It’s curious what makes a person tick. Here is a collection of snippets to help fill in some of the blanks. I think understanding the way a person ‘speaks’ as is important as how they think.
- Michael Joy
What do I hope to achieve?
Firstly, I hope to show that almost any shape can be transformed into another meaning with relatively slight physical manipulation. I would like a viewer to enjoy an experience of seeing shapes with a new sense of plasticity, understanding that form is not firm. I would also feel happy if people enjoyed my work with a light heart and felt they had discovered something playful and mischievous; something that invites them to look a little longer; something that slightly shifts their thought patterns, if only for a few minutes. A home run for me would be when a viewer comes back to my sculpture and enjoys it just as much as they did the first time they saw it. Yet this time, they feel a need to invite another person to share in the fun.
If not sculpting, what would I be doing?
It’s a guess, but if I had not gone to art school, I would have gone into construction and would likely be a heavy equipment operator of some sort. If I could draw fantastically, I would have become a painter as it would have given me the ability to paint the images from my dreams. Fortunately, there is an endless supply of visual metaphors and journeys each morning I awake, and I have been thinking of a graphic way to bring this imagery into future work. It will take some time, but the minute someone develops a digital dream recorder, I am buying it! And the final if: "If I were not in the arts, what would I be doing?" I would be a UFO investigator, for sure.
Why did I want to teach mold making?
Being a self-taught mold maker was a slow process, as there is a limited amount of literature on the subject. Even while reading every book I could find about mold making, it became clear that excellent mold makers are not necessarily good at explaining their craft. They usually write books when they retire, long after they see things from a beginner’s perspective. Because of that, I started taking pictures in art school of the processes I was working on in order to remember what a beginner would need to know. I hoped there would come a day when I would be a skilled mold maker who was qualified to write about it.
Why is craftsmanship some important?
I think the simpler an idea is, the better it needs to be crafted. When a noticeable amount of time is spent creating something, the creative commitment and intention of the piece is amplified. I also think people tend to take better care of things that are well made. When someone respects the craftsmanship, they are likely to give more time to studying it. When I started my first mold making business in Chicago, I was hard pressed to earn money making molds and was driven to take on any 3D art commissions, regardless of if I knew how to do them or not. In the beginning, the need for money pushed me to figure things out quickly, but I was also genuinely interested in solving technical issues. I thrived on the engineering challenges and the new job each success led to was exciting. The common denominator of each job was to copy an important object without damaging it. Protecting the client’s belonging was the first step in caring about the quality of my work. The second step was to make a very user-friendly mold for the client. This meant that I had to over-design the mold because another person was going to use it, not just me. I enjoyed the work and each day that I earned a few bucks meant I did not have to be an employee at another job. The trade-off was teaching myself how to do the projects with limited technical help from a few raw material suppliers.
I am feisty about some things.
In art school, I was saturated with people and professors encouraging work centered on socio-economic and political messages. They seemed more interested in the conceptual idea than the physical representation of it. I remember being surprised by how many people really hoped their political artwork would change a person’s position on a viewpoint. I think some of their artwork started a good conversation, but really it just seemed to bring out each individual’s existing opinion, rather than move the story forward. My goal was to master my technical craft as much as possible, but also to have fun with art. I remember a teacher explaining to me, “Art school is the time to experiment with new ideas because you will not have as much time for that after school.” I responded to her that I wouldn’t have as much time only if I was too exhausted from being stuck in a house painting job after college, but that if I actually learned a craft here in school related to my art, I could make a living doing something that kept me close to my work. I was sassy and didn't realize then how long it would take to learn a craft. She wasn’t entirely wrong, but neither was I.
How did my sculpture process develop?
For as long as I can remember, I have always liked working with my hands and using tools. My teenage years were spent dreaming of becoming an inventor. I’m not sure where this desire originates but maybe I inherited it from my grandfather who was the RCA engineer who invented high frequency welding of plastics. Since I didn’t know how to work with tools in my teens, I became interested in photography. The thought of blending and morphing shapes intrigued me (Remember, this was before Photoshop!). I then discovered the artist Duane Michaels. His storytelling via manipulated images was inspiring. I never had the same types of ideas he had, but his work provided a mental push forward for me and I began to write lists of paradoxical images. It’s unusual, but my sketch books are filled more with visual descriptions than drawings. When I transitioned from photography to ceramics, I became more aware of form and structure. It was about this time that my stepfather Andrew gave me a small book on Rene Magritte. I had never heard of Magritte and couldn’t believe what I saw. It was like someone was already speaking the language I was trying to develop. If I had not seen Magritte’s work at that time, I think my visual vocabulary would have been delayed for a very long time. Thank you, Mr. Magritte, for leaving bread crumbs for others.
Where is the emotion in the work?
I think the emotion is in the satisfaction it brings to me to create the art. My hope is that my work carries to a viewer, regardless of its shape or concept, an understanding that this work was made by someone whose Dharma it is to do this work and who receives great joy in sharing it.
Where do my ideas come from?
Many of my ideas begin with my natural inclination towards objects from the late 1800s–early 1900s when things were still largely made by hand. Working with a shape from a previous era typically means the finished sculpture will automatically have a historical feeling to it, which is one of my ways to bring an instant history to a piece. This is also why I am drawn to antique surface finishes. With a historical framework in mind, the next part of my process is to seek out shapes that relate paradoxically to one another. Because of my many years of mold making and sculptural fabrication, changing the shape and material of an original object is well within my technical range. It has become an automatic process for me to look at an object and imagine it morphed into something else. In other words, when I look at an object, I see a form that is not solid. The ability to duplicate and manipulate a form via mold making has created a certain kind of sculptural Photoshop in my mind that happens very quickly. When I look through a book that has interesting objects, my mind catalogs them and will hold the visual representation from one page to the next. (Sometimes I just photocopy a shape and catalog it for later). Eventually, two or more of the objects will click together. Once I determine what objects to combine, I come up with a title for each piece.
Why do I make art?
For me, making art satisfies many of my emotional needs. I find pleasure creating something new that will hopefully contribute a small, but positive vibe to our world. I also have the satisfaction of working with a sculptural mold making process that I enjoy. Resolving the technical and engineering issues for each piece is very satisfying. Many people don’t consider it, but art making can be a very isolating activity with hours spent in the studio instead of out with friends or nurturing personal relationships. Sharing a finished work of art is a great way for me to connect with others in a playful and thought-provoking way. I also must mention that it feels great to achieve the artistic results I am after. Controlling the medium was extremely difficult in the early years and I think that is why I was so driven in business. Every job I took taught me about a new material or technique. Now, with a mastery of my materials and a long list of artworks to create, I look forward to every hour of time I can dedicate to making art.
What other artists have influenced you or whose work you enjoy?
Magritte really had the largest ‘start up’ influence on me, yet I don’t look at his work very much anymore. Cleary, I did absorb enough of his vibe to appreciate the visual language he developed. Some saw him as more of a cartoonist than a painter, but I enjoy how he could create paradox in a very simple looking image. I think it took a long time for Magritte to find his language and (in my opinion) was just getting started when he was in his later years. His expression of visual language was a great launching point for me to become seriously interested in making art. (My step father gave me a small book about Magritte just before I entered art school. His work was like witnessing a magic trick.) Of course I enjoy other artists…some include Max Ernst, Pierre Roy, Alexander Calder, Duane Michaels, Man Ray, Steichen, Atget, Andy Goldworthy , Julie Taymor, Julia Margaret Cameron and many more Victorian photographers. Other surrealists can be too dark for me. I pretty much stay clear of the suffering and death type of art. It just doesn’t nourish me.
What TV, movies, or books have most influenced you or are you enjoying now?
My latest book fascination was Codex Seraphinianus which I found deeply interesting and inspiring. What captured me about this book was that everything in it appeared to be new and original. I couldn’t trace any artistic origins of the drawings. I loved that it looked like a textbook from another planet. I am a bit boring with TV and movies.. mostly enjoying PBS nature shows, documentaries and science stuff. The past months I have been on a bender with the Library of Congress’ photographic archives. I learned my image tolerance weighs in at about 3500 images per 6 hour sitting. There are literally 10’s of thousands of images from all over the world covering important events and historical architectural surveys. It is amazing. If all my tax dollars could go to the library of congress, I would be a satisfied tax payer! Basically, I just pound through the images grabbing the ones my subconscious somehow identifies as meaningful, unique or convincingly moody. I don’t question or analyze my searches.. if I have a response, I copy the image so I can come back to it for more study later. For whatever reason, the process is working as I have made nearly 100 new photo collages in just a few months. I love the immediacy of the process as opposed to the heavier time commitment sculpture making can require.
What kind of books and music do you enjoy?
Regarding books, I recently enjoyed reading biographies about Nicolas Tesla and Harry Houdini. Did you know Houdini was a spy for the US government? And did you know that Tesla’s papers were confiscated by the government after his death? Many of which remain classified? Very cool stuff. I have to admit that I don’t appear to get direct artistic inspiration from music or theater, however, I listen to music throughout the day and when I am working on art on my computer. My Spotify stations are always stacked up with music from other countries or relaxing music such as Zen meditations, Native American flute or Gregorian Chanting etc. When I am sculpting, I listen to much more playful music such as french rap, swing, lebanese/Arabic rhythms, Belafonte’esque or Hawaiian sounds. Any type of music that is upbeat or I don’t know what to expect next is somehow quite satisfying to me. When I am collaging, it is usually Mozart.
What's your inner process when you're in your imagination playing around with concepts for potential works?
Well…typically my process consists of flooding myself with images from photography/history books and architecture and design magazines. When an image strikes me in some way, I save it either in print or remember it. After looking at enough pictures (and I mean A LOT of pictures), I have a subconscious library of images that is bouncing around inside of me just waiting to find its crisscross match. (I would compare it to a chef who has a refrigerator full of ingredients just waiting to be used. He knows how to cook, he just needs to decide what he or his guests are in the mood for.) For me, the visual connections come very quickly once I am calm and have set aside some time for artistic work. I wish I could make the art as fast as quickly as the ideas come forth! Have you ever driven down the expressway and misread a billboard and made new words or phrases morphed from what the sign actually said? … a sort of lazy reading slur/blur that somehow comes out funny or new? Well, it is like that with images for me. My brain blurs shapes and components together in a watery kind of way. Perhaps it is because I have had so many years of manipulating shapes as a professional mold maker and have little mental resistance to shapes and textures that may appear to be incompatible or unrelated. I learned that for me, a texture is just a texture, it is not a separate or contrasting medium such as wood or plastic. They share a common denominator because I know I can combine, blend or unify them into a single new medium using mold making and casting techniques.
Do concepts of nostalgia play into your work or is it more of a visual preference?
I think this is more of an aesthetic preference. When I was 30, I lived for 3 years (as a caretaker) in an older home that was extremely well made and filled with quality furnishings. I think the hand craftsmanship soaked into my art spirit in some way. I am attracted to hand made things and when they are well made, find them somehow calming. Perhaps that is why I like things from the Victorian age… they were largely handmade or at least made with simple processes and tools. In addition to that, I just like giving new meaning to old things. It pleases me.