I went to Mike's home-studio on a day when both Mike and his wife, Judy, were home. They recently moved to a smaller home where Mike now uses the basement for a studio. This was a new concept to paint in an area that didn't have natural light. Mike has made it work by setting up lighting that mimics light coming in from the north. I had a wonderful visit with both Mike and Judy and felt like I could have stayed all day asking questions!
IAG - I understand you are in your 50th year of painting. This is quite a milestone! What can you tell other artists as they begin their careers in art?
Michael - Actually, 2016 was my 50th year of seriously painting. It went by in the blink of an eye. I was fortunate to be mentored by some really great artists at Drake University, Old Dominion University, and the University of Iowa. They felt they were doing something important and that their students should feel that way, too. Of the 30 or so grad students in painting at Iowa in those years, a good many are still at it. U of I in those days really was the “Athens of the West”. Writers Workshop, World class printmaking and painting, top notch theater and music, combined to make Iowa City a very vital place for the arts. So my advice is to always take what you are doing seriously, no matter if anyone else does. Also, show your work a lot, and try to build your career brick by brick. If you have to work at something else to survive, so be it. Just never lose track of your goals.
IAG - How did you make the decision to become an artist?
Michael - I’m not sure it was decision. I grew up in a house that valued art and was connected to the local art scene. My grandmother was Nan Wood Graham’s (American Gothic) good friend and was Grant Wood’s mother's and sister’s landlord. My mother studied art, and my aunt was at the Stone City Art Colony. Marvin Cone was a friend of theirs. So I grew up with the idea that being an artist was a great thing. I used to stay home from school and spend my whole day drawing on long rolls of butcher paper. I started painting very young (and still have some very early work). When I was a young man in the service I saw many European masterpieces in Italy, Greece, France, and Spain. So when I considered my life, it was easy to decide to paint.
IAG - Was painting your first choice?
Michael - Yes it was, although I briefly considered making furniture or some craft like that. I always came back to painting.
IAG - Who has been an inspiration to you?
Michael - There are an awful lot of greats out there, but I think probably Cezanne, Matisse, Bonnard, Diebenkorn, Michael Tyzack, and Wolf Kahn. I started my academic career as an abstract painter...large color field paintings. It was fun and interesting but something was missing, so I moved to landscapes where I could find a never ending inspiration. Tyzack (my mentor at Iowa) used to say that I was just a landscape painter...writ large. I wasn’t interested in academic landscapes, but rather more expressive paintings with landscape motifs with color elements and size that hearkened to my abstract painting days.
Photo above has a painting by his son Michael and books opened to pages of inspiration.
IAG - Where will your art take you or vice versa in the next few years?
Michael - Well, I have been painting for a long time and am lucky to be still at something I love. I am always trying for that perfect mix of color, line, brushwork, size, and harmony that will make that perfect painting...something poetic. I believe in my work and I think it has a uniqueness that is valued in some circles. I paint a lot and produce a lot of work, so there is hope. I would hope to leave some good work as my record.
IAG - 51 years of painting and it sounds like you have not tired of finding new inspiration. I understand that you mentor artists, how do you do this in a non academic setting?
Michael - Yes, I have a small group of serious painters who I started teaching some years ago but who have now progressed to being terrific artists in their own right with show and gallery representation. We still meet regularly and paint together. It is very stimulating for me.
IAG - You talk of the Iowa City scene as the “Athens of the West” Why did this change, if it has?
Michael - I think the days like that are over in most places, but Iowa City retains some of it. It mostly has to do with quality of the teachers and the people who periodically passed through there. I mean people who put their mark on our culture and like, say, Greenwich Village in NY, they were all in one place at the same time. That produces energy and community...you could feel it in the air.
IAG - Do you have photos or stories from that time period?
Michael - That was a long time ago and there isn’t much of a personal record. Perhaps my thesis piece would tell a story, but it was more ethereal than a photo. It was a feeling that it was all very worthwhile.