Artist Proof Interview with Artist: Michael Garfield
Global Location: Boulder, CO, US
Michael Garfield is the Indiana Jones of live painting. Since November of 2007, he has set up his easel at events in a legendary range of situations, from raging basement clubs to NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Airfield, the Costa Rican rainforest to the deep Nevada desert – both onstage and off, and alongside internationally renowned visionary artists Alex & Allyson Grey,Mark Henson, Kris D, J Garcia, Oliver Vernon, Android Jones,Amanda Sage, and Mars-1. His work has been featured (in many cases, repeatedly) at numerous music festivals across North America, and garnered him performance residencies in Boulder, Phoenix, and New Orleans. Recently he has assumed responsibility as a de facto journalist and organizer for the growing live art community with his interview series, The Field Guide To Live Artists. Michael’s improvised live paintings are hand-illustrated with pens (and without computers or measuring tools) during concerts, translating the throb of the house and the crowd into cross-sections of fireworks and undersea faeries, closed-eye tessellations and luminous fossils…unabashedly intense, verdant and exultant imagery written in the natural language of dreams. Reflecting his training as a scientific illustrator, Michael’s live art is a field guide to the beings that emerge at the energetic nexuses of live music…the boundary-living electric winged spirits that crash into being through a dancing throng while he is a seismograph and portraitist, swaying to their breath.
AP: How long have you been making art for and what lead you to start?
MG: All of my memories of past lives were militaristic, soldier-type stuff. Memories of war. Dying in explosions. Which is pretty suitable, considering that if you consult The Secret Language of Birthdays by Gary Goldschneider & Joost Elffers, my birthday is “The Day of the Big Bang.” Supposedly I show up on the scene all of a sudden and make a big impression on people’s lives, leaving a significant influence. So I’ll accept my past lives of being blown up as a necessary prerequisite for the kind of art I make now: vivid, intense, and a little explosive. In a sense I guess you could say that even though I’ve been drawing for my entire life as Michael Garfield, my soul obviously must have had an artistic streak long before I was born, in order to plan such poetry.
AP: Can you tell us about where you make your work is it in your house, astudio etc….and how it effects your work?
MG: I make all of my artwork at concerts (and the occasional farmer’s market or other huge public event). People expect, based on other live painters, that I must be inspired by the music, that I’m trying to translate it through the art…that’s a half truth. I’m in it for the crowd. The energy of big groups of people is totally intoxicating. There is an incredible high that comes with painting in the thick of a bustling, receptive audience. I probably spend half of my time talking with people about the piece while it’s in progress, and this feedback loop definitely influences the outcome. But I’ve also noticed how much, even without any intention on my part, the music and the venue space influence the finished piece. Painting right next to the subwoofers captures a completely different energy than if I set up in a corner at the back of the room. I’ve written a lot about this, and if you’re interested I encourage you to check out my essay series, Painting While Dancing.
AP: Where do you currently live and work? And how does this influenceyour work?
MG: Boulder, Colorado. This is where I was introduced to performance painting, and where I decided to give it a try…where I scored my first weekly live painting residency and made a local name for myself. There are a lot of people who paint at concerts in Boulder, Denver, and Fort Collins, and this quasi-community definitely “hotboxes” an otherwise strange and lonely medium. Most towns I’ve visited have no live artists, or only a handful. You see a lot more innovation and diversity in such a bustling scene, where everyone is trying to stand out from the pack but also supporting one another’s work.
AP: Did you have formal training – if so what? If you’re self taught can youtell us what you prefer about being a self taught artist?
MG: The only formal training I have is as a scientific illustrator. I spent four years illustrating frogs, lizards, snakes, dinosaurs, prehistoric invertebrates for the University of Kansas Natural History Museum and a few other institutions before painting live – or even working with paint – was even a glimmer in my eye. Consequently I never learned to use a brush, so when I decided to open up from page-sized work to poster-sized work and from grayscale to color, I went with my native language and continued to use pens instead of retraining myself completely. In certain ways I’m a lost cause, artistically. But the constraints of using paint markers instead of traditional techniques are what make the process such an exploratory adventure for me, and what sets my work apart from everyone else’s. The meditative precision of scientific illustration never left me; most people think I’m doing this digitally until they see me knocking out a piece at a concert.
AP: What is your medium of choice?
MG: Well, because of my limited formal training, I limit myself almost exclusively to the paint markers, as well as pen and ink and graphite for smaller studio formats. More recently I’ve started to scan sketchbook pages and then “dub” them digitally to create ridiculously huge fractal graphics very reminiscent of the psychedelic mandalas to which my cruder work with paint can really only allude. If I were going to be cheeky, though, I’d say that conversation is my medium of choice, because really painting at concerts gives me a fantastic opportunity to inspire people directly, rather than through intermediate instruments and artifacts.
AP: What is the relationship between technique and content in your work?
MG: The finished product definitely matters, but I’m very process-oriented. I’m very much into taking familiar instruments and “exapting” them, coming up with new applications. It’s part of my whole lens on art as an evolutionary biologist: the leg evolved from the fin to grasp rocks in the water long before fish realized they could walk with it on dry land. Likewise, I deeply enjoy the strange liminality of bringing an art studio into the live music environment; bringing a scientific illustration training to fruit in what are almost pop-psychedelic designs; sneaking into concerts pretending to be a visual artist only to ultimately wield conversation, more than any other medium, to inspire people.
The growing, changing, blind and improvisational collective intelligence of the evolutionary process is also front and center with everything I do. None of this work is completely pre-meditated. None of it is done locked up alone. I try to take what I know about how mutation and selection work in nature and infuse my art creation with that to whatever degree I can – by establishing live feedback loops with my audiences, like I mentioned; by working with pattern and geometry to fit a mood, rather than coming in pre-loaded with a discrete subject; and by practicing the actual pen-work as a mindfulness meditation, connecting to evolution as it is recapitulated in my own life in more of a Vedic sense.
We live in a time when the studio doors are flung open and people are clamoring to participate in the process of creation. It isn’t like it was thirty years ago when art in any format was enshrouded in mystique, intentionally, as part of the whole “artificial scarcity” paradigm of industrial capitalism. We’re in an information economy now; you’re worth more to the commons when you’re more transparent and inclusive.
AP: Take us on a guided tour through a day in your life as an artist.
MG: I spend most of each day on the computer, sadly. I do a lot of writing and music outside of the whole live art gig, so there’s always something. I spend a lot of time booking my own performances. And a huge chunk of every day is spent in research – not art research, but science news and various esoterica. But I try to spend as much of my day outdoors in the sun, or at least with the window open…to stretch and exercise and go for walks when I can remember I have a body…to drink plenty of water. What it comes down to is that I spend almost all of my time communicating. Also, I am getting more commission requests these days. That’s connecting me to the ageless meditative solitude of the studio artist, which I’m really starting to appreciate.
AP: What are some of you favorite design projects/exhibitions you haveworked on to date?
MG: One of them has to be when I was commissioned by the head of the Colorado State University’s Department of Chromatin Research to paint a representation of his work for the department website. They study how DNA folds into chromosomes, so the idea was to show the DNA folding over and over across seven orders of magnitude in a single thirty-inch poster. I ended up making a time lapse video of the painting and sharing it with a voiceover explaining their research and how I translated it into psychedelic art…it appeals to both concert-going students and distinguished scientists alike, which tickles me to no end.
I deeply enjoy that kind of boundary-crossing work so much that I started an entire series of time lapse videos with my own music and narration, on a variety of thought-provoking topics. You can find them on my website. I love painting, but the whole multi-sensory synaesthetic media onslaught combining art, music, and spoken word is pretty much the apex of my work to date.
AP: What forthcoming projects and or exhibitions do you have scheduledfor 2011?
MG: Oh, I have a lot of shows ahead of me – more gigs with visionary artists Alex & Allyson Grey, which is always a huge treat since their attitude toward the sacred significance of art is such a powerful inspiration to my own work – a lot of music, actually, since I’ve prioritized my acoustic-electronic solo guitar project over everything else for right now and am letting the visual arts just coast along under their own momentum for a while. You can find the full calendar on my blog, and hopefully I’ll see you out there!
AP: In what direction would you like to see your work going over the nextfive years?
MG: Telepathy. Seriously. I have a dream of a world in which we are able to put down our instruments and communicate our visions to one another without any medium but the human mind. Given the magnetic weirdness going on with our planet and the Sun and the extensive science supporting the notion that changes in Earth’s magnetic fields measurably alter human consciousness, I think it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility that some kind of Shift of Ages – an astrophysical event with geological and psychological consequences – might destroy the infrastructure of our electronic society and replace it with a new paradigm in which psychic communication takes the forefront. My fingers are crossed.
AP: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions.
MG: Oh, totally! Even digital conversations are a fantastic vehicle for mutual inspiration.