Featured Artist | Mike Sleadd

La Fête Nationale 7/14/16

Mike Sleadd returns to Sager Braudis this winter with new works in ink on paper. In this week’s featured artist interview, Gallery Director Hannah Reeves asks Sleadd about his well-established, distinct drawing style, and a bit about what’s behind it. 

Reeves: In what ways are your medium and method connected to your subject matter? 

Sleadd: I began drawing in ink when I worked as a designer in the mid-1970s. We used Koh-I-Noor Rapidograph pens that you had to coerce into working each morning, and about once a week you had to take them apart very carefully and stick them in the ultrasonic pen cleaner. I didn’t even have my own pen until my wife bought me a pen for Christmas one year. They weren’t very expensive, but we were pretty poor at the time. I continued to draw with that style pen until Frank Stack told me in the late 1980’s that I should switch to a “dip pen” in order to get a line with more personality. He was right. I currently use a variety of dip pens. Well… all of this is a bit dry I guess. After a while I thought that the line I was getting with the dip pen (usually a C6 Speedball pen) didn’t have enough expression either, so I tried other ways of making lines…sticks, bamboo pens, etc. I was drawing one night in my studio apartment on University Avenue. There was a feather on my drawing table that I had found on the MKT Trail earlier that day. I picked it up and stuck the plume in my bottle of Higgins Eternal India Ink (at the time it was a good drawing ink with a rich black… now it sucks) and drew the trail as I remembered it. The line drawn with the plume of the feather was expressive and somewhat “out of control.” I liked that… I liked it a lot. The bold expressive line is symbolic of most of life. We try to control our lives, but it all has a way of being somewhat out of our control. It is that blend of control and serendipity that give life character. Although I have loved the expressive feather line, I have felt the need/desire/compulsion to add hours and hours of minutia to my drawings. Generally the subject matter is very simple—a person or two, a bird, a fish, a few trees, etc. The details are there, but they are non-objective—supporting cast of characters. Here at my desk I am surrounded by objects—sticky notes, phone, stapler, pens, pencils, books, papers, beautiful ceramic cup, plastic bottle, pictures of my sons, drawing by a friend, US stamps by Leonard Baskin (I love his work!), a small drawing that I had planned on including in the current exhibit at Sager Braudis, but forgot, a book of photos of my father in WWII, files of student records, a beer and wine hydrometer…etc. There is one show in this exhibit that only has the feather lines, “Waiting much longer than he had expected.” This is the first time I have exhibited a drawing that was done this way…no details…only the “framework.” One more thing: I love ink! I love drawing with ink and knowing that if I put something down on paper I’ve got to live with it. It is part of the drawing. I can’t paint over it or erase it. I can try to make it into something else, like you would with a tattoo of a whisky bottle you got in high school and you turn into a penguin… because you like penguins. But every mark is a moment in my life. If a mark is wrong I’ve got to live with it and keep on drawing… make it work. 

Reeves: You often write prosaic titles, but I know that you don’t like traditional artist’s statements. What is the relationship between your words and your drawings? 

Sleadd: Good question that is difficult to answer. Several years ago one of my students, Greg Hardwick, came by my office/studio while I was trying to come up with titles for some drawings. I was giving them simple titles, but Greg said I should never overlook the power of a creative title. He was correct of course. A title can give someone another cognitive experience—make one think of associations he/she might not have had otherwise. Some of my titles are just whimsical, and others may describe an event, a state of mind, etc. Writing in a drawing also keeps the viewer attached to the piece just a little longer. On average a viewer only stays with a drawing less than one minute. 

I don’t like traditional artist statements either. They don’t tell me anything. They don’t help me enjoy the art on any level other than “this must be art and must be good, because this person uses all the right words.” There is a site on the internet that will randomly create an artist statement. Here’s one: 

“My work explores the relationship between multiculturalism and humanity. 
With influences as diverse as Camus and John Lennon, new variations are generated from both opaque and transparent structures. 
Ever since I was a student I have been fascinated by the essential unreality of meaning. What starts out as triumph soon becomes corrupted into a tragedy of temptation, leaving only a sense of failing and the dawn of a new order. 
As subtle phenomena become distorted through diligent and repetitive practice, the viewer is left with an insight into the inaccuracies of our existence.” 

Reeves: Is there a theme that binds this latest series together? 

Sleadd: There are various themes as with all of my exhibition works. One theme for a few of these drawings, unfortunately, deals with terrorist attacks and the election. I didn’t come right out and say that in the titles, but it isn’t hard to find if you look. 

Reeves: What is your “studio quirk”? 

Sleadd: My music while I work is usually blues or Tom Waits… sometimes 60’s rock. When things are going great and the drawing is looking good I’ll start dancing. (I pull the curtains first.) I won’t use a piece of paper that has a flaw… any flaw…smudge, wrinkle…anything. I want all marks on a piece to be done by me in the course of creating the piece. I can’t work with anyone around either.