How would you describe your journey as an artist?
I trained in fine arts at the University of Colorado in Boulder in the 70’s and went to work in a production pottery studio before moving to the Ithaca area in New York where I established Old Mill Pottery. I did that for almost 8 years and eventually became a teacher of visual art in public schools, community art centers and at the college level. While ceramics remained my main area of focus, I also experimented with a wide variety of mixed media. I studied photography and continued exploring a long standing interest in the intersection of text and image. A Fulbright scholarship took me to Japan and one of the things that grew out of that experience was an artist’s book, 17 Syllables: Haiku and Images.
In 2004, I left classroom teaching for an administrative role. We also relocated to another area where I no longer had ready access to a studio and it became impractical for me to continue to work in clay. I needed to find a creative outlet I could do from anywhere and photography and writing filled that need. I had already been working with altered photographs when I created a website to show my visual art online and I also started posting creative writing. In 2015, I published a hybrid mix of prose poetry and images called The Part Time Shaman Handbook: An Introduction For Beginners through Bud Smith’s Unknown Press. It’s a natural inclination for me to try to blend visual art and writing.
What are your current mediums of artistic expression?
For the past several years I’ve used photographs as a jumping-off point. The Chinese proverb “One picture is worth ten thousand words” conveys a powerful concept. Among other things, an image has the power to tell a story, invite emotional engagement, evoke a mood, raise questions or send a message. I don’t have very strong skills as an illustrator but photography allows me to engage deeply with my subject, and provides a starting image as a foundation.
I think of my images not so much as documenting a “slice of life” but more as visual poems and meditations on nature, animals, symbols and spirit. I’m not really trying to turn my photographs into paintings but I am going for something between a straight up photograph and abstraction. I use color, tone, shape, form, light and texture to convey an emotional response to a moment in time, to evoke a mood, and to offer an entry point for the viewer to share in the experience.
What can you tell me about your tools and your process?
At this point I use digital cameras including a Canon single lens reflex, a Pentax “point and shoot”, an iPhone, IPad and another tablet camera. I manipulate the image on a MacBook Pro with various photo editing tools including Photoshop and some others. I used to print all my own work, but I have recently started sending images to be printed in larger format on high grade paper, canvas and metal. Some of my work starts with finger paintings done on an iPad which I combine with photographs and text. The end result is a photo collage. I sometimes have those printed on canvas so I can to draw and paint on them.
It reminds me of playing electric guitar through effects pedals or cooking with spices. A photograph can be selectively altered, enhanced or diminished to the degree that the original image isn’t even recognizable as a photograph. I play with hue, saturation and contrast levels and filters. There’s really no risk of going too far with it, because I can always go back to the original. I work largely by intuition without a strictly preconceived notion of where I’m going with a piece, but I somehow know it when I get there.
Which artists do you look to for inspiration?
This changes all the time, but a few of my current influences are Douglas Beasley, Richard Diebenkorn, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Although the work I’ve included here doesn’t necessarily illustrate this, I’m interested in the intersection of text and image, including the integration of symbols and iconography into the over all image. I’ll often use graffiti, billboards, neon signs, and murals as a jumping off point. My work has been influenced by sources as old as Sumerian tablets and medieval illustrated manuscripts. Reading cereal boxes, comics, Mad Magazine and album covers all made a huge impression on me as a kid. Books by well known contemporary book artists include Nick Bantcock’s exquisite Griffin and Sabine series, Ray Troll’s collaboration with Brad Matson, Shocking Fish Tales, Lynda Barry’s work, What It Is and recently, two books by Austin Kleon, Steal Like An Artist and Show Your Work. There’s interesting work on the Indie scene, including work by English poet and visual artist Helen Ivory, a collaboration between Tom Bradley and David Aronson, and a forthcoming book by Bud Smith and Rae Buleri, Dust Bunny City, from Disorder Press. Ithaca artist Carol Spence has produced some absolutely stunning paintings and books that are seated squarely at the intersection of text and image. The Sun Magazine and Lost In Thought are two periodical journals that do this well.
Can you speak to a sense of place that may show up in your work?
Many of my images come from photographs I’ve made of landscapes, architecture and animals that are almost literally in my own backyard. I also shoot a lot when I’m on the road and the final images almost always reflect a sense of place. Some of my favorite nature based work started with photographs that were made in mountains, forests, rivers and coastlines of New York, California, Hawaii, Utah, Maine, the Jersey Shore, Germany, Japan, and Canada. On the other hand, cities also provide an endless source of inspiration and pieces have grown from photographs made in Munich, Tokyo, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Seattle and the San Francisco Bay area.
Any influences outside of the art world that impact you as an artist?
It’s hard to NOT be influenced by politics. I am very dedicated to environmental issues and the politics that go along with that. Protecting areas of natural beauty has a significant influence on me as a visual artist.
Where can others interested in your work find you?
I maintain an online presence on my website, Your Own Backyard (michaelgillanmaxwell.com) Facebook under Michael Gillan Maxwell and Twitter @MGMaxwell1. I show work on a Facebook group called Vision Quest Photo Workshops, and submit work to print and online journals. I exhibit regionally at galleries in juried and invitational shows, do the occasional festival and do collaborative exhibits with one or two other artists once or twice a year. And, of course, you can find me right here in my own backyard.