other corner are vintage suitcases decorated with birth control pills or more brightly-lit feminist slogans. And against a wall lined with windows are working tables covered in artifacts and apparel from Michele’s myriad projects, including the t-shirts she sent to presidential candidates in the name of abortion rights way back in 2016.
MICHELE: The first action I did with a group of people was in 2016 way before we, well, not way before we knew Trump was one of the candidates, but it was Roe v. Wade, in January 2016. And I invited people to join me in Oakland and at a Planned Parenthood and from there, walk to a post office, the main post office, a very big building in Oakland. And that action was all about sending t-shirts to all the then-candidates, which was 15 at the time that said, “her body, her business” on them. And we put them in clear envelopes so that they could be viewed by whoever happened to handle them in the post office or in Trump’s office, whatever intern might see it, and probably dump it right into the garbage can. It was a rainy day, so I just put a call out on Facebook, and I think 10 people showed up. It was just a small, spontaneous, not totally spontaneous, ‘cause the t-shirts I’d been working on, but like getting people to participate. And we walked. It was only really a block, but it was really a march. I mean, I realized that was the first of my actions, you know, connecting to the 2016 election. And I did it very intentionally on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.
I actually, I could show you. I received a letter from Hillary’s head of communications after I sent that to her. I didn’t hear back from, at that time, anyone else thanking me for the project and letting me know that, you know, of course she agreed with my ideas. And then later, I send them to all senators actually, right before the election in 2016. And there, I found I had several responses: one from McCain. It was, I think it had just sort of been discovered or was just about to find out that he had brain cancer. He wrote such a respectful response, a letter that I really appreciate that he responded. And of course, we had different approaches to the subject—abortion and women’s rights—but it was such a kind, respectful letter. And I had actually wanted, and he left it open too, that we could continue a dialogue, and I wanted to do that. And then it was shortly after, it announced that he had brain cancer, and I didn’t want to impose when, obviously, he wasn’t working as much. But that’s how a politician should be, I think. And that’s why I truly believe in civil discourse where we could, he was willing to have a conversation with me and left it that way in the letter. And then meanwhile, Mitch McConnell….
CARMEN: [Laughing.] Oh, no.
MICHELE: Yeah, I’m actually gonna walk over and show you, if you don’t mind.
CARMEN: [Still laughing.] Let’s do it. We are uh….
[footsteps across the studio]
MICHELE: So, here’s the letter from Hillary. This is the actual letter. Here is a letter from Mitch McConnell’s legal counsel indicating that there, it’s, I’ll read it. “Unfortunately, Senate ethics policies would prohibit the office from accepting your gift. So, we are forced to return this item.” Now, I’ll just have to let you know that no one else returned the t-shirt. So, receive this letter, receive this. I’ve kept this because it’s stamped “Mitch McConnell.” This is the envelope, you know, United States Senate, has my information. And then what I really love, oh, I have to show you that for a second.
MICHELE: What I really love is here’s the actual original t-shirt that I sent to him, and it says, it’s stamped on it right below his address, “Screened by Senate Post Office,” and then the date. And you could see the date there. So, this is what I sent, and I also sent a letter to people. And then it was an interactive project when I would talk to people about and then photograph them with this “her body, her business” signs who wanted to send this message and stood behind these ideas. So anyway, that’s a little side note. But yeah, no one else sent back the t-shirt.
CARMEN: The 2016 was a turning point for Michele, because afterwards, her work would suddenly become synonymous with the resurgence in resistance.
MICHELE: Oh, and I don’t have the purses on. Do you want me to put one on?
CARMEN: [Gasps softly.] Yeah.
MICHELE: Okay. I should…I should start with that. Let me, let me put the microphone down and then let me get some batteries.
CARMEN: I like the idea of these being your studio lights. [Both laugh.]
MICHELE: So, I have a display of what I call an installation of these purses on the wall. They’re also, in addition to being carried around, they exist in several museum collections as an installation. If you look inside, what’s really fun is you can see the lights blinking—
MICHELE: —on the inside. It’s full daytime, so you’re not gonna have the same effect. They’re best viewed at night.
CARMEN: Oh my god.
MICHELE: But I have them set on blink. And this is a gold purse that says, “Vote feminist” on it, and it’s blinking. Put “my body, my business” on. [zips the purse] And I use a lot of these purses. So, let’s see. I don’t have the driver for that one here yet. Oh, let me use “MeToo.” This one should have a driver in it. Yes. So, there’s these little drivers that run the wire, and they’re all run by battery. But some people choose to have them set up in their homes full-time. So, they can be hardwired and with a plug and be plugged in and not carried. And so, you don’t have to change the batteries. Snap in and then…. [snap, beeping] There’s “MeToo.” [beeping continues] But I’m actually gonna put it into the “MY BODY MY BUSINESS” instead. And as I mentioned before, that’s a line I’ve been using for a while. [clinking and clanking] I like to say that I coined it, but I—
MICHELE: But I didn’t! Because I thought maybe I did, but I would look at hashtags when I first started using it. And it wasn’t used for feminist issues at that time, but then I realized bodybuilders were using that term. And that was the only hashtag I found.
MICHELE: Yes, yes!
MICHELE: Yes! But I think in feminist terms, and in fact, is this the purse I have here? Let’s see. I thought maybe the invite was in here, but it’s not. [rifling through bag] Yes, it is. Look. I was really excited. This is to the New York ACLU. They used it as the title of their fundraisers.
CARMEN: Oh my god.
MICHELE: So, going from me using this phrase into the New York ACLU using it is pretty exciting, amazing, in fact.
That brought us to the third wall of this tour, one that was covered in hanging, blinking, neon light-adorned purses. Michele is famous for these purses. Her vintage bags turned into mini-billboards have graced red carpets, sold at auctions benefitting feminist causes, and gone viral many times over on Instagram. They’ve been featured in Vanity Fair
. The women who carry them are the usual suspects—Any Schumer and Hillary Clinton among them—but also include advocates who do their work off the red carpet, and feminist art collectors who keen on provoking conversation with one of the most public kinds of pieces possible.
MICHELE: I’ve always used clothing and purses in some sort of way. I use a lot of found objects. I’m definitely an artist that uses and has been using found objects for a long time. And so, they represent a vessel and a body, something you hold. And what we have inside of a purse can be very personal. It can be very reflective of who we are. And same with doing dresses. I’ve done a lot of collages on dresses over the years. So, I’ve always been interested in that.
I started making these using these cases, these sort of like suitcases. And what they call train cases that were popular in the ’50s and ’60s were often round. And I love the round form. I have a bunch of them here in the studio, and they’re, most of the brands I’ve been using is American Tourister. And the round bags are called tiara cases.
CARMEN: Oh my God.
MICHELE: And it’s just, I just love incorporating that. Not all of them have the word “tiara” on them, but they often do.
CARMEN: Which is also funny ‘cause, you know, just for those of us who cannot see them, they are quite large for a tiara!
MICHELE: Right, right! Yes!
CARMEN: It’s a very big tiara that would fit in that case. [Laughs.]
MICHELE: Right, right, right. They’re like 16 inches in diameter or 20. So, and I collect them. You could see a number of them haven’t been used yet. And I started really loving how they also represented women and us traveling around in our hometowns or getting on trains or airplanes and the movement of women, sort of the geographical movement of women. And so, I started actually, with the birth control pills and putting them on these train cases, as there’s one big one here that is a target of birth control pills, and I painted them. So, they’re pink, white, and red. And there’s several circles, and the pills in the middle are red. So, that’s where that started. I did a number of purses.
So, collaging on purses has really been a thing for me for a long time. And then I started doing more birth control pills and making American flags on purses so they’re carry size. And that led me to think about neon and lighting them up. And my first one on a neon case, it said “Choice.” And that was really my main focus for a number of years—so, this was starting in 2002—was reproductive rights, and then I haven’t stopped. I started doing these neon pieces, which of course, are not portable. And on a whim in 2014 or ‘13, probably ‘14, I wanted to bring, to carry one myself to broadcast the message and make it sort of a portable billboard. And I was going to big a art fair in New York, the Armory, and I found the material that lights up and flashes, and it’s just battery-driven. It’s called electroluminescent wire. And I just decided to make one for myself, and it said, “Choice.” And I carried it, and it. Was. Such. A hit. People responded so incredibly strongly to it. And I thought, ‘cause I just made it for myself—
MICHELE: —I thought I have to start making these. So, that’s really where the purses that light up were born. I went through a lot of different things, but collaging on clothes and purses actually has been a common thread. But I think you add a light to something and that flashes where it’s really broadcasting a message, people really respond to that.
CARMEN: You would likely recognize the feminist catchphrases that adorn each purse. One blue bag reminds the president that “PUSSY GRABS BACK.” While a dainty pink number screams “Equal.” One red clutch shouts that “Sisterhood Is Powerful,” while a smaller red bag declares, “Me Too.” And the bags are meant to be statement pieces, to spark change, and to speak loudly about feminism and disrupt any of our apolitical experiences that we might be having on the street.
MICHELE: They’re very symbolic of women. Not to say that men can’t carry purses, but they’re sort of this icon of women. But also, I think another important factor about the purses is they represent economic power of women. So, if we think about it that way, that women’s economical power is getting stronger and that we also can vote with our purses, with our money, and how equal pay is starting to evolve. We have a far way to go, equal rights amendment. We still…we’re making progress, but we still have a ways to go. So, it really represents our economic power and our growing economic power as well.
CARMEN: Who would you say is the audience right now for your work? Who are the people who are responding to it?
MICHELE: [Sighs.] Well, it’s interesting. I think it’s so many different people. I mentioned earlier that when I first started in the feminist work, my intended audience was, really, young women and really getting young women on board with feminist ideas and beliefs. Because, I hate to say it, but just five years ago, that wasn’t the case. People were not wanting to connect themselves, young women. And I’m just generalizing here, sorry. A lot of young women weren’t even wanting to call themselves feminists. That has completely changed in five years! It was almost a, I wouldn’t say a bad word, but they didn’t feel comfortable. And so, for me, that was really important to make, to sort of do work that really, people, all women could connect to and call themselves feminist. But now I feel like it’s really for everyone.
I carry them, and they’re meant to be carried. It’s really important to start conversation, and that’s exactly why I carry them. People stop me, ask me, “What does that mean?” I have one that says, “Radical Love.” And that’s the whole idea is to engage and start conversations and hopefully even talk to people that don’t agree with me because that’s what we need to do right now. That’s where my really strong focus is for this year, is focusing on civil discourse and having conversations with people who don’t necessarily agree with me. ‘Cause we have to find a middle ground.
CARMEN: All of the work is sort of meant to be worn, like you’re saying, meant to go out into the world and start conversations and be seen. What are some of your favorite stories of your pieces going out into the wild and sort of the reverberations that they’ve been able to cause or the ruckus that they’ve caused?
MICHELE: [Sighs.] Well, ruckus. I mean, I think it’s just, it’s really, like I said, I really enjoy talking. So many people come up to me, and I think it’s because, and it’s usually in the evening, ‘cause they’re lights. If something’s blinking, and it’s a electric, well, not electric, electroluminescent wire. And that draws people attention and draws people to come look and talk. So, I don’t have any really wild stories actually about it except for just being grateful to have those interactions or people to ask questions and to have conversations, have conversations with strangers about, and men about MeToo and TimesUp. I mean, this, we’re changing. I mean, when that movement started really happening, I realized I should be, and I can be talking to strangers, and in particular men, about these issues ‘cause we need to talk about them with anyone, everyone. We need to talk about them.
CARMEN: Michele’s bags don’t just live on fiercely feminist forearms. They also have second lives. Right now, some of her bags are being prepped and primed for exhibitions in feminist hotels in D.C. and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, just to name a few. Last year, images of some of her bags emblazoned with pro-choice messages were even spotted alongside the highway in states attacking abortion rights, on massive billboards. This way, the conversation becomes even bigger. This way, even people who can’t snag a bag for their red carpet moment can still be part of a public display of activism. And no matter what the setting, one thing is certain: feminism is part of the fiber of every single project Michele takes on. The purses aren’t just feminist fashion statements. They’re also fueling a feminist movement.
[recorded clip from Michele’s We Vote parade plays]
LEADER: When I say “we,” you say, “vote.” We.
LEADER: When I say “we,” you say, “vote.” We.
LEADER: What do we do?
CROWD: We vote.
LEADER: What do we do?
CROWD: We vote.
LEADER: What do we do?
CROWD: We vote.
LEADER: What do we do?
CROWD: We vote.
MICHELE: I’m the artist that has a show inside. The title of the show is “Vote Feminist.”
CROWD: [boisterous cheers until clip ends]
MICHELE: So, from the very beginning, I felt like it was really important to donate some of the proceeds to organizations that are doing work that I can’t do: changing legislation, working, actually giving to clinics where they’re actually doing the work. So, I, early on, and this thankfully nowadays, a lot of people are donating to Planned Parenthood, but this was again 2003 where I felt like I really wanna donate proceeds to work that— I wanna pay it forward. I wanna put it in a place where I can support these organizations. And particularly I’ve been working with NARAL all along since then, donating the proceeds [pause], excuse me, to them, and basically from 2003, I’m also donating to Planned Parenthood. And in many different ways, I’ve donated on an annual basis via my purses, whether they go to an auction and they are sold for quite a bit more than the normal price, and that gets donated to them too. At the moment, I’m donating 5 percent of all the sold purses to Planned Parenthood. So, it’s key for me to do that.
One thing I will talk about that is, even for me, a sensitive topic is being an artist. So, I’ve been an artist all my life. And working with a gallery and in the art world, women are not paid equally at all. And with the kind of experience and amount of exhibitions I’ve been in, my artwork has a certain value. That means that the purses that I make are not affordable to your everyday woman. And I struggle with that a lot. I don’t necessarily like talking about it very much, because it is a key element to me that art be accessible to all people. And that means all women, all men, all ages, backgrounds, history. But so, that is a little bit of a challenge that I face, that not anyone can go buy one. But that’s also why I do t-shirts and tote bags and give away pins and give away stickers. And so, I feel like there’s at least a level where I’m putting my message out.
These purses actually support my public projects, of which I’ve done a number now. So, the money that I earn from the purses allows me to travel to put on these feminist art parades, which I’ve been doing now since 2017. I did Parade Against Patriarchy in Miami. I did the We Vote Parade in New York in 2018. I’m doing a feminist in Berkeley, California. Those take a lot of time to organize. I also use Kickstarter to raise money for a lot of materials and documentation and permits. I also pay for artists to fly in, because artists don’t have the resources to come. And I have a group of women that I love working with, and I want them to participate with their artwork, so I will pay for their tickets. Community’s very important to me. And so, it goes around, and so it’s sort of…[laughing] that’s what helps me feel better about the prices. They’re not as accessible, but they’re out there in the world. They’re in the demonstrations. People are holding them. People are using them.
CARMEN: But Michele’s work didn’t always look like this. It wasn’t always all love parades and feminist fashion. For many years, Michele’s career forced her to divorce her passions for art and equality.
MICHELE: I grew up in Berkeley, California, and in a very political environment in the ’70s. Both my parents were strong feminists, my mom being from Sweden and growing up in a socialist country, so absolutely believing in equal rights for women and access to healthcare and free education. I mean, I really was brought up with that. I also lived every summer in Sweden for two months because my father was a professor at Berkeley. So, I grew up between a very tumultuous time in Berkeley politically. You know, there was a freedom of speech movement happening in the late ’60s, and I was all too young to experience it. But I certainly was there and going to a lot of marches. My father was extremely political, and I grew up in an environment where we always, I mean, that was part of the daily discussions and just wherever we, you know, whatever we were discussing, it seeped through what was taking place politically. Every day, every news story, every action we discussed and from a different perspective than most America was thinking or believing at the time. So, I was brought up with that.
And then sort of my first action, sort of real political action that was my own also coupled with my father was in the seventh grade. I came home and told my father that the boys didn’t have to wear a uniform for PE, and the girls did. And that goes against all kinds of issues, including, most importantly, Title IX where you can’t discriminate in schools or in sports. And so, he decided that we were gonna take action and change it. He wrote a letter to the principal stating these things, and it went to some probably County Title IX office or person who then responded with that they were gonna make that change. And I didn’t realize it till years later, I mean, probably not until 15 years later, how empowering that was to me. It’s realizing that one person can make a change. That was so eye-opening to me. That really was the first time I realized I can make a change. It could be little. It can be community-based. But that’s where we have to start. It has to be in our neighborhoods, in our community, and then also globally.
CARMEN: Yeah. And I love too that it sort of starts with apparel. That sort of this moment also came hand in hand with this idea of like the woman’s body—
MICHELE: I have never—
CARMEN: —and the ways in which it’s different.
MICHELE: —consciously made that connection. But yes! Yes! Wow.
CARMEN: As you were growing as an artist, did politics always sort of shape the work that you were doing?
MICHELE: In the beginning, yes. I went to California College of the Arts here in Oakland. I first was sort of, you know, you go to art school. You’re studying more technique and such. But it didn’t take long until I started incorporating especially feminist ideas and especially images of women’s bodies and how we felt about our bodies, how bodies were viewed in our society, how they were interpreted in media and so forth. And so, I started doing artwork about that: sculpture and fiber based. I did a lot of embroidery on clothing about how I experienced the world, as a woman, as a feminist, but yet being very effected by all these socials so-called norms of how a woman was supposed to be and look and look. So, I incorporated a lot of that text in embroidery on vintage underwear and beautiful, like from the ’30s and ’40s. And then also I got into textile printing, and I made a skirt that the textile print was repeated and said, “Never again” with a coat hanger on it. And that was something I wore. And so, that was definitely a big part of the work I was doing.
Then I took some grad classes, wasn’t sure if I was gonna go to grad school. I was at San Francisco State University, and I was actually doing some glassblowing, of all things. There again, I was dealing with the body and these vessels that looked like female forms. And then I was collaging on them and painting on them and putting barbed wire around them. Glassblowing traditionally, and still pretty much is, a very male-dominated art form. And I got so critiqued for it! And believe it or not, I stopped doing the feminist work, which, looking back, I’m kind of embarrassed to even admit. But I was going through other issues in my life, and I put that work aside and didn’t do feminist artwork for another 25 years. However, I started, I went back to the political artwork because that’s my calling. It’s what I’m here to do in this world: just react and respond and ignite conversations and get people to respond or look at life differently and provoke and evoke. That is my purpose here. That’s my calling, and I need to do it. It flows through my body. I have to respond to what’s happening around me. It’s what I live and breathe.
CARMEN: What ended up bringing you back sort of to, I mean, I would say explicitly feminist work, you know. You’re not reading feminism in these works. The feminism is so built into the fiber of the work.
MICHELE: Right, right. I had a daughter in 2009, so she’s 10 now. And I’ve been working with the gallery in New York for…wow, it’s 16 years now. And the gallerist, a female, told me when I was pregnant that my artwork is gonna really change when I had my baby.
MICHELE: And I felt pressure! Like wow. And I felt sort of like, what is this, how is this change gonna take place? And it felt like, oh, my artwork has to change now! It’s gonna change!
MICHELE: For a year or so, I felt this pressure, and I thought, I don’t know. It’s not changing, you know? And I felt like that’s not really true. And then in fact, it did, and it started in 2002. So, I was still working but not as much obviously, when she was little. And it was started with the issues around access to birth control and prochoice issues. And that really is what got me back in. And that also makes sense if you see the connection as I had a baby. And that was my first and only one. And so, those issues make sense. They’re really connected. And also seeing what was happening, the expense of birth control pills in particular, and just access for all is so critical to me. And then of course, having the right to make a choice about whether you’re gonna keep a baby or not. So, that’s, in 2002, that’s what I got myself into, and I have not stopped.
CARMEN: [Laughs.] So, the gallerist was right, you know?
MICHELE: [Laughing.] She was!
CARMEN: It was a rebirth, for you.
MICHELE: Yes, yes!
CARMEN: Sort of back into that feminist work. What’s been the impact for you sort of as an artist, but also just as a person, of reentering the fray and going back to doing explicitly feminist work? How has that journey sort of changed you?
MICHELE: Hmm. Well, it’s sort of, I feel 100 percent me. Like I’m really doing my life’s work. All the political war work is really important, but this is who I am and how I was brought up to be. And so, it’s sort of like coming full circle with putting the work aside to fit with the feminist ideas and especially around pro-choice and coming back to it, and it really is fulfilling.
CARMEN: The rest, as we say, was herstory. Feminism is now woven into all of her projects, and she’s become an icon of the contemporary resistance. She’s also arming her fellow foot soldiers in the fight against patriarchy with glamorous adornments that actually reflect their values.
[Kickstarter campaign video plays with music in its background]
MICHELE: I’ve been creating public projects and activations for the last 10 years. On Inauguration Day, I took my artwork to D.C. My name is Michele Pred, and I’m an artist and an activist.
CARMEN: How does feminism sort of shape your artistic practice overall? How do your political beliefs sort of shape the body of work that you make?
MICHELE: For starters, I mean these are all vintage purses. That very intentionally also mentions purses because it’s harking back to another era where birth control pills were not legal; abortion was not legal. So, reflecting on that time, these purses are mainly from the ’60s, maybe even the ’50s. So, these are 60, 70-year-old purses. But then obviously, I’m not making new purses. They’re all vintage. So, it sort of has a double meaning for me. And that’s really important in thinking about sustainability, especially as things are getting much worse in our environment.
CARMEN: Yeah, totally. And what’s been the difference for you with this rise of the resistance in the age of Trump? Like how has that impacted this project and the other work that you do?
MICHELE: Well, mostly and most importantly for me is, I really like to respond in the moment. I feel like I mean, it’s very similar, obviously, to just getting on the streets and demonstrating, which now again, also people are doing. And that thrills me because 2002, 2003, we weren’t out there demonstrating all the time, you know. And I say we. Some of us were. I was. But the greater we, there’s so many more women on the streets now, which just makes me so happy. With Trump, there’s been a lot of responding [inaudible].
MICHELE: And that’s what’s really gratifying, is that I have responded a lot, the same day as so many different issues have come with Trump. First of all, I also just wanna, as a side, say that the amount of art shows I have been in since Trump was elected is nothing like my previous years. It’s the amount of art shows being put together in a month, in two months and responding. And that’s been real exciting. There’s been so much response in the art world that I have just, I mean, I think the first year I was in like 15 shows I mean, unheard of. And usually, I’ve always done political artwork, or for many, many years. And being in that many exhibitions was unheard of because political art isn’t necessarily something that people, all people, connect to. Now it is! right now. And that might change back again.
But just looking at some of the purses, PUSSY GRABS BACK. We know exactly what that was responding to with Trump.
MICHELE: NASTY WOMAN, that was also.
MICHELE: And I would literally respond and make a purse within a day or two. And that was just, I just felt the need to make something and respond. NEVERTHELESS, SHE PERSISTED is another one.
MICHELE: So, those are three examples. And then of course, with “TIMES UP” and “ME TOO,” those were also purses I made right away. And I just felt like getting it out there, and it’s just a way, it’s a release. It’s sort of like a therapy. And just putting it out in the world and saying, I support this movement, you know, the MeToo movement. And of course, against everything that’s happened in the past to women, continues to happen to women. So, that really helps me deal with some of these just political issues that are craziness that’s happening right now.
CARMEN: Each of Michele’s bags are limited editions. No bag is ever duplicated, and only 10 bags bearing any phrase are ever made. They’re also all made by hand, with Michele making every executive decision along the way. She picks the purses, picks the phrases, and then sews in the lights on every single bag.
Along the fourth and last wall in Michele’s studio, next to a full-body riot suit covered in floral silk fabric, I found two bags in progress on her desk. One was red, structured, with a handle, and covered in a piece of paper that said, “FOR THE FUTURE.” The other was white with one corner red and one corner blue and half of the phrase “I AM AMERICA” ready to light up in neon wire. Michele was determined to finish the latter while I was in town. In fact, she went ahead and wrapped it up while I was in the studio with her.
MICHELE: So, I have a couple different purses here. [sounds of her working throughout this section] I use a tool called an awl—it’s very sharp. It looks kind of like an ice pick—to make the holes. So, I start with coming up with the text I’m gonna use. I only use a certain repertoire of text. Obviously, there’s new ones that come about with what’s happening, considering what’s happening politically. This is a purse that is going to an art organization called Art Table, and it’s actually women in the arts, professional women in the arts—not artists, funny enough—that have a nationwide organization. And so, this is going to a fundraiser for them, and it says, “FOR THE FUTURE” and “FEMINIST.” So, since they’re all different shapes and sizes, I have to make the text tailored to each one. So, I can’t use the same sort of layout for each purse and size. So, I lay it out on the computer and then print it out, tape it onto the purse, and then I make holes.
So, then I measure the, you know, center it, place it where I want to, and then I literally make these holes. And I’ll show you. Actually, I’m gonna use this one instead. This one’s a little bit thinner. Then I make the…. So, I stab these beautiful purses. By the way, and I did wanna say this: people often ask me where I get the purses. And I get them mostly off of eBay and Etsy ‘cause finding purses that are this old and this condition is really hard. Often, they’ll have stains on the metal. That doesn’t bother me, and that’s part of their patina. But the actual purses you can see are, I have to look high and low to find them in this condition. So, I spend hours, I mean sometimes just for one purse. I use red a lot. I use black a lot, and then this one is red, white, and blue. But let me show you how this looks. So, it almost becomes sort of a Braille once I turn off. So, some of these guiding points, and some of them are just, I poke these holes in exactly where I’m gonna be sewing in. And I’ll finish here for you and pull it off to show you what it looks like… [clatter] Oops.
MICHELE: [Laughs.] [poking holes] …once I’ve finished. And I see it in itself as this sort of language, like I said, a Braille that I totally can read, but maybe to your average person, reading this would not be easy. Let’s make that little guiding hole there…. And the first few times, it was kind of strange poking into these beautiful purses, but I got used to it. So, then I take it off, and here are my guiding holes, which I can read. But I think your average person wouldn’t know what it says. [laughs]
So, I’ve made these holes. I have the electric or electroluminescent wire, and I’m literally just poking it through. Thing you have to be careful with is not bend it too much, and it doesn’t like to be bent too much. So, I’m making an E right now, and then I’m really used to making the letter. So, it makes it look quick and easy, but it took me a long time to get every letter right and kind of design it so that it would look nice, not be bent too many times. Some of the letters I need to glue down, some I don’t. So, the ones I’ve already laid out here don’t need to be glued down, but I will show you once I’m done with this how I glue them down. [sounds of weaving wire through holes]
So, I use these wires that are either five to 10 feet long. I get them from Cool Neon Productions, a place I work with, and they’re my vendor. I’ve been working with them for years now. So, you can see here this is becoming the E. And it’s kind of hard to tell, but this is the R, this is the I, this is the C, and this is the A. So, to me, [laughs] someone who’s used to it, I can read these.
MICHELE: But I’m not sure if most people could. I’m on the R, and I’m gonna finish this purse, and then we could take it out and about. You can hear me pulling the wires through. [pause while she works] And I don’t know how long you wanna keep on going with this.
CARMEN: I love it. Yeah.
MICHELE: Okay. Okay. You’re gonna—
MICHELE: Okay. Hang tight with me as I finish “America.” You know, I don’t think of myself as patriotic, but I use the red, white, and blue symbols. Like this is actually a vintage one if you look at how many stars there are there. And so, all along, I’ve used the American flag and American colors as symbolism for our culture, who we are, what is happening, and also often, criticizing the United States. So, that definitely is the main reason, I think, symbolic reason, I’ve used it. And this in this case no, because this purse is red, white, and blue to really represent us as women and who we are of all ages and backgrounds. [sewing sounds] Working on the R right now. So, you can see here is that once I am done, that some of these letters have to be glued down: the E and the P. But the I, A and M don’t. [sewing continues]
And a lotta people ask if I get these at vintage stores, and I just, because they have to, in my mind, have to be a certain quality, I only buy really as good of shape as possible. And often, I think these have been sitting in someone’s closet. I think these were special purses, maybe going to church or when you’re dressed up. And so, there’s surprisingly many out there that are mint condition. And people say, “Well, it was sitting in my grandma’s closet in a velvet pouch” or something. And these weren’t even necessarily that expensive at that time, but and they’re all patent leather. I don’t think I mentioned that earlier. But they’re not real patent leather. Some of them are, but that was the style at that time. And so, but still, it’s hard to find them without dents, without any discolorations. Patent leather gets scratched very easily, even hairline scratches. And you could see here this, you know, there’s maybe some little, well, most of the stuff I can get off, just smudges. But I really like the metal often has discolored, and I really liked that sort of natural patina. And this one it has it.
CARMEN: Yeah, this bag looks brand new. [Chuckles.]
MICHELE: It does, it does. But…someone must’ve kept this in a closet somewhere, and then it was maybe handed down to the granddaughter, and then it’s been sitting there. And then it ended up maybe at an estate sale and made it into someone’s eBay store.
So, I’m working on the I now. [sewing, leather creaking] There we go. And like I said, the first one, I go back to the first one I made. I just wasn’t used to forming the letters and wasn’t used to the glues and how it was supposed to be attached. And I have to say, looking back, [laughing] it’s not anything I would show now! but it’s my first one, and it traveled to New York with me.
Okay. We’re on the C now. And there is, for me, working, there’s definitely making these, sewing these, like with most artists, there’s a form of relaxation or probably when people knit or do some other craft of when I’m making. It’s very gratifying and relaxing. There’s my C, and then I’ll do the A. And then, let’s see if I have my glues out. My glue. Where’s my…. I’ll look that up in a second. [continues working] One other thing, I may or may not be able to pick it up on the microphone, but there’s a slight humming in there. I don’t know if you can.
MICHELE: Can you hear it? Can you hear that? [sustained, high-pitch electric squeal] It actually might irritate the microphone. Does it? Sorry, did it distort the sound?
CARMEN: [Laughs.] No. It was funny before when we turned on the blinking bags, you could just hear like, beep, beep. [Laughs.]
MICHELE: Right, right, right! I’ve had that happen actually, where I think where I was interviewed, and I had the purse on. And it distorted the sound a little bit. The microphone picked it up in a strange way, but it does have a little bit, the drivers do have a little bit of a beeping sound, and that’s just part of it once you close it.
CARMEN: The sound of the revolution.
MICHELE: YEAH! [Laughs.] Yes!
CARMEN: The purse Michele was working on is the basis for one of her newest projects, one she actually conceptualized of right before I got to Oakland. Michele will be carrying that “I AM AMERICA” bag around with her into the wild over the next few months, taking photos of women across identities and experiences and backgrounds holding onto it.
MICHELE: That’s the A, and the full finishing would be me cutting this off and doing certain treatments. But I wanna get the letters glued down, clean it up a little bit, and then we can take it
So, here you can see, here it says, “I am America.” I’m gonna glue it.
MICHELE: I know! We’re gonna glue it. Test this glue. Sometimes it gets old. If we don’t put some heat on here. It is cold in my studio.
MICHELE: In fact, I’m gonna put my sweater on.
So, I do wanna test this glue. It’s like a super glue, different brand of a super glue, but I might need to pull up another one. Let’s see if this one’s gonna work for us or not. But even just finessing…. [whispering] Actually, I’m not gonna do it that way. My methods and gluing it, when I first got the materials…. [objects drop on the table] I’m actually testing it by putting my finger on it.
MICHELE: It goes bad, believe it or not. No, it’s not going bad. [Chuckles.] This one is not bad and is not as sticky. It’s sort of if it’s been open too long. But there is, what they recommend on how to use this and how I now use the glue are two very different things. Before I perfected that, that was a lot of trial and error. And I do, I should be wearing gloves, but we’re just doing a few, a few gluing spots. So, I have to apply the glue. I actually have it like on a tongue depressor, and so it doesn’t spread and show up around the purse. And as you see, I’m using my fingers now. Really shouldn’t. Don’t do this at home.
MICHELE: And then I apply the glue, and then I hold it down. And there it is.
MICHELE: So, here we go!
CARMEN: [Gasps.] It’s done.
MICHELE: It’s done.
CARMEN: We are America!
MICHELE: So, I’m actually gonna start with photographing you. [Laughs.]
CARMEN: [Gasp.] Okay! That means I have to take these headphones off.
MICHELE: Yep, yep.
CARMEN: The rumors are true: I am America. And I know it because I held that bag in my hands as part of Michele’s project, proudly and also hopefully, not while smiling too sincerely. That drove home to me how powerful it is to experience Michele’s art, to not just witness feminist creative work, but be able to interact with it.
CARMEN: I’m like, is this too dainty? [Laughs.]
MICHELE: [speaking from across the room] I’m also, I haven’t decided yet if I’m gonna do it square. I’m actually gonna have you do it in the maybe middle of these purses.
CARMEN: Like here?
MICHELE: Yeah, so you have them surrounding you. Awesome. And then we’ll do some more of the light will show up more. [camera clicks] Oh my god. You look so awesome!!
MICHELE: I’m gonna post that on my Instagram right away today.
CARMEN: Oh my god!
Later that afternoon, Michele and I also took the bag and snapped shots of it at Mama’s Royal Cafe, posed next to an Iranian immigrant woman and her coffee cup.
It’s just a purse, but it’s also a political statement. And it was a beautiful form of resistance, solidarity, community, empowerment. That moment was a declaration and a reclamation. Michele’s bags are infused with girlish glee, but they’re not saccharine or immature. They’re just complex and pretty, like all of us. They’re proud, loud, and gorgeous. And that’s the whole point.
CARMEN: I also feel like glamour is a through line in your work, whether it’s the Miss Conception beauty pageant or the Love Parade and sort of all of this, even this body suit we’re looking at that is adorned with beautiful embroidered, what is it, pink silk?
MICHELE: Yup. Yeah, and it’s a full body riot suit is what it is.
CARMEN: Oh my god. And it’s a riot suit, and it’s also like the most fabulous thing I’ve ever seen.
CARMEN: You know, it’s something you want to wear out in the world because it is made to be so beautiful. And so, how has that sort of been part of your practice? Why has that been so core to the work you’ve made, that it has these glamorous vibrations?
MICHELE: Well, it’s a power color too. And I’m claiming it as a power color. So, and this riot suit, I mean, that really comes directly from the Inauguration Day and me running into the Capitol police in DC and then wearing this riot suit. And we need protection these days. I mean, and not to speak about, gun issues and gun control and reasons around that. But for us, it’s like we can be strong too. I’ve done riot shields that say “MY BODY MY BUSINESS” on them in pink, and they’re spray painted with nail polish, pink nail polish.
MICHELE: So, you know, it can be a power color, and that’s how I use it.
CARMEN: That beauty of these pieces only increases exponentially every time Michele funnels the proceeds from her purse project into those public exhibitions of a uniquely protest variety: Love Parades, marches of artists in the streets. That work turns the personal conversations embedded in her bags into sparks for widespread change. You might be able to ignore one blinking feminist catchphrase on a city street. But I’m willing to gamble that you can’t ignore a couple hundred of them.
CARMEN: What do you think the unique power is of bringing art and politics sort of together in this way, whether it’s public and out there like that, or it’s something as small as a purse? What do you think the power of that gesture is?
MICHELE: I think it’s very powerful to have the visual, so not just the people power, which is extremely important. Community is extremely important, but it’s different interpretation of these ideas, different sort of stimulations of the mind. And they provoke conversation and response, whether it be a kid or someone. I mean, the reason why I did it on the streets of Miami was it was tied into the largest art event annually in the United States. But I did on the streets, not in the art event because that means, let’s say the taxi drivers, the construction workers, the hotel workers, all those people that we walk by that aren’t allowed or can’t afford to or don’t have time to come into these art events can experience what we’re doing. And that’s who the parades are for. They’re for everybody.
CARMEN: Yeah. And I almost feel like in a landscape where we know that women artists and feminist artists are often ignored or dismissed or overlooked or underfunded and underappreciated, I feel like it’s sort of a political act in and of itself to say we’re gonna go out into the street and display this feminist artwork that’s also sort of a way of celebrating artwork.
MICHELE: Yeah. Yeah. And it’s just, I think it’s really powerful. I’m really gonna work on several different themes this year. Equal pay for artists is gonna be one of them. Equal pay in general is a key issue. But I’m gonna be announcing, in a month actually, a whole new campaign that I’m just starting. But just the idea of putting artwork in the streets. And so, I started with Civil Discourse, a new project called Civil Discourse, in December in Miami. Again, we’re a big hub for art. I did it on the streets rather than inside of an art fair. So, we encountered people happened to be biking by. You know, it was on the boardwalk, so bicycling by or roller skating by or people handing out flyers, promoting hotels or something. So, it was really all people and tourists. But I invited a group of women to carry their interpretations of the American flag and then to talk to people about those issues that they addressed in their artwork—in my case, it’s equal pay—and to take it even further. Because through the artwork, I think it makes it easier to have a discussion. There’s something visual in front of you, and it really sparks these conversations. And that’s really interesting to me. So, that’s what I’m gonna be continuing to do.
CARMEN: And Michele herself radiates light and optimism. She carries herself with the most glamorous kind of persistent feminist spirit. It’s something all of us would do well to tote around, even if we don’t have the means to stow one of her custom bags away in our closets. Visiting Michele’s studio made me realize just how important it is for us to continue to build a movement on our own terms, to design a resistance that looks and feels just like our most authentic ideas of ourselves and our most beautiful and idealized vision for the world. That’s a movement I’m confident will never go out of style.
Okay, folks. That’s all for this installment of Popaganda by Bitch Media. This episode was edited by Emily Boghossian and produced and hosted by me—feminist media-maker and movement-builder Carmen Rios—as part of our GLAMOUR season. Our jingle is by Mucks & Owen Wuerker. Today’s guest was the one and only Michele Pred, who is represented by the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York. You can find out more about her and see photos from our studio tour at BitchMedia.org.
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