ELOY — It takes guts to jump out of a plane. The adrenaline is pumping as you’re plummeting to the ground at around 120 miles per hour.
It’s not exactly a time that is conducive to a creative pursuit, such as painting.
As hundreds of competitors and skydiving enthusiasts from all over the world gathered at Skydive Arizona for the 2019 FAI World Cup of Formation Skydiving and Artistic Events, one woman stood out among the crowd as her jumpsuit was splattered with paint and she had a couple of blank canvases strapped to her body.
Michelle Nirumandrad, or “Bubbles” as most people call her, came up with the idea of creating art while skydiving in an effort to be able to claim something tangible from the sky, as a sort of souvenir from her time up there.
“Pictures and videos can connect us to that place, but I wanted to have something more tangible that we could connect with and identify with on a more intimate level,” she said. “I wanted to be able to bottle up a cloud, but I couldn’t figure out how to do that.”
Nirumandrad came up with what she titled Captured Sky in 2013 and started out with one small canvas strapped to her arm. Through a lot of trial and error, she has progressed to the point where she now carries more canvases and even films the whole process.
“The six-year evolution now allows me to take larger canvases or multiple canvases and wear a video camera to capture the action because this is completely uncharted territory,” she said. “I’m the one and only person who crafts in this manner and obviously there’s some inherent safety risks and I wanted to be overtly cautious of those risks. It’s been a very, very slow process to bring it from one canvas back in 2013 to where I am now.”
All of her pieces are created while she’s in the air with the wind as her paintbrush. She straps on canvases to her arms and legs with industrial strength Velcro, which is the same type Velcro that is used to house the skydiving canopies.
She also wears a skydiver’s weight vest, but instead of filling the pockets with lead to make the vest heavy, she uses the pockets to hold 2-ounce containers filled with non-toxic water-based paint.
“I actually have to mix the paints to various consistencies based on how I’d like them to perform in the wind so the more viscus they are the more they’ll flow and the less viscus, the more they’ll kind of stay in place,” Nirumandrad said. “I kind of experiment with the colors on the ground in a little notebook and fingerpaint with them to get an idea of how they will look based on the order in which they’ll be released.”
The rest of her gear consists of the traditional skydiving gear such as the canopy, goggles and helmet. When she jumps, she hears multiple audibles in her helmet that alert her about her altitude.
She added that every piece is engraved with the concept information such as the date of the jump, the name of the piece, how much time it spent at terminal velocity and the sky’s condition.
Nirumandrad admitted that when she first started, the paint blended together rather than layering on top of one another. She’s also learned what type of motions work best when releasing the paint.
“You should see some of the earlier Captured Sky stuff,” she said. “There were a lot of them named ‘lessons learned’ or ‘don’t do that again,’ but basically the release of the paint is a form of gestural abstraction, which would be Jackson Pollock, the father of gestural abstraction, where basically the act and the action of placing paint is supposed to be just as important and significant as the final imagery itself.”
At the beginning, Nirumandrad would freefall in the belly-to-Earth orientation, but she noticed how the paint would be pulled off the canvas and there was no texture or dimension, just a stain of color.
Now she flies on her back, which allows her easier access to the canvas on her legs and it also allows her to block off some of the wind.
“I found that the winds are just a little too intense in the manner that I have to be in order to capture them,” Nirumandrad said. “In an effort to shield some of that wind, I fly on my back, which does increase my freefall speed so now I’m falling closer to 130 mph, but because my back is to the wind it’s burbling out most of that wind so it’s only the sides of the wind that are spilling across and manipulating the paint on the canvas.”
Sometimes she also does barrel rolls or gets some different wind speeds once she opens her canopy.
Captured Sky came from the love Nirumandrad has for the sky and her favorite part of doing all this is that once she lands on the ground she’s ended up with some beautiful work that maybe someone else can connect with in the way that she connects with the sky.
“Just like if you love the beach, you can take a seashell from a beach or a stone from a mountain to connect with that place,” she said. “I wanted us to be able to take something from the sky. Not just as skydivers because the sky is a universal theme for all of us. We look up to it with reverence, it holds a lot of inspiration, our hopes and dreams, our spiritual beliefs and it’s universal. No matter where you go, if you live on a mountain, in the desert or a jungle, you’re always looking up at the sky above and we can all connect and identify with that place. Yet if you love it, you can’t have something from it and that to me felt very cruel.”