I remember doing drawings in grade school and submitting them to art competitions at the county fair and my folks encouraged me. One year I was thought to have traced the drawings and didn’t win a ribbon. I remember that my mom was outraged, so from that point on, I no longer exhibited at the county fair. I look back and think how fantastic that all was to me.
Funny enough, I don’t remember a single art assignment from school. I had a very good relationship with my high school art teacher, but class was spent pushing technique, very little to encourage why or what the work was about. At least that’s how I remember it. I spent a lot of hours drawing, but the path that I was taking was very linear, and I think I knew, to some extent, that it was going to have a limit. It was never going to be great. I could draw in a sort of photo realism style based on photos that I either took or that were taken at my direction, and often the subjects were portraits or self-portraits. I knew when certain portraits had a kind of magic to them – mainly because they looked like the subject, which seems like a low crossbar for artists, but I wasn’t among artists. I had no friends that were artists.
My folks bought me an oil painting set – it was a box with a canvas board and a photograph of a painting and all the paint you needed to do it. I remember at some point in the frustrating process, my parents asked a professor from the neighborhood, who taught art at the university, to give me a critique. I knew it was an awful painting. I had no idea how to do it – how to mix colors and how to mix linseed oil and turpentine. It’s probably still not dry in the landfill that it resides in today. But that was my parents’ earnest effort to try to bring some assistance to me at a higher level than high school, and I really appreciated that. Naturally, I can’t remember anything about the critique.
I knew when certain portraits had a kind of magic to them -- mainly because they looked like the subject, which seems like a low crossbar for artists, but I wasn't among artists. I had no friends that were artists.
When I was a senior, I took two art classes at the local university. I visited the museum at the university and I saw the work of a painter who did large photorealistic paintings. It completely changed how I thought about my own work and my own abilities. It also inspired me learn about other artists. Richard Estes had a show at the Art Institute, probably based on photographs, with a lot of reflective surfaces of buildings. I think that that directly informed the two paintings, where I put drinking glasses in the street in front of my house and took color photographs that I had printed at the drugstore. I was playing with this idea of painting in and out of focus. And again, I was pushing technique absent any real connection to what the painting meant beyond maybe having some visual appeal.
I think that if you look at the dog painting you’ll see my early interest in Salvador Dali, an artist I likely knew from posters. Dali to me was accessible because it tapped the unconscious and it was more imaginative. I felt a certain validity to his work because of my own connection to dream states and imagination. So that painting was sort of like Dali meets my earlier interest in dog portraiture. I painted the dog and was playing with this idea of perspective as it relates to a mood. I painted a few things that I remember had that feeling of isolation and mystery.
In high school, I took every easy art class I could as an elective, to avoid anything that I either didn’t like, didn’t think I liked, or heard was too much work. I had a very good sense of how un-academic I was and made a commitment that I was going to do what I wanted to do. If it turned out to be the case that it was the easy road, then so be it. My thinking was, why in the world would anyone study things that they don’t naturally like and that are a lot harder? I had a brother that was two years older and now we laugh at it, because he gave me so much grief and now it makes so much sense to him. I struggled with math, I still struggle with math, but I don’t need to make a living doing math. I knew that then, that I would just get help for things I didn’t know, but I wasn’t going to commit myself to paths that had no interest to me.
I had a very good sense of how un-academic I was, and I dug in and made a commitment that I was going to do what I wanted to do. If it turned out to be the case that it was the easy road, then so be it.
I studied graphic design in college, and it’s quite simple why: my father told me that he didn’t see any way of me making a living at fine art. My dad knew little to nothing about art, but he knew about paying bills, and it concerned him that he didn’t have any direct experience with anyone making a living doing art. Someone told me, maybe it was my art teacher, that there was a job designing book covers, albums, and so forth. It was called graphic arts in the 70’s. So I said yes with enthusiasm, because I cared more about getting out of town and going to college than I did about studying art. I hated school for any number of reasons.
I am not the same artist that did those paintings, yet, psychologically I am in many ways the same person who was doing them. I had a natural inclination for art, but the art that I did on my own, looking back on it, wasn’t because I ever envisioned being a great artist. It was therapeutic because I experienced depression and anxiety here and there from a young age, and I did art for hours because the alternative would have seemed unbearable, I suppose. It was a great distraction, and it took time.
I liked the idea that I created something that people liked. I was the kind of artist that would do a portrait of someone, and if people didn’t think it looked like them, especially if the portrait was of them, I would be very disappointed. There’s a lot of surface interest in my work now, and I think that connects to high school where I wanted the work to be beautiful. I know I pushed the definition of beauty in some ways, whether I was aware of it or not. Now, I work with the confidence of an artist that knows the work has content and surface beauty.
I went through commercial art to get back to fine art, and really, it’s about finally having done battle with a negative inner voice and finding the confidence that said, why not me? I’ve always liked to make art, and have always loved art, and it was insecurity that didn’t have me participating in the very thing that I knew best.
Michael Mapes was born in Fort Knox, Kentucky in 1962. He received a BFA in Graphic Design from the University of Illinois and worked in an account executive capacity with design firms in Chicago and NYC. In 1988, he formed the wholesale company MINC where he created products sold internationally. In 1992, he received an MFA from the University of Illinois, having given some thought to teaching. By that time, MINC. was showing considerable success and he continued with that work until 2002.
Following a period where he pursued video, producing segments for a PBS affiliate and later assuming a significant role in a feature independent film, he committed to studio art. In 2005, he created the first works in the mixed media series he still produces.
The curator Brian Hannon writes, “Not only are his works interesting studies in their own right, but they further challenge us to question the ways in which scientific information is assimilated into a culture. His unique appropriation of traditional ideas on portraiture and entomology, taxonomy and forensic science convey the inherent tension between a methodical objectivity and an unavoidable psychological subjectivity”.