Michael Paxton’s work is big, bold, and full of energy. Whether the work is on canvas, paper, or drafting film it is never lacking in movement and depth. His works have no predetermined design or goal allowing him to leave the focus on instinct and mark-making. The end result is what he calls a “marriage of accident and intent” that activates the environment around the works. I had the pleasure of speaking with him about his process, development, and background. I have no doubt you will find him as interesting as I have.
RL: What artists or concepts have influenced your work?
MP: My current work I would probably say is influenced by Milton Resnick, Richard Diebenkorn, Turner has always been a big influence of mine and also when I met Philip Guston in graduate school, he came to my studio and I heard him talk. I think that there were a lot of things that he said that resonated with me. It was reaffirming something that I was doing. I was doing a lot of figurative work for the longest time and a lot of it was based on my history in West Virginia, my family and all of that kind of stuff, kind of my Appalachian suite and it got to a point where it was a little too nostalgic. I went back to take care of my mom, she was ill, and I had to go back to West Virginia for most of the summer and into the fall. I realized that things were a lot worse, it wasn’t nostalgic, it was doom and gloom, closed up places, and loss of hope. I think that got me doing more landscape-type building looks. As that carried on I was moving away from images to more mark making. I got into a book called Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian. I read that when I was in France for a fellowship someone gave me the book, it was talking about trying to make work that doesn’t have symbolism, analogies, metaphors, or associations. It was instinctive, uncontrived, unrestrained, unembellished I felt that verbally he was throwing down the gauntlet and I’ve been trying never since to make work that was pointed in that direction.
RL: I’m looking at one of your works titled Lump of Coal and I was wondering about how your upbringing in West Virginia and coal fields has influenced your work?
MP:I’d say it influences everything I do from day one. I don’t think that growing up where I did, how I did, and the struggle of escaping and moving past to follow an arts career was no small feat. At a certain point the way the twig gets bent so goes the tree. I think that early on all of those influences like family and a sense of place, anybody from the mountains, especially West Virginia, will always call that home. No matter how far or long they’ve been gone, how little they’ve visited, it’s always home. The mountains are special, sometimes it’s like a third world country. There is a lot of destruction with mountain top removal, with the coalmines, the feudalism of crawling in a hole every day to earn your living and you might not make it out. A sense of how you had no power other than through the unions, though that’s all been kind of diminished too. Still there is a certain sense of pride about being able to survive that I think is at the core of everything I do.
RL: When looking at the piece it is amazing that you can put so much energy and movement into an inanimate object like a lump of coal.
MP: That one was with ink and drafting film. It’s transparent, basically clear acetate with a little thickness to it but it’s still flexible. The ink doesn’t sink into it, when I’m working with that you do some washes then you have to let it dry, then wash on top of that and wash on top of that. When it dries it changes, so there’s always this sense of discovery and accident that pulls a lot out of it. They don’t always work.
RL: Can you tell me more about your process, how do you approach the large spaces you are working with?
MP: In 2005 I changed galleries up here and they had a really big space. I was doing four-foot by eight-foot drawings that were charcoal on paper and the gallery director said, “they need to be much bigger.” So I did seven and a half by twelve-foot charcoal drawings and all of the sudden it took the space and changed it. I started thinking about the simple act of drawing either on a wall or large canvas, could change the perception of space and sense of space. Then you start thinking about the caves in southern France from the beginning of recorded time, to the churches and cathedrals, the Sistine Chapel being decorated. It seems to be there is a notion that drawing is more of a place than a thing. There is a lot of energy in what I do. When you look at them in person they make your eyes dance and as you walk around and it changes your perception of what’s going on in them. A lot of it too is the fact that both I make the canvases porous, when I draw with the chalk I take water and soak it into the canvas, then as it dries it changes but it also becomes inside the canvas instead of on top. In this way it all soaks in, but with the film it doesn’t soak in at all. So there is the extremes of both ways, but in both cases it’s me working on something and by it’s drying or its material it takes on a life of its own. I’m meeting intent and accident equally.
RL: Do you prefer drawing over painting?
MP: I think all of my work is either painted drawings or drawn paintings. I always try to find the middle point of things. Drawing I would think informs, if anybody looked at them even with the canvases would consider them as drawings. When you think of painting it’s building up layers of paint that covers up other paint. I don’t really do that. I want you to see the first mark and the last mark, and all of the work in between.
RL: Can you talk about your use of color?
MP: There is a certain color range that I use. I like that base tone of coal. With the charcoal, there’s always that coal in there, that hint of coal. Even if I use black chalk there’s always something that’s coal-like either on top, around, or interwoven with something. The colors I use whether it reds, blues, greens, tend to have that earth-tone quality.
RL: What would you say are the high points of your career are?
MP: I had two shows at the Cultural Center here in Chicago and a one-man show open all in the same week, that’s when I knew that I was a real player here. Before that would have been when I was right out of graduate school I came up and had my first solo show in Chicago in ’81 and I was also a visiting artist at the School of the Art Institute. That was my first introduction to Chicago and I kind of hit a big splash there. Other than that there were the two residencies, the one in France and the other one in Wyoming that were pretty influential with the new work I’m doing. That’s where I broke away from images totally. July first will be twenty years that I survived stage four cancer. When I say survival I mean survival.
RL: How did you end up in Chicago?
MP: I ended up in Chicago because I sent off letters to New York and Chicago. When I got out of graduate school I went to the college art association looking for a teaching job, and I met the woman interviewing for the Art Institute. She said that I was brand new and there were people with more experience ahead of me, but she really liked my work and said she’d try to set something up for me. Then I went back to Athens, Georgia where I met my wife. She had just moved from Chicago to Athens. She had family up there so we had a floor to sleep on. So we moved up here with two lawn chairs, lots of paintings, and a bird, and we’ve been here ever since.
RL: What do you find most difficult and most enjoyable about being an artist?
MP: When I’m in the studio starting one or getting one in the middle and fighting with it, very unsure or unhappy is probably the happiest I ever am. Any other place is wrought with stuff but when I get to the studio, I’m by myself fighting the canvases and it seems to be the one thing that I enjoy the most of anything. It always has been ever since I was a child, just drawing and looking and working and being by myself just fighting to see if I can make something a little bit better.
Michael K. Paxton is a sixth generation West Virginian and Chicago based artist who has received grants from the Adolph & Esther Gottlieb Foundation, Inc., New York, Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Visual Art Award, Air le Parc, Project and Research Center, Pampelonne, and Jentel Artist Residency Program, Banner, Wyoming Fellowships, with a Marshall University Alumni Award of Distinction. Major one-person exhibitions with Miami University Museum of Art, Oxford, Ohio, Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago, IL, and Laura Mesaros Gallery, West Virginia University, with major commissions by the 7th District Federal Reserve Bank, Chicago, Christel De Haan Collection, Zionsville, IN and Jensen Metal, Inc. in Racine, WI. He also has a wall-size drawing installed into the Kirkland and Ellis collection in San Francisco, and published in New American Paintings, Linework and Art and Soul that celebrates fifty of the most noted West Virginians in the arts. He is an adjunct faculty member of Columbia College, Chicago since 2005 and has BA in Art from Marshall University, 1975 and an MFA in Drawing and Painting from The University of Georgia, 1979.