Michael Letzig is a very talented, New York-based artist who expresses himself effortlessly and is clearly in tune with himself, his work and what art means to him. The great thing about our chat here is that it’s serious, yet breezy and fun like his work www.michaelletzigstudio.com. Check it out. Since we share the same first name, I call myself, "MC" and Michael Letzig, "ML."
MC: Hey Michael, Your work is very cool. Looking at it, I get a very wistful quality and a sense of times past ... memories of times gone by. Maybe even a yearning for the life that you interpret in the paintings. To me, is looks like a marriage of Impressionism and Contemporary Realism. Am I on the right track?
ML: Hello Michael, Thanks for visiting my site and for the awfully kind comments. "Wistful,” huh? I'm truly touched by that. Such reactions to my work is gratifying. It means a great deal to me if my painting can take someone to a healthy head place. Stylistically, I think you pretty much hit it on the head. I appreciate a wide variety of periods and movements, but right now, I feel guided by Van Gogh, Singer, Sargent and Hopper. I'm not going after anything terribly cerebral, just a simple truth. That's all.
MC: How would you say artists like Van Gogh, Sargent and Hopper are guiding you? Is it their style, the lives they lived, the way they create light or general inspiration? What do you see in their work?
ML: They each offer a distinct insight. In Sargent, I swoon at his remarkably confident, deliberate stroke. His flourish looks effortless. In Hopper, a great designer, he gives permission to edit; to censor the composition. And that was a revelation for me. In Van Gogh, there are many elements I identify with. A hunger that is larger than yourself and the vices and virtues that come with it. I know it's silly, but I'll conjure up these artists, like spirits, to ask for their guidance.
MC: I understand. Do you paint plein air or do you create these scenes from your imagination?
ML: To expand a little more on that last point; I believe the common thread that all the artists share is an element of idealism. For better or worse, they were romantics. Perhaps that's inherent in being an artist. It may not be practical in today's world. In fact, I can vouch for that. But to look up at a cloud formation or the play of light as it passes through a grove or skips across water or to see shadows drift across the landscape; well, it can take one to a transcendental place. And when I see such inspired beauty, beauty that paralyzes me, I feel I have to pay homage to it. It's as though I have to say "thanks" for taking my breath away. My only regret is that my hands can't work fast enough. When I look at work by Van Gogh, I sense that he felt the same. And I feel a kindred spirit. Another kindred spirit, though not a visual artist, is Walt Whitman.
MC: Very cool. And what about plein air painting?
ML: I have done some plein air painting. The elements pose a challenge, of course. I've adopted a practice of taking dry utensils like numerous pencils and charcoal on site and I'll work from there in a fashion that I call graphite painting. From those drawings and working from photographs, I go back to the easel and work by natural light. In the cold months, the easel is set up by two large windows inside, however in warm months, I take the easel and nearly the whole studio down to the vestibule and stoop of my building. I live in a brownstone in Harlem and the neighbors are incredibly kind to let me do this. I love it. I've gotten to really know the neighbors and their stories this way. And while being focused and immersed in your work is great, I don't want to overstay my welcome in my own head. In April, when I brought my things down, a neighbor passing by exclaimed, "Oh look, it's like seeing the first sparrow in spring...when you bring your work out here." I was really touched by that.
My first instinct is to want to capture exactly what is in front of me. However, I'll ask myself, "OK, Michael - what is your relationship to this subject, to this composition?" I have to figure out how committed I am to it. More than merely the formal properties of a piece like composition, scale, perspective, rendering and such, I'm trying to work my way through the intangible properties like mood, atmosphere and tone. Here is where the subject needs to meet me half way as I inject my own sensibilities. It's a peculiar thing, but there is a constant dialogue going on between me and whatever it is I'm painting.
MC: Would you say you're inspired or influenced by New York? Most observers wouldn't necessarily associate your work with the stereotypical view of NYC.
ML: That's a great question, Michael. And funny you should ask. I knew as a little kid I would someday live in New York. The affair started long before I came here. When I arrived nearly 20 years ago from Kansas City, MO, it was important for me to reinvent myself, as most of us probably do. I was seduced instantly. However, I have traversed a noticeable arc, having a new found appreciation for and embracing my rural beginnings. I've always been an outdoorsman (my family did a fair amount of camping and downhill skiing) and anything outside inspires me whether it be a majestic skyline or building or the magnificence of the expansive west. I am so fortunate to have had both. I get out of the city from time to time, Upstate, Long Island and the west coast ... I spend a great deal of time in Central Park as it's just a short walk. Also, I'm a bit of a history junkie and what better city than New York, right? The arc that I mention is the genesis of, “The Urban Art Farm,” which is what I've dubbed my “concept studio.” In a nutshell, it's simply city art created by a guy with deep rural roots. There are many parallels between farming and painting.
MC: I love the marriage of the two. For some reason, society always wants to pit urban and rural against one another. Okay, I'll bite. Parallels between farming and painting?
ML: You're right. Although I think the sparring is largely media manufactured. In my experience, people are people. As far as drawing parallels between painting and farming, I was watching a Ken Burns documentary on The Dust Bowl and was struck by the historians’ recollections. Perhaps I'm a little biased being from the heartland. Painting, well, the process of creating anything, is akin to farming in that it asks for stubborn, unyielding faith. A, some might call, bullheaded belief that the toil and hard effort will produce something. You work and work andwork and if the outcome isn't satisfactory, you tell yourself, “I have to work harder,” just as the farmers did. One historian called farmers gamblers and that resonated because, in my eyes, each endeavor, project, showing, each day is gamble. What trumps all of that however is the simple joy of working with your hands. To get your hands down and dirty - to feel and scrape and smear and sweat and paint. That is when I feel most alive and yet, somehow, removed from myself. Talent is like a crop. It has to be tended and nurtured and cared for ... and harvested.
MC: Great analogy. You know Michael, many if not most people don't see art as the most practical thing in the world. Why all of this painting and even talking about art? What's the point?
ML: That is one perspective, sure. But I'm an optimist. We are so immersed in a visual world today. There is a growing appreciation for artists and craftspeople and an acknowledgement of their relevance. We are more empowered and engaged than ever before thanks, in part, to technology, social media and advocacy platforms, like yours. Aside from the social and cultural analytics, “Why do it?” I don't believe I know how not to. Painting and creating are essential to me. It's simply who I am. It gives me purpose and insight and boundless lessons. I know this all sounds terribly self-important. Self-indulgent. But believe me, I don’t take what I was born with for granted. I am really a very fortunate guy.
MC: What do you think about the art world/art market and how they operate? Dead, famous artists continue to pack museum shows, auctions, etc., while living artists are struggling.
ML: Boy, that's a tough one. You could do an entire artist conference on that alone! People are artists for different reasons. It's an individual call. If you pursue art as a road to riches and fame, I want to see your business plan. More importantly, I want to see your art. That is something each artist has to reconcile within him or herself. You have to ask hard questions like the one you posed earlier, “Why am I doing this?” And then figure out how you’re going to navigate through it. It's taken a long time to equalize the artistic side (poetic, romantic, impractical, illogical) with the business side (strategic, pragmatic and rational) and I still don't have it all figured out because circumstances are so elastic and changing. My personal belief is that this life is a series of experiments. Outcomes are almost never certain, and that in and of itself keeps me on my toes. I know there are great things inside of me yet to be realized. I have a lot to learn and a lot of work to do. And those things may never get noticed or maybe they will long after my dust has scattered to the winds. The important thing for me is to remain committed to my personal experiment. Right here. Right now.
MC: Finally Michael, what are your plans for the future? Where do you want to go with your work?
ML: Good question, Michael. I love the outdoors. Check. I love to paint and draw. Check. I love to travel. Check. I want to design the next life experiment that incorporates all three. Maybe something like a mobile-pop-up-painting-roadshow. When I travel, I always have materials on hand. In fact, my supplies take more space than the clothing. I'm headed west in a few weeks to see family and I'd like to find some representation while I'm there. I'm going to Maine, which I've never been to and cannot wait! Lots of inspiration up there! So long as there is air to breath, I'll stick with it. I have to see where the work takes me.
MC: Michael, you have been a breath of fresh air … and I don’t say that to a lot of other Michaels!
ML: Thank you Michael. It was my pleasure!
Check out Michael Letzig and his work at www.michaelletzigstudio.com.