William Michael Yenkevich is a self-taught artist. It’s hard to believe when you look at his work http://wmystudio.com/ but it’s true. He’s really keeping “old school” still life painting alive but making it a tad more modern yet it remains timeless. How does he do it? Here’s our cool chat.
MICHAEL: Hey William Michael, Your work is fantastic. First off, I really see William Harnett (whose work I love) in your work. He's clearly an influence. What do you think?
WILLIAM: Thanks for the kind words. William Michael Harnett is only one of many influential artists who had a moving effect on me and my work. Early in my career, I was fascinated by the early Flemish and Dutch painters still life works. From the 16th century onwards and especially in the 17th century, artists in northern Europe, Flanders and Holland excelled at painting minutely detailed representations of objects from everyday life. This style blew me away. Such pictures served a dual purpose as documentary records of everyday objects, and symbolic allusions to philosophical ideas. Behind this mirage of abundance and details, the pleasing array of produce and objects, the paintings invite the viewer to discover a subtler message, exploring questions of appearance and reality, bringing the viewer in closer to see what he is missing in this busy world. Harnett was a superb illusionist in his painting style. I did an article in the 1980's for American Artist Magazine which coincided with Harnett's exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The editor thought my work being so close in style would be perfect to compare my techniques and style with his. It was a great opportunity and the paintings wowed you close up!
MICHAEL: Is it pure coincidence that you're also named William Michael and also paint in the same style?
WILLIAM: It is kind of odd having the same first and middle name as Harnett. I also carry my first name with many other influential artists such as William Bouguereau, Willem Kalf, Willem Claesz Heda - just a coincidence. There are a lot of similarities in our styles, but also a lot of differences. I think I just so happen to have the same name as a few of my favorite great old masters! I'm in some good company.
MICHAEL: Your approach to still life painting is heavily influenced by the past yet it's also timeless. One could say that it's ultimately contemporary because it's being created today. Thoughts?
WILLIAM: Contemporary because it’s done today. Timeless, because most of the time, my work has elements or subject matter that has a quality that can’t be dated - timelessness or neverness. The objects in my paintings are made from nature or fine crafted "elegant" man-made objects that are refined and tasteful in appearance. I consider my work to be "idealistic" in nature, as my art is the negation of life’s disorder and imperfection. It promotes order, clarity, pureness, perfection, and passion. The beauty of my painting is not created to express the real world, but to replace it with a better one - the one I envision. My work is not just copied as I see it, I also enhance the painting with color, value and texture in areas to give it an, "I want to touch it feeling." Included at the same time, one is being drawn closer visually to the painting. My compositions and subject matter are of a high moral value, being elevated in nature or style as an "idealistic ideal.”
MICHAEL: Do you believe it's the primary function of art to create beauty or idealism?
WILLIAM: It's my belief. As the old saying goes, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Since the beginning of human kind, we have struggled, among other things, with the definition of beauty. Different eras
and different philosophers had their own ideas, yet no one was able to agree upon one single idea. The only thing that seemed consistent without being too cliche, was that, "beauty was in the eye of the beholder." Today considered, everyone still has their own meaning. The concepts of beauty were first described by the ancient Greeks. I'm a big fan of the ancient Greeks and their history. Beauty was a narrowly defined and a central concept for the Greeks. The classical values stressed order and serenity. As time went on, the concept of beauty became less central and is now called aesthetics. Today, the aesthetic notion of beauty is vague and subjective. We can see now the concept of beauty developed by tracing its historical roots. I as the Greeks did, think of objects or nature as being inherently beautiful; beauty is inside an object. In all attempts to define characteristics of a beautiful thing, they focused on simplicity and symmetry. Beauty is perceived through sight and hearing. Beauty is not relative, objects cannot be compared with one another. The beauty within an object is its pure and ideal beauty. Beauty is excellent, perfect, and satisfying. A person’s response to beauty could be described as "pleasure," but the observer’s reaction did not define what was considered beautiful.
In the present century, we try to draw a distinction between beauty when it implies the total aesthetic value of an object and when it represents only one aspect of an object. The first meaning gives an object, like a sculpture, a total value of its beauty, relative to the sculptures around it. The value represents the entire object and its experience as a whole. The second meaning looks at characteristics of an object to determine its beauty, such as symmetry. It values these classed types of beauty, rather than the entirety of an object. I'm just so passionate about the beauty in my work, no matter how simple it is.
MICHAEL: How do you create work that respects the tradition of still life painting yet find your own voice and technique?
WILLIAM: By applying the sound craftsmanship, design principles and techniques handed down through the generations of old masters and combining my own findings. I produce no gimmicks or fad distortions. I take things and set my stage, look for the right lighting and play with my characters and their colors and textures until I have that right look - all portrayed like a grand group portrait. I don't look for a voice and technique because my experience dictates it all. It unifies itself when the elements of art - drawing, composition, modeling, perspective, design, and color - are brought together in unison to support, enhance and intensify my emotions. The final painting is "my" vision of beauty and perfection. I don't have to have a story to describe my paintings, it is what it is - you see it, analyze it, absorb it, feel it, then have an emotional judgment. That is what I do through the entire painting process, and then hopefully the viewer gets the same emotional response. My painting process from beginning to end is a deep form of meditation for me.
MICHAEL: Were your parents artists? Where do you think your talent comes from? When did you know that you wanted to be an artist?
WILLIAM: My parents were not artists, but my grandparents had some musical background with the violin. My talent just comes from within. I always had a great eye for color and form. I have what some would call a photographic mind - I can envision my painting before it is finished.
I wanted to be an artist when I was about 10 or 11 years old. I loved drawing and painting! I was always interested in the ancient Greeks and mythology - always drawing ancient warriors etc. I could not even tell someone why it is I do art. It is kind of my fate or destiny. I just have to do it. I have to feed my soul!
MICHAEL: What do you think about the art world and art market and how they function?
WILLIAM: The art world is so diversified today. Thank goodness for the way I turned out artistically. Being self-taught, I learned through trial and error, lots of research, practice and discipline. To me art has been re-defined from what it was centuries ago. Art today is taught today in most institutions to put the cart before the horse - creativity over craftsmanship. Of course, there are also many academic workshops open today to teach the fine craftsmanship of the past and that's a good thing. When I was starting out as a student, they did not have many of the ateliers to learn the craft I wanted. All education is self education! I taught myself because I was able to absorb and learn fast. In my opinion, there is just too much junk art out there. Today everyone can be an artist with the aid of modern technology, but is this really deep down, true art? I think not! There is too much fast art out there being produced. We need to go back to the slow art. Just look at what they created centuries ago - such magnificent work - it all gives me the chills when I see it or think about it. But then again, it is me I'm talking about. This is what I feel. There is no right or wrong - just opinion. The art market is also changing with all this social networking and technology. You just have to adapt and overcome in the new age of art. There's a market for everything today. You just have to find it. Many good galleries are closing their doors. Artists are dealing directly with the customer. I don't know if that's a good thing or bad thing. An artist today has to play a lot of different roles - marketing, publicity, artist, accountant etc. I don't like these roles because I think it takes away from the thinking and creativity process - and let's not forget about the most important element - TIME.
MICHAEL: Given all of that, what role do you think art plays in the world? What's the point of it? Why should people care?
WILLIAM: Art plays an important role as it has since the caveman. Communication! Art helps a person by communicating something back to the viewer in a much more personal way and translating that personal communication into a feeling. Feeling the art is so important, like music and literature. And everyone is different in the world in that some people get it or feel it and some don't. And the point of it is it lets the viewer visually perceive another person’s vision and hopefully feel it. It also gives future generations a perception as to what things, people and places look like. Now I'm only speaking for myself and the style of realism in general. As far as modern art (non-objective art) goes, that would have to be explained or interpreted. People probably don't have to care - and a lot of people don't care! I'll answer this with a time tested answer. People have cared for hundreds of years - all those people would have to be asked why they care. I think it's some sort of natural instinct; they are drawn in and curious. Artists have a sort of mystery about them. I know because I've been told about it many times. People just want to try and figure us out and see what makes us tick and why we do what we do. I don't even know why I do it. It's like getting up every morning and going to bed at night - part of our human nature and instinct. And you love doing it. I think what separates artists from non-artists is that artists are born with this instinct or other dimension and follow through and develop it at some point in their life.
MICHAEL: Well, I’m certainly glad you did William. It clearly shows in your work. Thanks. This has been great.
Check out William Michael Yenkevich and his work at http://wmystudio.com.