On the rise
In her youth, Mischell “Phoenix” Riley dreamed of becoming a combination of Michelangelo and Bruce Jenner. While training for the Junior Olympics, she opted out of parties and sat in the corner of the library studying. Dyslexia plagued her, and that made it hard to maintain her grades, but she had to do so in order to keep her scholarship and remain eligible for sports. She did keep them up, and she earned multiple gold medals in the high jump. Then, a back injury left her in a wheelchair for a year, sidelining her athletic pursuits and leaving her solely to her artwork.
Having given her soul to Olympic training, Riley was unsure if she could do anything else. After talking with her coaches, she knew she would need to channel her passion into something new. She began dedicating the same time and discipline that she had as an athlete to becoming an artist.
“Sacrificing for the end goal was all I knew,” she said. “As a new artist, I was homeless for four years, bathing out of a bucket in a warehouse space to do my art. I could’ve had a car. I could’ve had nice clothes. But I bought art supplies.”
Riley got an apprenticeship with Snell Johnson, the late Arizona sculptor known for large public artworks and casino commissions. She helped him create huge pieces, including the MGM Grand’s “Grand Lion” in Las Vegas. Each day after her mentor finished working, Riley would scrape the excess clay that had fallen to the floor, to have materials to use for her own creations.
“I still have some of that clay,” she said. “I take a little piece of clay and put it in the heart of each monument that I do. It’s a little piece of being humble and remembering where I came from and how far I’ve gone.”
Riley said her job can get daunting. She works long into the night, applies for grant money, and fields complaints from studio mates about her her colossal messes.
She’s created an estimated 900 sculptures, some of which have become widely known. Her bust of Leonardo da Vinci laid on a lawn at the University of Nevada, Reno for months and is now in Carson City. Her latest work, “Maya’s Mind,” a towering sculpture of Maya Angelou—21 feet high high—premiered at Burning Man last year and is now at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., through January 2019.
Riley intends to make a series of monuments that pay tribute to women she admires from history. She hopes to inspire girls and boys who can see bits of themselves in the heroines. The disparity between male monuments and females is stark, Riley said, and she wants to even out the balance. Jane Goodall will be her next subject, followed by Amelia Earhart and Camille Claudel, a 19th-century French sculptor.
Maya Angelou pushed past a childhood rape and muteness, then used her art and poetry to come out of her pain and speak again. Riley, too, feels she has found her voice in art. When the challenges of her past creep into her mind, she thinks of Angelou as her muse. The sentiment from Angelou’s famous poem “Still I Rise” brings Riley comfort.
“You can either be crippled by things, or you can rise,” she said.