Artist Delbert Michel, who spent 39 years as a professor of art at Hope College in Holland, took time to answer a few questions and offer his reflections and observations on the world of art. Michel moved to Northern Michigan in 2003 and opened up a working studio/gallery in downtown Traverse City. While he doesnt keep gallery hours, people do track him down in his somewhat hard-to-find studio located in the alley near Jacks Market and The House of Doggs.
Several of his works have been purchased by collectors and have found their way into private, corporate, university and art museum collections throughout the United States.
NE: When did you take an interest in art?
Delbert Michel: At a very young age I started drawing. My first hero was the illustrator Norman Rockwell. I took an interest in fine arts when I went to college. Prior to that I had little exposure to art as I grew up in a small town in Indiana -- I had not visited any galleries or art museums. At college I was drawn in by the work of a faculty member. Before I knew it, I was studying art history and various forms such as abstraction. Originally I went off to college to pursue a career as a commercial artist because I was unaware of other art professions.
NE: What inspired you to pursue a career as an art professor?
Michel: To me, teaching art is an extension of being an artist. You have to define yourself: are you a teacher/artist or artist/teacher? I think it is important to identify yourself as the latter because you are consumed by the whole idea of art and you want to share that passion. For me, teaching was also a way to make a living. Being an artist is a tough living. Sometimes I am not even sure it is good for some to try and make a living as an artist because you end up making art for someone else, instead of what inspires you. I do take on commissions, but because my work is abstract and spontaneous, there is no way I can predict what it is going to look like. The size of the work is the only specification I am
willing to accept from the purchaser.
NE: What are some of the things that inspire your work?
Michel: Everything. I tend to pick up on the culture, the landscape, the music and the atmosphere of the place I am visiting. Then I reflect on how it all connects. A lot of my current work was inspired by a trip to Peru last June. I was taken in by the culture, the music and the colorful garments and how it all flowed together.
NE: What drew you into abstract art?
Michel: There has always been a lot of built-in prejudice against abstract art work. During a short period of time in the 70s I tried realism. What I learned from that was I was more interested in the abstract aspects of those works, so I got out of realism as quickly as I got into it. As an artist, you are on a journey of constant exploration and that exploration has led me to create abstracts.
NE: Does it upset you when someone says; I like your work, but it wont go with my couch or carpet?
Michel: (chuckling) I understand where they are coming from. No, it doesnt upset me. Here is why I am just pleased they have made a visual connection to the work. I believe strongly that the creative part of art is not just from the artist but also comes from the observer. The observer has to bring in their own experiences and make a connection with the work of art, and when that happens they make a connection with the artist.
NE: What is your assessment of the art scene in Northern Michigan?
Michel: First, there are a lot of talented artists who live here but are not local artists. They like the culture and the atmosphere here but their works are world class and often they are afforded the
opportunity to exhibit all over the country. Overall, I think there is strong support for the arts here and we are fortunate to have Interlochen, Dennos Museum and numerous galleries and community art centers.
What frustrates me is I feel the visual arts here have lagged behind other art forms in the region, notably music. I think the work that is here is at times taken for granted because it is perceived as local, and that should not be the case. Also, I feel that we need to do more to promote Northern Michigan as a cultural destination. We have it all here, from the wineries to the galleries to the great restaurants.
NE: What are your observations from an art educators standpoint as to the challenges faced for students today?
Michel: The biggest pressure young artists feel is the pressure to immediately make a mark in the art world. I call it self-conscious-avant-guardism. You do something simply because you know that will distinguish you from everyone else. I believe, as an artist, the development of your mark comes in a very natural way and not forced.
To view more of Delbert Michels works check out delbertmichel.com. For additional information about The Ways of Seeing: The Abstract Art of Jennifer Gardiner Lam, Delbert Michel and Debra Lanning exhibition at Gallery Fifty visit galleryfifty.com. The artist reception will take place May 3 from 6 to 9 pm and the works will remain on exhibit through the end of July.