Michelle Ramin, unmasked

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. – In 2005 Williamsport native and artist Michelle Ramin and her husband Joel Wasko packed up Joel’s small, red Dodge Neon to the point of bursting, and, with very little money in their bank accounts and no jobs lined up, they traveled the 2,700 miles to Portland, Ore. “We wanted to go on an adventure and try something completely new in a beautiful and creative environment,” Ramin explained in an email interview with the Sun-Gazette.

Five years later, the couple packed their things again (this time in a U-Haul) and moved south – this time with more of a plan and cat, Lucy, in tow.

“We had an amazing time and life in Portland but we wanted to, again, change things up and go on another adventure. I applied to graduate school for painting and got into the San Francisco Art Institute’s MFA program,” Ramin said.

Ramin went on to become the manager of graduate admission at San Francisco’s Art Institute, where she also teaches a weekly drawing fundamentals course. Professionally, her goal is to find a full-time teaching position at a university and to exhibit actively. “Personally,” she added, “I just want to travel as much as possible and continue going on adventures with my husband, friends and family.”

For Ramin, a life in art wasn’t so much an easy decision as something that happened organically.

“Because creating has always been such a huge part of my life, I don’t think I’ve ever considered another path. I originally wanted to be an architect – and I still very much love architecture – but drawing and painting have been constant loves of mine so I stuck with it into college and beyond.”

Ramin said her father, a teacher in the Williamsport Area School District for more than 35 years, played a large role in her artistic growth: “He’s been a huge inspiration and supporter of me as was his mother, Mary Ramin – my Mimi.” It was her “Mimi,” Ramin said, who sparked her interest in drawing as a kid. “She’s one of my favorite people in all of the world.”

Some traditional instructors from the area also were crucial to her development. “I feel very fortunate to have had some really amazing teachers over the years. Joy Walls probably stands out the most as being the most influential to me – she taught me how to have an open mind and to work hard and persevere, no matter what. In elementary school, Helena Meixel really encouraged me to draw and I am grateful always to her for that.”

Ramin’s family and friends have reason to be proud. The 30-year-old has recently exhibited her work at Studio 17 in San Francisco, her piece “Quiet Riot” is currently the cover of the Record Label Self Group’s promotional material for artist Krist Krueger and the band Southerly’s European tour. Furthermore, the San Francisco Bay Guardian recently awarded Ramin a “Goldie” (Guardian Outstanding Local Discovery) award for excellence in visual art.

It’s almost surprising that an artist who would take the time to think of her “Mimi” in an email interview would so heavily feature the ever-loaded, potentially dark imagery of figures in ski masks. Almost.

Ramin is smart. She’s also versed in the visual language of artists both contemporary (she lists the likes of Storm Tharpe, Desiree Holman, Aurel Schmidt, Nicole Eisenman, Josephine Taylor, James Turrell and Marcel Dzama among her living influences) and modern, even classical (Caravaggio, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Velazquez, Goya and portraitist Alice Neel round out Ramin’s list of dead influences.)

Whatever her figures are doing, whatever message their body language seems to convey, it always conflicts with their ski masks; we see them, but we don’t see the whole picture. Even nudes feel more “veiled” than if we could see their faces and it was their bodies that were partially hidden. This duality is at the core of Ramin’s work.

So why ski masks? Ramin explained:

“Specifically, the ski mask is a historically loaded image in and of itself. It references everything from terrorism to fashion statement to revolution (in the case of Russia’s Pussy Riot) to excess (as seen in Harmony Korine’s film ‘Spring Breakers’) and beyond.

“I was trying to come up with a way to talk about dual identities – private and public identities, hidden identities, hidden agendas. I feel very much like social media websites like Facebook are ways for each of us to present our own unique ‘brand’ to the world. It’s a public forum to display our personas – a way to show the world who we ‘really’ are. In actuality, the way we present ourselves on social media sites is often not the whole truth. We give the world what we want them to see and leave out the rest – a curated, masked rendition of ourselves. I’m interested in this concept of public vs. private identities and how they inform and influence us.”

View Michelle Ramin’s work or contact her at Read about her winning the San Francisco Bay Guardian “Goldie” award by visiting