Hiking mountains, following trails, treading through snow and sand and hail, reaching the moment where you finally feel like yourself, that moment when you take out your camera, adjust the focus and the shutter speed, and snap the first shot of the day.
Michelle von Kalben is a photographer and digital artist who dropped out of college to follow her dreams of traveling the world and making art. After a few years of struggling, and pushing back against friends and family who wanted her to settle down into something safer, she finally broke through. With almost 50k followers on Instagram, a thriving social media consulting business, and multiple NFT drops resulting in impressive sales, it is safe to say that Michelle von Kalben took a huge risk that paid off.
She uses her work to explore themes of growth and change, showing us that all perception is just a matter of perspective. From still photos of cities lodged into the mountainside, to photo collages of the northern lights, to moving, computer-generated artworks, Michelle finds a way to embed a touch of the unexpected into the calm serenity of nature. During lockdown her traveling came to a stop, but she found new ways of expressing herself that fit right in with the sense of wonder that traveling had given her before the Covid-19 pandemic.
Here’s what she had to say to SuperRare about art, process, NFTs, and her plans for the future.
Virginia Valenzuela: I’ve gathered that storytelling is a big part of your artistic process. Do you usually come up with a concept and see how the story unfolds, or do you have a fully thought-out storyboard before you dive into a project?
Michelle von Kalben: Storytelling has become a key factor in my work. I love being able to communicate the lessons I learned in life through my art. Most of the stories are related to mindset and personal growth because that’s what helped me most to grow into the person I am today.
When creating art I often know what message I want to convey, and then I create a visual based around that story. Sometimes, a concept for an art piece suddenly appears in my mind and I try to think about what I could communicate with it. Usually it takes even longer because I want to optimize my visuals to convey my message in the best way possible.
For me, art is not only about the visuals; I want to be touched by it and I want to be able to resonate with it. That’s when I feel truly inspired and I hope that I am able to give this feeling to others as well.
VV: How does your photography background influence your digital art?
MvK: I started my creative journey with landscape photography after I fell in love with traveling and exploring new places. When I would wake up in the middle of the night to hike up a mountain to see the sunrise, it gave me this feeling of pure excitement that I couldn’t get from anywhere else. With my camera, I’ve always loved to capture this feeling which at some point also involved combining different images and moving more towards composite photography.
But during the pandemic, I lost my creative flow because I wasn’t able to get the pure excitement [that I got from traveling].
That’s when I pushed myself to create something totally different. I created completely imaginary worlds with my own images and that’s when I finally felt excited again. I learned about the power of storytelling and jumped straight into 3D animation because moving elements support my message.
Throughout my creative journey, my love for nature was always present in the visuals and that’s something photography helped me to understand better. The play of light and shadows is something you need to learn out in the field, and understanding that has given me a big advantage to achieve the most realistic results [with my digital art].
Some people might say I should stick to one niche, and while I consider my niche to be nature, I never liked limiting myself when it comes to the medium. As an artist, I love learning new skills and using them to make my visions come to life – and sometimes it requires traveling somewhere to take an image, and sometimes it requires me spending 200+ hours on my computer to create 3D art. All of these experiences are part of me.
VV: You have an extensive social media background. Do you feel like having an online presence influenced your style or your brand as an artist in any way?
MvK: While having a social media presence didn’t affect my art or style in any kind of way, seeing other photographers and 3D artists out there definitely did. We all look for inspiration and while we create original art, my initial inspiration might have started just by seeing an art piece on social media.
When it comes to my brand as an artist I would say that my social media presence definitely influenced it in a positive way. It is a lot of work and I knew if I wanted to make it happen (and it is a big passion of mine, so YES) I had to get out of my comfort zone and learn to be more confident. I started talking in front of the camera, which used to be the scariest thought back then, but nowadays I find it fun. It’s the most authentic way to share who I truly am and connect with my audience.
I slowly started caring less about what people think of me. I was freeing myself from all this pressure and I realized that getting out of your comfort zone is rewarding. That’s when I started even searching for situations to push myself a little without of course crossing my own limits. If I was still the person I was two years ago, I wouldn’t be where I am now.
VV: In an interview with Ricky O’Donnell, you talked about not looking too far into your future, especially if the driving feeling is worry. But you also mention on your Instagram that making a bucket list and keeping it nearby is a great way to achieve your long- and short-term goals. How do you strike that happy balance between enjoying the present and planning for the future?
MvK: I love all the research you did. I do think talking about the future is a complex topic. I usually tend to overthink and worry a lot. Taking the leap into quitting college and becoming a full-time artist was totally worth it, but it was frightening. It felt like someone cut the ground from under me. No financial security whatsoever. That’s when I fell into the cycle of worrying about the far future – will I still be an artist in 40 years? How can I pay my bills when I retire? What if something happens to me? – I had so many dreams and I was so afraid of something going wrong.
If you want to go further in life it’s okay to keep your far future in mind, but instead, it’s way more important to focus on your short-term and maybe even long-term goals. If I set the goal that I want to travel to 100 countries by the time I’m 70, I’m thinking far into the future as well, but it’s something exciting instead of frightening. A bucket list or even a vision board helps to remind me of what I want to achieve in life. It’s something to look back to when you actually achieve something and think “damn, I’m proud of myself!”
VV: What projects are you excited to work on in the coming year?
MvK: I have a lot of plans in the crypto and NFT space but aside from that, I would like to build a passive income stream with my partner through Airbnb. It’s the first time I’m talking about it, so this interview will be a manifestation, haha! We both are passionate about interior design and thanks to our photography backgrounds, I‘m sure we can create rentals and listings that are exciting to look at. Nowadays there are so many opportunities in the (online) world & understanding this helped me to worry less and do more.
Michelle von Kalben’s genesis series, “Against All Odds” can be found right here on SuperRare.