Sunday, July 22, 2007

Art Space Talk: Michael Sherwin

Originally from Southwestern Ohio, Michael Sherwin received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography from The Ohio State University in 1999, and in June of 2004 he received his MFA in Photography from the University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon. Michael has worked as a Visiting Professor of Photography and Digital Imaging at Central Washington University and is now an Assistant Professor of Art, Digital Photography at West Virginia University.

Time, and an awareness of the change it brings, is at the core of Michael's artwork. Incorporating both the still and moving image he attempts to tap into the perpetual systems of the world, from the surface of the sea to the very ground beneath his feet, in order to explore the mystery behind their elusive nature. Michael searches for an underlying structure hidden in the seemingly random patterns, a window onto the intersecting space where objective and subjective perception meets.

Brian Sherwin: Michael, I understand that you earned an MFA in Photography from the University of Oregon in 2004. Who were your mentors at that time? Can you tell our readers about the photography program at the University of Oregon?

Michael Sherwin: I had the fortunate opportunity to study with Dan Powell at the University of Oregon, who became a great mentor and friend. Dan has been the anchor of the UO photo program for many years, inspiring students of all levels with his incredible intellect, genuine kindness, and approachable attitude. His positive style of teaching is perhaps the single biggest influence in my career. His work is also amazing!

He rarely uses a single image, rather combining them in diptychs, triptychs, etc., to suggest a sort of language between seemingly disparate things that was otherwise unseen or unspoken. His fascination with contemporary philosophy and semiotics, along with an informed knowledge of current and historical photography blend beautifully in his art and teaching.

I also had the chance to share a studio with Peter HappelChristian, who was a second year grad in the photo program when I started. Peter and I became good friends, sharing similar ideas, motivations, struggles and lots of coffee. I was inspired by his unconventional approach to the medium and the rigor of his ideas. We continue to stay in contact, still sharing the same topics and discussing the possibility of a collaborative project sometime in the future.

The photography program at the University of Oregon is still very traditional in output (silver gelatin, C-prints, etc.), but where it lacks in digital curriculum; it excels in concept building, reading, feedback and resources for research. There are excellent facilities in place for digital output and students have the option to take these courses, but faculty who are part of the monstrous Multimedia program teaches them.

BS: You are currently employed as a Visiting Professor of Photography and Digital Imaging at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, WA. How do you find balance between being an instructor and working on your art? Does teaching help to keep you on your toes, so to speak?

MS: Actually, I just recently took a position as an Assistant Professor of Art, Digital Photography at West Virginia University in Morgantown, West Virginia. We spent eight great years in the Northwest, but we grew weary of being so far from our families back east, especially with our 9 month-old baby girl.

Establishing the balance between work and art has been one of the biggest challenges of my career as a professor. The Professor/Artist career is much more difficult than I had imagined it would be in graduate school. I think it is particularly difficult for young professors, who like myself, are overwhelmed at first with the long list of responsibilities that come along with being a professor.

In addition to your teaching responsibilities you are expected to be active on department, college and university committees, and contribute to the community in some way. Your creative component really becomes one third of your job description. Of course, this depends somewhat on what school you’re teaching at.

Some schools will put more emphasis on teaching, while others stress the research aspect and therefore limit your teaching load. After the first year, I was able to settle down a bit and make some work over summer break, and the following year of teaching went a little smoother.

Either way, I do find that teaching keeps me on my toes. I spent a year out of graduate school as a Gallery Manager for a little photo gallery in Jackson, Wyoming. Ultimately, it was a great experience, especially from the business perspective of the medium, but it was also suffocating creatively. I was basically working 9-5, five days a week, and then teaching part-time at the Center for the Arts in Jackson Hole in the evenings. So, I didn’t really have the energy or motivation to do any work in my limited free time.

As a professor, I was able to apply my education in more positive ways. I was surrounded by other colleagues who were actively exhibiting and creating, and a handful of graduate students, a lot of whom were my age or older. I think it’s the common bond we share as artists that encourages us to keep challenging our work and ourselves. Also, being in that environment requires you to create work and exhibit.

Sometimes, I find I need this little push to get me going again. Of course, the students also keep you on your toes. The best students are the demanding ones. Although challenging at times, they press you to be one step ahead of them.

A good professor will be versed in the many forms of the medium as well as the current and historical trends associated. I am always reading, looking, and researching other artists’ work, or new methods/applications of the medium.

BS: You say the following in your statement: "We live in a world of continual flux, where everything is in a state of becoming. Even the most seemingly solid objects are made up of countless microscopic particles in a constant state of motion, including our very own bodies. We are nothing more than a cloud caught in the breeze, appearing randomly on the scene, shifting, changing, then eventually returning to the source from which we came. Our physical existence hinges upon this inextinguishable forward motion of time. Photography interrupts this continuum, presenting us with a fragmented form of reality. It allows us to pin down the changes in order to see what we could otherwise not see, to document and record the fleeting in an attempt to reveal the patterns of a transitory world." Can you go into further detail about your artistic philosophy?

MS: I don’t know that I really have any sort of artistic philosophy or agenda I adhere to with my work. It may sound strange, but I try to let the ideas and the work come to me, being as patient as possible. I have a lot of different ideas and I do some journaling to keep a record of thoughts as they pass through my mind or an interesting quote. The ones that stick around for a while usually evolve into something tangible. Occasionally, I’ll sift through a stack of my old journals and find a couple of sentences, or an idea that will spark a new direction.

In some ways, my work has always had something to do with the tenuous relationship between humans and the natural world. Lately, this interest has taken me to examine scientific surveillance systems. I find myself interested in the space between science and art. The two disciplines share similarities in their quest for answers to the unknown. It is the great mystery of life and our futile urge to understand our place in it that fuels the work.

BS: In your statement you go on to say: "In its totality, my work establishes a dialogue between sameness and difference; the variety of natural form within the uniformity of each species; and between the stability of the object or picture and the mobility of the viewer. I am interested in observing and documenting change within the continual evolution of time, drawing from the reservoir of processes and marks, the signs of the everyday and the ordinary, which constitute the lived world.". Is it safe to say that you want your viewers to question their own perceptions of nature and of their place within the context of the world?

MS: Absolutely. I want the viewers to ponder their connections to the natural world and I want them to think about the relationship between the finite and the infinite. I want them to be inspired, challenged, and most importantly, more aware of their surroundings.

BS: With your piece World Wide Web, you revealed how photographs have become a universal form of language online. The Internet is a global communication device, where photographs have become a universal form of language. You virtually circumnavigated the world in a little over a week, appropriating various web cam images as you went. Can you go into further detail about this project? What were your goals or motives going into the piece? Is the Internet a constant source of inspiration for you?

MS: I was asked to exhibit at a local gallery in Washington with only a few months to prepare. Our baby was very young at the time and I found the only studio time I had was after 10pm. I had recently bought a new computer along with wireless Internet and I was doing a lot of research online. Somehow I stumbled upon this site called and began clicking around. I found this map dotted with thousands of web cams from all over the world. You could click on a dot and it would take you to the site that hosted the web cam. So, I took one region at a time (Europe, Soviet Union, Africa, South America, North America, Antarctica, etc.) and clicked on every single dot on the map.

Many of the links were broken, and some of the cameras were no longer in use. It was also difficult figuring out the right time of day to "travel", so that you weren’t always visiting at night. But, as I got into this site, I became fascinated with this idea of an armchair adventure. I could sit in my quiet house in Ellensburg, Washington, and simultaneously watch a stranger pass through a plaza in an obscure foreign country.

I was also astounded by the abundance of really odd web cams out there. Many were recording nothing representational at all, yet were automatically submitting image after abstract image online. I love this indiscriminate process that web cams provide. These cameras are meant for purely objective means, but when the image loses its identification or signification, meaning becomes fluid as we ponder the source of the image and it’s subject.

As I navigated my way around the world, I appropriated images from a variety of different web cam sources making note of their geographical location. A selection of these images were placed on the gallery wall that had been laid out with a grid referencing longitude/latitude coordinates. What I didn’t expect, was that continents began to form from the groupings of images as I placed them in the relative geographical location they were taken.

For the most part, however, the images chosen don’t directly reference their source. There are certain signifying images, such as a misty view of the Statue of Liberty, which places you in a certain location, but it is the tension between the representational and the abstract that keeps the viewer guessing. I like this mystery in the piece. I don’t want to give the viewer everything. I want them to be more of a participant in the work, and for the work to be open to various interpretations.

This is really the first time I have used the Internet as a resource for making art and I found it liberating. I feel like I just scraped the surface of potential projects based on the amount of imagery available online. I am actively thinking of more ideas and trying to find time to surf the new frontier for inspiration.

BS: Michael, are you working on any projects at this time? Care to give our readers details about your next project?

MS: My biggest project at the moment is revitalizing a dilapidated photography program here at West Virginia University. We moved here just one week ago, so I am still trying to find a space to empty all my studio boxes and supplies. I have ideas for new projects, but they are still very unresolved in my mind. I’m the type of person that needs to have everything organized and taken care of before I can really begin to work creatively. I need the headspace and the time to contemplate my ideas.

Lately, I have been thinking about this really old wood cabinet I found in the basement of our new house. It has probably been there since the house was built in the 1940’s. What I love about it, is its 50-100 little drawers, all the same size and shape, and lined up in a long narrow grid. The cabinet looks like something you would store a great collection in and the drawers are like little specimen boxes. I’m not sure whether anything will come of it, but I’ve been thinking about using this piece of furniture to form a collection of photographs and sounds from the past eight years in the Northwest.

The viewer would doubtfully open all the drawers, so they would be left with a loose narrative formed from the pattern of chosen drawers and imagery within. This is definitely a departure from my earlier work in that there is much more of a personal history involved, and I’m not sure if I’m comfortable with that or not. I guess we’ll just wait and see what happens next…

BS: There are still people today who do not view photography as a form of art. The same people question the validity of digital art as a form of artistic expression. I find it hard to believe that in 2007 there are still people who question photography in this manner. What would you say to people who do not accept it? Or do you feel that it is best for them to discover the value of photography on their own?

MS: The majority of people are very resistant to change. I think most of the people who still question photography or digital art as an artistic medium stopped learning/questioning somewhere in the mid 1900’s. There is no way to define what "art" is and what it is not, and anyone who thinks they can, is very narrow-minded. Like beauty, it is in the eye of the beholder. More importantly these days, it is not about whether you pick up a paintbrush or a mouse, but rather what are your ideas, and what’s the best way to express them.

What I love about the medium of photography is that it cannot be defined by one specific discipline. Depending on its context, photography can be artistic, journalistic, ethnographic, scientific, etc. In a lot of my work, I am directly challenging these boundaries. I think this is troublesome, especially for a conservative audience, who are trained to believe that art consists of paint on canvas, or sculpted stone. I don’t think I would want to try and change anyone’s opinion about the medium, but as you say, "it is best for them to discover the value of photography on their own".

BS: Finally, where do you see your work going in the next decade? Do you think on the long term as far as your work is concerned?

MS: My work seems to be following a trend towards more technology based projects, and I can see the possibility of advocacy related concepts. I am truly concerned about the current state of our environment and the general human disconnect from the natural world. I have never been one to preach or create work that is overtly social or political in theme. However, I have been hovering around statements in my work that to some extent address current issues I have with the environment. Ultimately though, I try not to think too far ahead. I prefer to take it as it comes.

I hope that you have enjoyed learning about Michael Sherwin and his art. You can learn more about Michael by visiting his site:

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin

No comments: