Mike Lyon is one of those artists that opens his work up totally to the world, seemingly as it rolls out of his head and onto whatever medium he chooses that day. I found his site, as many others, searching for artists to learn about. I was first struck by the stunning photographs and then worked my way to the intriguing images he has created with a variety of methods. His pieces are executed with a high degree of technical prowess and still maintain a very free flowing, open ended feel to them.
Other than his geometric images, “movies” and wood working designs, you will be hard pressed to find many straight edges and forced compositions.
Speaking of his woodworking.. oh my goodness. I fell in love with the wood floor, the tables, the chairs, the everything! It’s a shame peasants like me can’t afford to commission such great craftsmen to design and make those amazing pieces for our homes. But we can always live vicariously via the internet.. ahhh technology!
Since Mr. Lyon (he insists I call him Mike, but hey, I’m difficult!) gave such wonderful in depth responses to the interview questions, I don’t have to explain much about his work. Just read on and find out about this talented artists with an engineer/business man’s view of the world.
Cid: When you were growing up, did you feel that your creativity got special attention?
Mike: Funny you should ask… I was visiting my Mom and Dad in Colorado last week. We were sitting around in the morning and my sister and I were receiving instructions from Mom and mostly Dad about what my folks wanted done with the house and contents after they die. My sister had no interest in keeping the house, but I was thinking it’d be a wonderful place to live and said something like that.
My Dad said, “OK, but I guess I ought to tell you that the master bedroom is HAUNTED!”
“Oh, really… By what?”, I asked.
He grinned kinda wickedly and with his thumb slowly pointed to himself. “Oh”, I replied, “That’s OK. I mean… what would life be without criticism?”
It slipped out so easily, and we all kinda giggled, because in that little joke there was a larger and toothy sort of truth, I guess… So beware the unconscious! It slithers out when you least expect it!
Anyway, I recall that about the ONLY aspect of me which got special (positive) attention was my artwork. My artwork and my beautiful blue eyes and my left handed-ness, that is…
Cid: I admit to the lack of better phrasing for this question, but: Is Art the way you make a living?
Mike: I think you are really asking if ‘selling’ my ‘Art’ is how I ‘support’ myself and my family… How I make most of my money? Right? OK. The answer is “no”. I make my living by “investing” the money I ‘made’ during the fifteen years (more or less) I was “in business.” I spend a couple hours a week doing “investing” stuff. Sorry.
Art (making stuff) is the way I spend most of my waking hours. Except today. Having agreed to receive your questions, today I am mostly a typist, trying to respond honestly.
Right now I am stumbling over your question a bit because you wrote “Art” (with a capital “A”!) and the phrase “make a living” and I’ve been thinking about both those ideas. I really haven’t come to a satisfactory conclusion. I guess I feel there are two different activities involved… 1) “making stuff” and 2) “selling stuff”. I spend time doing the “making stuff” but not the “selling stuff”. Even though I DO enjoy it when someone appreciates what I make (Hell, I’m thrilled right to my core!), I DON’T enjoy feeling rejected when someone doesn’t. So I guess I avoid the frequent rejection which inevitably comes with “selling” by just “making” and then piling the results of my “making” activity up. Selling takes time and effort. I don’t feel there’s enough time to make the stuff I want as it is. Because I “make a living” by investing the money I made during a decade and a half spent “in business”, I don’t feel any pressing need to “sell stuff” as I’m sure I would if I hadn’t already made all that money.
And the rejection inherent in selling scares me off, too.
And, behind these ideas of “making art” and “making a living” are some deep-seated cultural assumptions which most of us take pretty much for granted.
For some long time (certainly more than 20 thousand years) the thread of ‘successful’ (persistent?) human culture has been “trade”. Our western culture is saturated with, perhaps based on, some very abstract ideas (is there any other kind?) of trade we call “commerce”. In commerce, virtually every single activity and thing is assigned some “value” (including Art). In the United States, that “value” is almost always expressed in “dollars”. Our lives and our time are valued in dollar units. So many dollars per hour for one sort of activity. So many dollars per year for another sort of activity. A guy who has a lot of dollars (relative to others) is “successful”. The more dollars, the more successful. The more dollars, the more important. The more dollars, the more powerful. “If you’re so smart, how come you ain’t rich?” To pervert a famous quote, “a poor man has about as much chance of being influential as a BMW has of driving through the eye of a needle”. Here’s an idea for a Claus Oldenberg public art homage — a needle so large you could ride a camel through the eye! Install it on Wall Street. Improve the chances for us “fat-cats” to perfect our spirits!
A bit of an aside: An artsy acquaintance recently lectured me, “trade grows from surplus.” That’s a kind of agrarian brain twister, I think, as the word “surplus” is almost meaningless outside the context of “commerce”. Anyway, after breathing, temperature regulation (shelter), eating, eliminating, reproduction, etc… “Art” probably falls pretty far to the “surplus” side of the equation. Still, making stuff appears to be a fundamental human activity. I think we must be “wired up” to make stuff in the same way we’re “wired up” to breathe, eat, socialize, reproduce, communicate, etc. Perhaps we’re “wired up” for commerce. If so, I am REALLY “pushing the river” by not actively selling the stuff I make. But I don’t make it “to sell”. I make it because it interests me. Because I am “driven” to make stuff. Maybe “driven” in that BMW?
A quarter century ago, in 1976, I had graduated from two colleges with two bachelors degrees, one a B.A. in architecture and fine art (sculpture) and the other a B.F.A. in painting. I’d run pretty low on money and I’d decided there were more efficient ways to “make a living” than by selling my artwork which I had been trying to sell to local galleries with a shocking lack of success. It was clear to me that in order to sell my work, I had to make work which people would want to buy. Since my natural interests didn’t seem very compatible with those of an art buyer, something was going to have to ‘give’.
So in a roundabout way I found myself working for a New York City commodity brokerage. My boss, a graduate of Harvard and a Ph.D. in economics was the president of the company. He later became and remains one of my close friends. Anyway, I was haranguing my boss with my theory that business was “evil” and money was “evil” and I was throwing around phrases like “military industrial complex” and “corruption” and I was wondering how a smart, sweet guy like him could waste his time this way: “working”. He interrupted in a good natured way and told me he was having “a ball!” He said I was looking at it all wrong. He said that “Business is just like a game of marbles.” I asked what’s the object of the game? “To get ALL the marbles!”, he laughed.
A few years later, I was a business owner and my former boss had become my largest customer. We never managed to get ALL the marbles (those CEO’s, CFO’s and COB’s of Enron, Worldcom, and the like came much closer to THAT goal!), but we helped each other become relatively “successful”. We used to talk on the phone three or four times a day (or sometimes ten or twenty), and a frequent non-business topic was “how much is ‘enough’?” Dollars, that is. I guess that I set a lower standard than he, because after fifteen years of “business”, I sold my companies and more or less resumed my original activity of “being an artist.” That was over a dozen years ago. My friend and former boss is still “in business.”
Last week my wife and I were visiting my parents in Colorado and I participated in a week-long workshop at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Anderson’s Ranch The Ranch held a mini-auction on the last day of the workshop in which work by students and teachers was sold mostly to students and teachers in order to raise money for Anderson Ranch.. The Ranch’s executive director, Jim Baker, acted as auctioneer and he was very animated and very funny. I had donated a nice print from the “Twins” blocks Twins Woodcut and it came up for sale early in the auction. As one of the ‘office girls’ walked up and down among the bidders holding up the print, Jim ran over to me and said, “Tell me, Mike, as the artist who made this print… Why should someone place a bid on it?”, and he stuck the microphone right in front of my mouth with a look of great and comical expectation on his face. I’m usually very shy and have a hard time finding my voice in public, but in this situation the perfect response blurted right out, “Not only because of its great present beauty, but also because of the potential for tremendous appreciation!” I was very pleased to have offered the double meaning of “appreciation”, that the microphone went away, and also that the high bidder was one of New York City’s Master Printers.
Cid: Have you been a part of the “art scene” where you live? Do you attend gallery openings, check out the latest offerings of local talent, hang out where the creative community migrate to? How would you describe the art community where you live?
Mike: I consider myself to be mostly an “outsider” with respect to “Art”. Although I am acquainted with some of the gallery owners who do business within a few blocks of my studio, I only rarely attend openings and the like. I do have a few friends who are “artists”, and we occasionally “hang out” together, visit each other’s studios, and bullshit about “art” with a capital “A”. Since I so RARELY sell stuff (anyone who wants to can offer to buy something from me, but I spend almost NO time or effort SELLing). There’s MAKEing stuff, and then there’s SELLing stuff — two completely different kinds of activity. To be ‘successful’ today, you probably need to be pretty facile at both. At present I am able to freely express myself only in the ‘making stuff’ part.
Cid: As an artist, do you feel people see you in any certain stereotypical way? & Do you feel there is a stigma or blessing attached to being an artist amongst the “normal” people of the world? Hahaha
Mike: Sure! Both! I mean, that is, if they know that I’m an artist, anyway. (I’m answering these two as if they are the same question. Which they are, I think.) People who don’t really “know” me think I’m “a wierdo artsy-type” or, only slightly skewed, that I’m “a cool artsy-type” or that I’m just “dull”. After people get to know me, they usually define me in other ways and both the stigma and the blessing disappear. One thing… When people inquire about what “kind” of art I do, I have a difficult time giving a short answer, and I imagine that after a while they lose concentration. You might be having that same sort of problem, yourself? Sorry. I actually have a bit of trouble calling myself “an artist”. I still give “I’m an artist” when someone seems to be calling for a short answer to “what do you do?”, but it makes me a little uneasy. So I suffer from the same sort of stereotypical thinking as most of us. I just make stuff. The “Art” stereotype is probably a hindrance.
Cid: Are you an adventurous artist, trying new tools, mediums, ideas to keep your passion for creating alive? Or, are you reserved, preferring to stick with what you know, what makes you feel comfortable and safe in your skill “zone”?
Mike: Hmmm…. Am I adventurous? Do I have a passion for creating? Am I reserved? Feeling comfortable? Gee… I guess so. All those characteristics seem to apply to me. And I’m also timid, sticking to what I know, playing it safe, making stuff that “looks like Art”.
I do love process. I love learning new tools and media. Passion for creating? That’s pretty much built in. I haven’t gone through any periods of “artistic depression” exactly.
People sometimes think I have tremendous concentration, or a tolerance for lots of minute detail, or that I am extremely ‘patient’. I’m thinking of how people have responded to seeing some of my “tile explorations” Tiling — very complete studies of simple tile patterns formed under specific strict “rules” — I have produced booklets containing thousands and thousands of different such simple tile patterns and that has been very deeply satisfying to me. Lots of my prints have sprung from that work. Lyon Art Gallery, UMB Scroll, Embossed Self Portrait When I try to describe that work and what I’ve learned, I can’t get very far before people begin to nod off. But it interests ME so very much !! My recent Japanese technique woodcuts have been made from 15 or 20 or more carved blocks. Madonna Grain People act like there must be something weird about me to have carved all those tiny details.
But in both those examples, it isn’t difficult for me. I am doing EXACTLY what interests me. I’m almost always following the center of my interest. It might be more accurate to characterize me as lazy or gluttonous maybe. That’s the way it sometimes feels. I just completely enjoy following my own mind into my activity. Something like that, anyway. I’m seldom “whipping myself” and I almost always feel the day is too short, my life is too short. I have many, many more attractive ideas than I can possibly pursue.
Cid: Are you interested in computers and the internet? If yes, how does the technological world come together with your creative thinking?
Mike: Yes & Yes. In 1978 (during my business ‘career’), I founded a company which did hardware and software design (I think that because of my art background, and some previous experience building and programming a tiny RCA 1802 based microcomputer from plans in the magazine, “Popular Science”, I was well qualified to found a hardware and software design company, don’t you? Well even if not well-credentialed, we eventually made a ton of money from some of our inventions. We billed ourselves as “productivity improvement specialists”. At our peek in the 1980’s, we designed and built the intelligent control (the brains) of a high-end order filling system. Wide Angle View Tupperware eventually bought three of them, each housed in its own 50,000 square foot building. The system used indexing pneumatic conveyors to “dispense” product into boxes moving end-to-end along a central conveyor. The problems of how to track 50 to 200 orders simultaneously as they moved into and out of our system at the rate of up to one per second, how to turn each of hundreds of pneumatic cylinders on and off at the right moments to accurately dispense the right amount of product into the right order, how to speed up or slow down the conveyor which carried the orders as necessary to maximize throughput… Solving these were food for my soul. Exactly the same as my activity today, except that today I work mostly alone instead of in concert with a group of others.
I routinely use a desktop computer in my studio today. The computer is as important a part of my work as my printing press or my table saw. An extension of my mind. A powerful tool which allows me to express myself in a very direct and very efficient way. My tiling exploration mostly exists only electronically — inside my computer. I design much (but not all) of the furniture I build using AutoSketch CAD software. That way I can draw the form I want, and then easily stretch or otherwise change my design until it is complete and ready to build. I use Corel Draw or Macromedia and Adobe Photoshop to design vector images to produce plans for woodcuts, lithographs, silkscreens, monotypes. I use Microsoft Excel and Word extensively in producing tilings. I frequently transfer laser printed and other toner images to wood and other supports — and occasionally the transferred toner is integrated into the final object. Usually, however, the transferred image is used as a quick and convenient means to maintain registration in multi-colored or multi-plate images in various printing media.
Cid: What plans do you have for the future? Any new mediums or areas of the artistic world that you would like to explore?
Mike: I have some projects already committed: Two commissions for wooden stools Six Stools a large cabinet to complete the meeting room Zen Garden a bank commissioned from me (and in case you’re wondering, the answer is “YES”, the buyers approached me — I didn’t “sell” these). Then there are three “collaborative works” I’m to complete within the next month or two — I’ve been given three pieces of cast glass which are destined for inclusion a show my father, Lee Lyon Lyon Glass has coming up in December at the Susan Duval Gallery Duval Gallery in Aspen. Unlike me, my father has NO reservations whatsoever about selling his work and is making a more than comfortable living selling his cast glass sculpture, furniture, doors, windows, lavatories, etc. I have also committed to complete a Japanese technique polychrome (multi-color) wood block print for an international print exchange through Baren Forum early in 2003.
Speaking of Baren Forum , in honor of Baren’s 5th anniversary I’ll be hosting the first official Face-to-Face get-together of the Baren Forum group (about 300 in the group, but we’re only expecting about 30 to 40 to attend) June 14 through June 22, 2003 here in my studio in Kansas City. Basically it’s FREE to members of BarenForum (also free). Members should be wood block printers. OH! And while I’m offering up a commercial for BarenForum… we also have a “MALL” where we sell mostly Japanese tools and paper direct from source marking the stuff up only 10% !! Unbeatable quality and the lowest prices!! Baren Forum Mall
New media and exploration? I “need” to get a couple of projectors to hook up to my computer in order to display overlapping tile animations Tiling “Movie” as large as possible. I’d like to experiment with viscosity printing. I still have the desire to build a ‘painting / printing machine’ — a low-resolution x/y plotter hooked to my computer to semi-automatically produce a series of tilings I have in mind but haven’t the stomach to produce MANually. I’d like to pick up an arc-welder (I’m a pretty good gas welder) and add metal to my furniture. I have been seasoning a pile of logs I picked up by the side of the road after last winter’s devastating ice storm. I intend to cut into then with a chain saw and see what develops. I want to lose about 30 pounds (not because of that chain saw, of course)! I have the state drawings completed for four medium to large sized wood block prints ready for carving and printing. I’d like to teach traditional Japanese polychrome wood block printing technique on a regular basis. I want to get a MAC in order to more easily produce some movies on DVD — my PC doesn’t seem to want to go there. That’s all I can think of right this minute.
About Your Work
Cid: As I browse through all the images on your site I am thrilled and impressed to see so much variety of ideas, mediums and styles. Do you have a constant flow of all the different kinds of ideas floating through your head at the same time, or do you go through phases? If your mind is a jungle of ideas, how do you manage to focus enough to create such amazing images?
Mike: “thrilled and impressed”, eh?. That feels pretty good! Thanks, Cindy!
My ‘head’ ?? I guess I could accurately describe my mind using twenty-five words or less… NOT !! Are you asking how it feels to be ‘me’ ?? Hmmm….
There’s the activity of “talking”… That’s what I’m doing right now as I sit at the computer in my studio and type-talk at you. While “talking”, there are a lot of things going on… Figuring out how do I really feel. How to express that feeling. Will you criticize me for that expression? How will I see myself reflected in your ‘eyes’ ? Will I sound ‘stupid’? Arrogant? Where is this going? On and on and on. A lot of editing. A lot of “I can’t say THAT!” And what’s left is what you’re reading, I guess. Then it’s just pretty darned noisy in my head.
At my best, I imagine I am a pretty fully integrated being… At best, the ideas and self-suggestions and answers and direction come from this gigantic slow moving reservoir of my unconscious. Not the part of my mind that talks. The part which underlies all the talk and integrates my experience and pushes me honestly even sometimes inappropriately, if you know what I mean. Which must be what motivates the ‘talking’ part to have to back-peddle and explain and justify… well, you do already know what I mean, I think.
Believe it or not, there ARE times when it’s comfortably silent in here. Like a velvety dark room on a late spring evening — maybe I can hear the cicadas buzzing, but my loud, gibbering, self-justifying, explaining voice just sort of lies back uncomplaining, I suppose. While printing Japanese technique brushing water color onto the block, pressing the paper into the color with my baren. While cutting with a saw. While sweeping. While drawing. While practicing karate Karate (an eighteen years long almost daily activity). Anytime I am focused in an intense and attention demanding physical activity, then my ‘mind voice’ is quiet.
More briefly: I think that within some pretty narrow limits we all work pretty much the same way. I mean, we human beings are much more similar one to another (even the most DIFFERENT ones of us we can imagine) than we are to, say, fish, zucchini or igneous rock. 🙂
Cid: Up is one image that immediately got my attention. I love it. Your photography is more than simply finding things to take pictures of and stick in a frame, obviously. Do you find yourself intentionally breaking down the more traditional compositional barriers of what we would consider standard photographic images, or does it come naturally?
Mike: I am not a rebel breaking down barriers. Anymore.
This young and exceptionally beautiful woman has been my primary model for about eight years. My most recent three woodcuts are portraits of her with her two year old daughter (my wife and I are proud Godparents). I have shot several wonderful and startling rolls of her, her daughter, & her husband (another of my closest friends), but so far haven’t done much with them. They are all nude in those photos, mother, father, child. Photographed on a white stand against a white wall. I haven’t yet resolved where to go with those, but they are just warm and terrific in their original form. I am very lucky to have these generous people in my life.
In “UP”, the model’s posture is so natural. Leaning on the wall of my previous studio. I recall that I encouraged her to lean more heavily on her extended arm, but the “wall” is actually a rolling partition and this was the best she could manage without moving the wall. The rotated orientation is the way I originally ‘felt’ the photo. I used my slide scanner to scan what was originally a color slide into my computer and then removed the color and added the convincing “UP” with PhotoShop. I am imagining that you are feeling disappointed that the “UP” wasn’t present in the original photograph. Sorry. As with many of my digital images (since I so rarely show or sell) I printed only one of these on paper. It is actually a very lovely print in person. Large very thin Japanese sheet printed with rich gray tones. Lovely.
I usually dislike those complicated byzantine or romantic poses you sometimes see. I cannot honestly and with a straight face ask my models to pose like some Michelangelo (fantastic as those paintings and sculpture are!). That’s just not my feeling. I usually prefer to see my model ‘naturally’. Or comically. Or in motion. Straight on maybe, like a Kouros. Relaxed and conversational. I admit that occasionally I set up something less pedestrian, but pedestrian is my ‘norm’. Lately I’ve become interested in the clothed figure. I’ll be doing several such images before year end, I’m sure. Probably the next images will incorporate some sheer fabrics.
Cid: Your sense of whimsy is so evident in a lot of your work. Even in the series of nudes on your site there is a feeling of fun, there are no over tones of pretentious drama that seems to consume a lot of artists work. Do you have as much fun creating your work as it seems?
Mike: More, I bet. I dreamt one night of a female bust portrait in which the head and breasts were three equally voluminous spheres balanced with the head resting on the breasts. A few weeks later I shot 40 or 50 digital images of my model in her vain attempts to elevate her breasts up under her chin. It turned out to be anatomically impossible for her, and we were both laughing pretty hysterically as she tried so diligently to conform to that sculptural image I’d dreamt. My former landlord makes ceramics (she has no inhibition against selling, either). In 1996 or 1997 when we were involved in recording those images, my landlord occupied the opposite side of the studio we shared. She sometimes referred to herself as a “rabid feminist”. Something about the peals of laughter from my model and me, my vocal encouragements (“can’t you somehow get your boobs up actually right next to your cheeks?”) and the model’s hysterical struggles to stretch herself into some impossible posture absolutely infuriated the landlord. It came as a complete surprise to me when she stormed over and attacked, loudly scolded my model for lending herself to such indignity, and then characterized me as a user, a voyeuristic middle-aged adolescent. This and a pattern of similar one-sided “exchanges” encouraged me to purchase and move to my current (fantastically beautiful) studio. In a way, I am grateful to my former landlord. I made a series of monotypes from that session. Some of them are here: Orange, Blue, Green, Lichtenstein, Pink, Yellow
Cid: I see from several images that you have been to Peru. How does a trip like that affect your creative process, if at all?
Mike: WOW !!! If you have the opportunity to visit Peru and Machu Picchu, don’t hesitate! Wonderful people. Magical land.
Everything goes into the stew. Here I am, a simmering stew. Peru is some succulent bits which occasionally roll across the surface. But the broth is pretty thick, and you can’t see everything in there all at once. In fact, there’s probably some ugly burned-on stuff stuck to the bottom which doesn’t want to EVER come up! Still, take a little sip. It all tastes pretty much the same. ME !!
I don’t know anything about my ‘creative process’ — but I try to let whatever is in me come out into what I make as honestly as I am able (editing and second-guessing and fear-of-rejection notwithstanding). I took a lot of photos in Peru. It was a school trip and I went as an adult chaperone with my youngest child, now 17. At the time of that trip he was a 6th grader and we went with about 20 other sixth grade students and several other parents. You know, just your typical grade school pilgrimage to visit the Peruvian Amazon, rain forest canopy, indigenous doctor’s natural psychedelic medicines, the gigantic stone ruins of a lost and short lived pre-Columbian culture with stones the size of boxcars so closely fitted that there is no gap wide enough to slip a credit card through (not that these dwellings were originally gigantic stone credit card scanners, of course). Well, I must be tiring of typing… I am only hitting the high points.
After 2 hours sleep (stuck with a broken airplane passing through Lima) one night, seven or eight of us were still energetic enough to visit a small villiage of the Huillac tribe high up in the Andes mountains near the Inca trail. The men of the village were mostly engaged in shepherding or carrying the packs and supplies of the foreign adventurers who come to walk the Inca trail. The children played and tended crops. The women spun the wool which they wove into homespun and blankets and they cooked and kibbutzed. They spoke an ancient Inca language which none of us had ever heard. About one in ten villagers understood enough Spanish to communicate with us verbally. I bought several woven blankets and took a lot of pictures. The clothing of the people included some machine produced items, sweaters, safety-pins used for decoration, plastic buttons, cotton blouses. But most of their clothing was of wool, dyed mostly bright red, hand woven, with dense geometric designs of geometric shapes, animals, people woven in. People including very small children chew coca leaves in order to keep warm and stay awake. The coca leaves are mildly stimulating and said to be mildly addictive. They are cheap and plentiful. Each adobe home has a cooking fire in the center and a smoke hole at the top of the domed roof. Shelves for sleeping and storage are built into the perimeter. There are a few canned goods and one home had an old battery powered transistor radio high on a shelf. There is no plumbing, no electricity. It was cold and dusty and very dry. A small stream a hundred fifty feet down hill provides the only source of water. The people there seem sweet, shy, happy.
Cid: Do you feel that we value art less or differently in our fast paced, superficial culture vs. those who live at a distance from technology and economically driven societal conventions?
Mike: Differently, I’m certain.
“Value” is another of those commerce words. Value is exactly a function of “Supply” and “Demand” I guess. Value is always relative. We never place a high ‘value’ on that which is abundant… What is the value of a gallon of water? A penny or two according to my water bill. What if I am about to perish from thirst and have $1,000,000 in my wallet? This principle is so deeply built into our culture that we are scarcely aware of it. The ‘original’ painting usually is valued more highly than the print produced in a ‘limited edition’ which is usually valued more highly than a print from an open ended edition of offset lithographs. By producing a limited number of something, we intend to increase the value of each one.
The paintings I saw a half mile or more inside the dark cave at Niaux in France (South of Foix — those people loved their ‘X’s!) were made 15 to 18,000 years ago! They could never have been ‘traded’ and so must have been made for other reasons altogether. On the other hand, trade was certainly known to those people. Spearthrowers made 18,000 years ago of antler have been found in France, in the form of a young ibex with an emerging turd on which two birds perch! This has to be one of the earliest known examples of mass produced ‘Art’. Maybe ten of these have been recovered. There must have been many more than that produced in order for so many to have been found. They must have been in great demand!
But to (try to) tell the truth, I’m still not too sure exactly what ‘Art’ is. I mean, we use the term to describe a pretty broad range of human endeavor: Music, Painting, Film, Theater, etc. We call the karate which I practice a ‘martial art’ and I used to take ‘industrial arts’ when I was in grade school (shop) while the girls went to home economics. Gee… our culture changes constantly, doesn’t it? And I don’t think our culture is superficial. That’s just a convention we use to describe one aspect of our culture — the deep importance to us of appearances.
Cid: The various images of nudes, including Mother and Child are done with such reverence for the human body, women specifically. Do you find figure work to be more interesting than other subject matter? Do you work with models or photographs?
Mike: Twenty-five and thirty years ago, I worked only visually, only from the model. When the model arrived, I started. When the model left, I stopped. I felt very strongly about this. To me it seemed that there was something intrinsically honest and valuable in working visually this way. It was an attitude I adopted from my teachers.
I guess I still feel that way. That work done directly from the model is somehow elevated above work done from photographs of the model. But there are advantages to working from photographs. While a student, it seemed to me that working visually was the ONLY way.
But over the past decade or so, even though I choose images to which I respond in a deep even reverent way, my main activity is pretty much process. It is the PROCESS which involves me more then the image itself. I like the activity. I like figuring out how it works. I like figuring out how it SHOULD work. Picking an image from photographs is easy. Just take a lot of them and choose the ones which strike me. I imagine that the sophistication of my choosing will continue to improve. Maybe it’s the choosing where the art exists. That was my speculation about tiling. Where I can understand it, it’s science. Where it becomes too complicated for my understanding, then it’s art. Not ‘Art’ — just ‘art’.
One of my early successful paintings along this line was from a photograph I had taken of my grandmother. She passed away and I began to make quite a few images of her from this photo. The first image was a painting. Four by four feet square, divided into 1600 (40×40) squares. I had scanned the photo into my computer and greatly reduced it, ‘playing’ with it until I liked the composition and colors. Then I visually painted the image which appeared on the screen. Look at the screen. Paint the square. Look at the screen. Paint the square. This is how I learned to paint as a student. Look at the model and paint what I see. It took about a month or six weeks to get all the color relationships more or less under control on the canvas, and during that time my ideas about painting visually and image making in general took a dramatic turn (and the painting acquired a beautiful impasto, too)! Nana Rita
Looking at the screen and then mixing a color and applying it to a 1 1/8″ square area of my canvas was a STUPID activity! During that month I ‘discovered’ some new approaches to image making — all involving computer analysis followed by manual precipitation into ‘reality’. I experimented with special palettes, ‘teaching’ the computer to use the real-world colors I wanted to paint with when calculating bit-maps of my scanned photo images. I made a number of paintings and prints by reducing the size of the photo image and then mapping the computer’s calculated colors into my own color space (paint or ink). Painting, Leslie and Megan
I used a photographic image to determine the ‘rule’ and again interpreted the resulting numeric array manually. Here’s the same image of my late grandmother produced as a monotype variant. I made a print and three ghosts from oil stick drawn on a plexi-plate over a printed array of the digits 0 through 3 — one plate for each of three colors, red, yellow, blue with the numbers generated from a color separation of the 40×40 pixel “photo”. Where I had calculated a ‘0’, I made only a little dot with the oil stick. Where I’d calculated a ‘1’, I drew a little ‘O’. Where I’d calculated a ‘2’, I drew a larger and heavier ‘O’, and where I’d calculated a ‘3’, I drew and filled in a solid ‘O’. Well, if you followed THAT, you are tolerant indeed. Anyway, I drew the plates (using my numeric print-outs as registration guides for my marks) and printed each one on top of the previous onto four sheets of paper (an original and three ghosts — that oil-stick is persistent!). I did a number of prints in this way.
I began bypassing the source image altogether and simply invented ‘rules’ for calculating and placing numbers. This was all pretty computer intensive. I generated huge arrays of numbers — for example by counting from 0 to 255 and back again and placing each number into the array so that the numbers ‘spiraled’ out from the center (or in — or just ‘wove’ back and forth) in order to directly produce large images. Many of these had beautiful interference patterns resembling water running down a mirror. These were fascinating to me! Here is a relief print from a very simple one of those experiments. It is a grid 17 blocks square. The numbers counted up from 0 (white) to 7 (black) and back again, in a square ‘spiral’. Interesting that the perimeter is symmetrical. Traffic Woodcut (page with more explanation)
Here’s a later and larger image of my sister printed from the same set of ‘blocks’: Pat Woodcut
My investigation of tile patterns grew out of these experiments. Tiling
At the same time I was experimenting with strings and numbers and tilings, I wanted to continue to experiment with images. I wanted to inject another level of meaning into the process. I began experimenting with marks which related more to the overall image content. In one four color lithograph, I created the ‘image’ of a seated beauty from a set of lines and angles I generated in different weights which corresponded to the value represented in the image. I selected each line or angle in order to reproduce a rudimentary ‘font’ from which I put together the letters of a nasty little poem I wrote for the image. So the poem and the words and the lines and the image all rest simultaneously on the paper. It’s a bit awkward to read and look at, but having successfully layered in the several meanings was satisfying. Passion Dreams litho
Another image with several layers of image is this self portrait, made of little self portraits, made of little pieces of self portraits (available in several ‘weights’ in order to produce the required tone at that location) Self Portrait
I am still intensely interested in tile patterns, but I have recently been experimenting with other ways to sequentially produce images from digital information. The latest images have been reduction woodcuts (print, carve away what stays the color just printed, print again, carve away what stays, print again, etc.) of my model. I try to reduce the level of complexity contained in the original digital photograph I want to print down to some manageable level. I do that by calculating the median level over a number of pixels in order to remove marks too small for me to carve, and reducing the number of gray levels (usually by posterizing) to the number of blocks I’m willing to print. Then I reverse the image and laser print each level beginning with the lightest gray… Well, this is process again. I’m into process. Without boring you absolutely to death, I transfer the image to be carved onto the wood block and carve away the parts which are no longer to print, then I print each sheet in the edition a bit darker than before and then start another cycle. This is the same stuff as above, but using shaped profiles instead of squares to communicate the image. Here’s a detail from a print of a few months ago in which you can perceive the tonal layer changes between profiles. Click on the image for a larger view.
Hmmm… I haven’t precisely answered your question. Let me try again. Of course I find figurative work to be interesting! My older daughter leaves for a California college next week (which makes THREE in college and 17 year old twins (boy and girl) at home about to go — perhaps I need to rethink this whole aversion to selling pretty darned soon, eh?). So I’m cherishing those memories of her DARLING two and three and eleven year old self. And conveniently, my primary model (she and her husband are close friends of mine and she, luckily, tends a bit more than most toward exhibitionism) has a lovely two year old daughter who also seems to enjoy being in front of the camera. So I can savor sweet memories of my own daughters and enjoy the beauty of my lovely model all mixed together. Maybe you felt something like that, too?
Let me try one more time… I do try to choose images to which I deeply respond. I am interested in figurative work, but not exclusively. Among figuratives, I make mostly look at females, but I sometimes look at males or (joy!) groups as well. But I’m most interested by the female. I work both directly with models and later with photographs of models.
Cid: On your site you write, Two towers represent male and female elements which stand facing each other, bound together for all time. Until the knot is broken and the boxes fall apart. as the description for one of your wooden puzzles . I am interested to know if that is an original concept or is it inspired by something you have seen somewhere in the world. It seems like it could be some kind of ancient saying come to life in a wooden sculpture.
Mike: Far as I know it’s “original” (whatever THAT is). I am unaware of how I associated to that description except that the particular box it describes is of two rather phallic-ly dimensioned and proportioned ‘boxes’ capped with turned lids. One lid is an ‘outy’ and one is an ‘inny’, hence the male and female. The pieces are not glued together. The only thing which keeps the whole thing from tumbling apart is that the last four parts to be assembled are wrapped with a waxy string — an artificial ‘gut’. Nothing changes when the string is untied — the parts all remain the same — only their organization changes dramatically — the box falls apart into a pile when the knot is undone. So it seemed a fitting metaphor for ‘life’. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Appears so solid and permanent. Yet hangs by ‘a thread’. The metaphors just go on and on, don’t they? Well… That’s sort of what I was thinking about when I made the series of a dozen or so boxes and what I was thinking about when I wrote that caption. The illusion of permanence. The fragility of life. Well… That tension created by our inevitable end is not ‘original’ but the integration of my feeling into the “puzzle boxes” may be a bit more so.
Cid: I read about your family s professional investment in the cow hide industry. Wow, needless to say that is about as far removed from the art world as it gets. How did you make the leap from business man and obvious leader in your field to becoming an artist? Are you still involved in that industry or is that a thing of the past, leaving you to devote your attention to creative ventures full time.
Mike: It’s a thing of the past, thank God! I was never much enamored of that stinky business (even though sometimes I’m ashamed to let all that expertise go to waste and I am hearing my Grandfather’s voice when as a child I complained of the smell, “That’s the smell of money, my boy, the smell of money!” Or was that W.C. Fields?). I worried ALL the time about my aggressive competition and about screwing up and making some kind of disastrous mistake and losing money and putting my 100+ employees into the street. Actually, they went into the street all by themselves one time when they decided (foolishly as it turned out) to strike. There’s a WHOLE ‘nother story in there about end-game strategies in declining industries and consolidation among meat packers, and the tactics of the infamous Teamsters’ Union, but it really has NOTHING to do with “Art” at all. The ‘nice’ thing about stinky businesses, though, is that the supply of people who are willing to work in them is limited and the demand for the product couldn’t care less. So… the pay was good! 🙂 Luckily, heaven smiled upon me and a determined buyer fell into my lap. I seldom think of it.