Riding Out the Pandemic
June 8, 2020
She flings back curtains in her bedroom. Opens the window enough for some air, some April sun and perhaps a bit of fresh inspiration. The view outside, however, isn’t worth the bother.
The woman crosses the room, sits in front of her 21-year-old Brother sewing machine and begins a day of sewing for friends. But this is not where Michele Matamoros expected to find herself. By now she should be connected to thousands of viewers — not secluded in her bedroom.
2020 was to be her breakout year.
Her game plan was hopeful: transition from a merchandise display worker to an entrepreneur. Build a successful web series that she could parlay into a startup business mixing art with automotive. Michele targeted late March to unveil her YouTube channel under the brand name of Three Eyed Tiger Customs. The series would be part instructional (DIY general auto maintenance) and part promotional (showcasing her custom paint designs on motorcycles and cars). There was nothing quite like this video series on YouTube, she says.
The potential here is unlimited, notes one of her El Camino College instructors.
“Michele is on another level,” Brent Kooiman, adjunct professor at EC for automotive collision and painting, says. “She did a motorcycle in my class last summer and it was amazing. It won awards. There is nothing you can’t confront her with that she won’t accept as a challenge.”
Eighteen months of college classes, planning, more classes, preparation and selecting a social media platform for launch have led to this moment. Like a shot of petrol, Michele was feeling the rush as all systems were a go, and then…
The coronavirus that was ravaging the world was spreading across America like a death cloud. Her plans instantly stalled. That was four weeks ago, when President Trump declared a National Emergency.
It’s Saturday, April 18, and the world awakens to another day of self-quarantine and social distancing. COVID-19 is in full pandemic mode and the daily operative word is containment, not cure. Michele, 43, pays little attention to most coronavirus news; weary of the mounting death toll and checklist of safety mandates. For the same reasons, she avoids daily newspapers. Bad news messes with her mindset, she says.
Like others in her working-class L.A. neighborhood, Michele is in self-isolation. Holed up in a one-bedroom Koreatown apartment that she occupies with her music engineer boyfriend and his two cats.
For now, COVID-19 has put her dreams on pause. Her YouTube channel is stuck in quarantine and there are 23.3 miles of separation between Michele and the El Camino College garage — her painting workshop, where she has been videotaping her automotive class projects to be featured in the YouTube series.
EC, like other educational institutions, is in virus lockdown (online teaching only) and some of Michele’s projects are in storage at the college. Just as frustrating, she says, is the unavailability of her video specialist, who was editing her YouTube episodes.
“I have lost a bit of momentum, just because everything is up in the air,” Michele says. “My videographer had to leave and be with her family. She was working about 70% (on video output) and now it’s very minimal.”
Although the pandemic setback is disheartening, Michele has the resilience to overcome most any adversity, says boyfriend Thomas Queyja.
“Her focus and drive are unparalleled,” he says. “She can find patterns in chaos and is unstoppable when she sets forth on her ideas.”
Born in Manhattan, N.Y., she is the youngest of three children in the Matamoros family. Her father was a career Army veteran and her mother a daycare operator. She has a 24-year-old daughter, Elise Matamoros, who works in the arts field in Virginia. As a first-generation American, Michele is fluent in English and Spanish. Her olive skin, high cheekbones and waist-length black hair barely hint at her Ecuadorian roots.
Raised as a devout Catholic, Michele abandoned the trappings of conventional religion while in her early 20s. Her inner path, however, remains spiritual and unwavering, she says. By nature, she is a social introvert (enjoys company, requires solitude), a workaholic and an avid reader of informational and research material.
Michele has always been drawn to the arts, but with no particular proclivity. She has dabbled in painting, drawing, designing and other artistic expressions. Her early influences were comic book drawings, she says. As a young adult, she dispensed with a college degree for real world learning. In the past 26 years, the statuesque 5-feet, 8-inch Matamoros has worked in a sector of the fashion industry, where she “started from the ground up.” Not as a runway model or clothing designer, but as a behind-the-scenes visual merchandiser. Her duties for Rag & Bone (an American fashion label offering men’s and women’s ready to wear, jeans, footwear and accessories) focused on display concepts in retail outlets.
“I had about 48 stores that I would go in and train and develop the staff on how to maintain our company’s visual standards, where to place items so we have a very cohesive brand,” she says. “To create a synergy between all the stores (and between retailer and consumer). It’s the psychology of selling.”
The job helped her develop an eye for detail and visual presentation. Two weeks of the month she was on the road, visiting nearly 50 stores in her region, from Canada to Texas. Despite enjoying the diversity of her profession, she felt something was missing.
In 2015, she embarked on a 14-month program of new experiences, one per month, which included harmonica, French, nude drawing, knitting, small electronics, roller derby, dance, origami and jewelry designing. In the end, jewelry resonated with her, electronics were useful and playing the harmonica was a keeper, while other ventures were fun and done.
“I took classes to find what I was passionate about,” she says. “And to meet new people. I learned a lot of weird skills. Met a whole crazy group of people. Some are still friends. What I learned was, ‘I can do anything.’”
With a tool bag of diverse skills, new friends and a boost in confidence, she broke away from familiarity. Sought out the eclectic currents of sunny California.
Michele arrived in Los Angeles in 2017. Rag & Bone, created a merchandising position for her in L.A., but seven months later her company downsized. She found herself suddenly unemployed.
Instead of jumping back into the workforce, she took a self-imposed sabbatical. Bundling her severance package, bank savings and unemployment checks to sustain herself financially, Michele looked to enroll in a community college — with the hope of finding her life’s calling.
“On my last day (of work), I had a moment: I thought, ‘I could do anything I want… what am I going to do?’” she says. “I took three months off, then thought, ‘I’m going to learn how to fix my (1972 Datsun Z car).’ I was thinking of engine repair. I wanted to learn the mechanics of it. But nothing to do with bodywork.”
Michele reviewed community colleges across Los Angeles and on a visit to Torrance, fell in love with El Camino College’s new, state-of-art automotive facility. In the fall of 2018, she enrolled in an automotive class at ECC: Automotive Collision Repair/Painting, with instructor Patricia Fairchild.
“I saw this whole new world of art media unfold with each class,” Michele says. “I saw the opportunity to share my art in an unconventional way and ultimately join a community of amazing artists who see the world as I do.”
Fairchild’s class taught her how to prep a job (90% of any project, Michele says), which included a lot of sanding of metal panels, and then how to properly apply paint. Michele chose a motorcycle as her first class project, which seemed less daunting than tackling a car.
“Miss Pati’s class inspired me to ask a friend for one of her many motorcycles,” she says. “I thought (the friend) would hand me a beater bike with a tank and 2 fenders. Instead, she handed me her prized possession — a Ducati bike.”
Francesca Wilby said the timing was uncanny as she had crashed her bike on a track run and was in search of a quality body mechanic.
“(Michele’s) artwork is fantastic and her work ethic and attention to detail are insane, so I said that she could have my whole motorcycle to paint, if she wanted,” Wilby says.
After some trepidation, Michele dived head first into the project. She and Francesca collaborated on a concept for the matte-black Ducati 1098R bike. First came the planning, then the prepping and finally the painting. Michele also created a visual mock-up: a Photoshopped replica of the finished product.
The prep work was a grind for Michele, both challenging and labor-intensive. Wilby acknowledged the struggles, but noted the benefits.
“Ducatis have stock paint that’s notoriously difficult to remove, and she just about broke her back doing all the (sanding and repair),” Wilby says. “But the payoff was so worth it. It’s absolutely beautiful.”
Michele says her approach might differ from other custom artists because she focuses solely on the exterior features.
“Other painters go crazy,” she says. “A lot of people who paint motorcycles want to change out the engine, change performance aspects. I’m into changing paint and making the exterior beautiful.”
Her second motorcycle project was for another friend. The finished job was even more rewarding. Michele’s design on a Suzuki Galaxy won a first place category award at the 2019 Babes Ride Out event for women motorcycle enthusiasts.
“The results literally made me cry,” friend Tiana Brinton says. “She absolutely crushed it. I didn’t actually see the bike until the morning we were leaving for BRO in 2019 and I was so blown away.”
Michele had found her nirvana. Five weeks into her first auto class, she knew there was an opportunity to make a living at custom painting, she says.
“There aren’t a lot of women out there dealing in custom color. I could benefit from that niche,” she says. “The motorcycle community is very tight, especially women’s. I’m already a part of that community. My name has gotten around and I’ve already been offered jobs painting different parts or customizing things. That can just elevate more and more, as long as I do a good job.”
Female motorcycle artists are a rarity. But because more women are purchasing bikes, there are increasing opportunities for artists — especially females, according to Nick Torrey, service manager of Del Amo Motorsports. He says the Motorcycle Industry Council report shows the percentage of motorcycle sales to women are up to 18% from 14% two years ago.
“There aren’t a lot of motorcycle painters out there, and women are even more rare,” Torrey says. “Once you find somebody with the skill to paint and do it well, those people have a pretty solid future.”
Michele continues to take auto repair and paint classes under the tutelage of EC and Compton College instructors, Brent Kooiman and Saul Munoz. She has even enrolled in Irene Mori’s Jewelry Fabrication class at EC. “I didn’t realize that jewelry fabrication is a miniature version of what you do in auto repair,” she says. “Soldering is the same as welding. Same tools. Cross function is incredible.”
Despite the stay-at-home directive, this is no down time for Matamoros.
“I have a motorcycle that I’m taking apart; it will be another class project,” she says. “I’m doing preliminary work. I have things that are keeping me busy.”
She thrives on the creative process, whether painting bikes and cars at EC or in her bedroom today, sewing COVID masks for friends and medical professionals.
“Basically my life is about making things,” Michele says. “So, I’m being as creative as I’ve always wanted to be. This is how I want my life to be all the time. Dedicated to making beautiful things. Minus the coronavirus.”