I had the pleasure of conducting a phone interview with Catfish Man, Michael Suter, about his development as an artist. There is a quality of honesty that comes with Art Brut, Naïve Art, Folk Art, Outsider Art, Self-taught Art or whatever nomenclature the artist prefers. This honesty comes through very clear in talking to Michael Suter and viewing his work. In interviewing him it became very clear that he is as interesting and eccentric as his artwork.
RL- Can you tell us about your influences of your works as Catfish Man and how that name came about?
MS- Ok, we might have to divide that into two parts. Catfish Man is probably the most difficult for even me to grasp. It took place over perhaps almost twenty years prior to my beginning painting. It was a slow development. You might call it a self-character of mine. A certain way that I identified to parts of my life in particular, times when I lived in the mountains and subsisted, basically starving to death you might say, and then ultimately made a still from found things over the course of about a month or so. I had an old mountain man help me to make some whiskey and take that down to Charleston, West Virginia to sell it and fund myself to get the hell out of there. Anyway I spent a lot of time trying to live my life as a self-sufficient individual. A naturalist persona represents the Catfish Man to me.
Then after that twenty-year period of living like that, I moved to Athens, Georgia. I had met a couple of people and they invited me to stay for about two weeks. I was trying to figure out, what am I going to do, and they started taking me to habitat for humanity. There they had various scraps of things and old paint. So I thought, I think I will begin my life as a painter now. So I got a bunch of the old house paint, boards and things, they had a great selection because there was great sense of community there, which also helped a great deal because these other people were all practicing artists. They inspired me to begin painting and that’s what I did, in their front yard. My first painting was very, very crude and I didn’t know what to think of it or what to compare it to. It was very crude and really for another about four or five hundred pieces they were all so crude that it was difficult for me to understand what I was doing except that I was on a quest you might say to create paintings that I would like. My first piece was basically a 1950’s tea cart, an old tin tea cart, with black paint. I just painted it very crudely and tied a few things on to it. It had some kind of a saying, I can’t remember, oh yes it said, “axe me nicely or don’t axe me at all.”
I thought what the hell is this, and I piled up some wood as a sort of sculptural thing and was basically showing publicly that I am an artist now. And I looked at and looked at it over several days, none of the pieces were signed. I began painting outside and signing them Catfish Man. It was part of the work of art really. It seemed to suite it, it was just so crude and so rough, you know, almost like something you would find in a ditch. Literally, in fact I did find a lot of the things I painted on in ditches or along the river bank. It then turned out that there were a number of people in the region that were looking for primitive, folk, and outsider artists and one of these collectors expressed interest in me and I began selling work. I began trying to develop my style from within. I knew that there was the outsider and folk thing happening and I was told that that was what I was doing, so I decided to explore that element in my work. Anyway for about five years I just relentlessly painted, painted, painted and randomly tried to find what I called my “ultimate style.” I really just wanted to be able to be a master of the use of paint. I taught myself how to not mix the colors while they are still wet to not make mud, Keep the colors pure, you know all of these basic things. On the one side there was the skill of using the paint, but during the process of creating about 1,500 to 2,000 pieces I discovered this thing that might be described as the “trance state,” when you are in somewhat of a trance when creating. Rather than trying to make something you just begin moving your arm around with the paint brush. Of course you are conscious of it to some extent, but you try release yourself to the trance as much as possible. So I discovered that fairly early on and I also discovered what paint and color would do but still in a primitive manner. For example, I noticed that if you use red and green certain things happened. I discovered several techniques that I would use to give the paintings vibrancy. I knew that was power or a type of power, energetic power, emitting from the board. So I was trying to combine subconscious images and allow them to emerge through putting the color down with these few basics that I had learned along with other elements to give the piece motion. On those earlier pieces I defined them near the end. They would take form and I would outline them with black. These things anybody would stumble across if they took enough time, but I took it very seriously and tried to remember it all. So yeah, that would pretty much be that.
RL- When you were on the forefront of Georgia who were there other artist who helped you on the path?
MS- The Finster family was very supportive to me spiritually and personally. I love those guys and I also really like their work. Also, R. A. Miller was a friend of mine, he became my friend almost immediately and encouraged me to paint. I did learn a number of things from him as far as what an outdoor studio looks like for example. He was very much an influence to me, I had a lot of respect for him. He was the true mountain man that I wanted to be. Peter Philips, Paul Thomas, and Lee Matney were very much my friends during all of that period, and influenced me. I would be able to ask them certain questions as I would discover things like clashing colors or what it was that I was observing because they knew a lot of the technical elements of art and were able to explain that stuff to me.
RL- Can you comment on some of the press and exposure you received early on and in the middle of your career?
MS- Everybody I just mentioned and I was mostly liked by other artists. Sometime just ordinary people who would emerge from nowhere and I didn’t even know who they were then they were gone. They would buy a painting and sometimes they would buy all of them. I was a guest artist a number of places, including the Kentuck festival which has been featured in Smithsonian magazine as a noteworthy venue for outsider and folk art. Bill Clinton’s Chief of Staff Marsha Scott and cabinet member Paul Yandura bought numerous pieces to take to Washington DC, in order to promote Southern outsider artists. They discovered me through word of mouth. Early on someone had mentioned to me about Howard Finster and Paradise Garden and that they had a yearly fair that I should go to. I participated several times. One year pieces that I didn’t sell, which I normally sold out of everything, Howard's daughter bought all of it. Anyway, they stopped having that yearly festival elsewhere and began having it at Paradise Garden. So I would go over there and exhibit and stay in their guest cottage on the property. I would wander around and get to know them better. I got along with Michael Finster very well, he had a gallery set up on the other side of the fence and I would hang out with him and talk. It was more or less a grass roots kind of thing.
RL- From your perspective as a self-taught artist, what is the role of outsider art?
MS- Each outsider artist is different; they are basically something of their own creation. There isn’t usually that much of a continuity among them. Except that what they are creating is from the inner-self, a result of an inner dialog, an inner vision, an inner quest that has a rhythm within that particular artist or in many cases a way to express outside of the inner self frustrations, problems, fantasies, thoughts, almost anything. Typically, what we would be looking at in the outsider art world is as much as is humanly possible unique individuals creating unique pieces of art that have likely not been seen before. It will normally, but not necessarily as in the case of Jean Dubuffet, not have any training. From a higher way of looking at it, it is instinctual in many cases. Or we call it as visions that are shared among all of earths inhabitants, in some cases. This is really a broad and catch all category, you know, art brut and outsider art. It’s so broad, it encompasses everybody else you might say.
RL- What aspects of being an artist do you find the challenging and what do you find the most enjoyable?
MS- The thing that I disliked before was that after having painted so many paintings it began to become very tedious. I had lost my desire to continue painting at the end because my brain was empty, and I know longer desired to do it like that. That was unpleasant for me. The most enjoyable is first of all that elusive or only occurring sometimes creative surge, a genuine creative surge when its emerging from deep within yourself. It’s almost like an endomorphic thing, like you are mildly drugged on a narcotic or something, and the stuff is just flowing out beautifully and nicely and real.