On the Outside Looking In
A few years ago, California artist Michael Ward turned to northern Michigan for inspiration.
By Patrick Sullivan | March 23, 2019
Michael Ward’s relatives, at least, have deep roots in the Up North art scene.
Ward’s brother-in-law is Rick Daigh, an artist whose work was selected for the 2019 Northwest Michigan Regional Juried Exhibition at the Dennos Museum Center. Daigh’s son, Eric Daigh, who is Ward’s nephew, is a prominent nationally known artist who, notably, won third place at Grand Rapids’ 2009 ArtPrize. Rick Daigh’s wife, Barbara Vander Wall, is also an artist. She’s Ward’s sister-in-law on his wife’s side. Ward’s wife has another sister, Sally Vander Wall. Her husband, Alan Wrenn, is another artist whose work is shown at galleries in northern Michigan.
Ward, though, is an outsider. He’s a self-taught artist. He’s a Californian who was born in Montana. Though his family connections bring him to Traverse City and a family cabin near Grayling every year, he only recently decided to use northern Michigan subject matter in the creation of his own art, photo-realistic landscapes.
In a series of paintings of modest houses and weathered barns, Ward captures a vivid, vibrant glimpse of Up North scenes from the eyes of long-time visitor who has nonetheless remained an outsider. Northern Expresshappened upon Ward’s images online last year and, curious what brought a California artist to dedicate some of his canvases to northern Michigan, we tracked him down to ask why he loves painting houses, what inspires him in northern Michigan, and how he captures images that are at once realistic and otherworldly.
Northern Express: First off, I see you are a well-established California painter. But among your work, images of Traverse City keep popping up. What’s your connection to Northern Michigan?
Michael Ward: My wife grew up there. She has lots of family still in the Traverse City area, so we’ve been going there, usually in the summer, forever, probably since the late ’80s.
Express: I’ve looked over the 19 paintings you’ve made of scenes from around Traverse City. The one that everyone will recognize as Traverse City right off the bat is of the Dairy Lodge on Division. What’s that one called, and what does that one mean to you?
Ward: That’s just called Dairy Lodge. My mother-in-law lives just up the street on Randolph, so we drove by there all the time. When we come in the summer, we’ll walk down there usually to get something, take our grandnieces down there, and get them ice cream. And I just love that sign that’s on it — it’s very iconic. Actually, the photo I took for that, we visited once in May, my wife’s mother’s birthday is in May — I think it was her 80thbirthday or something. It’s early May, so it’s not quite summer yet. And I’m taking the picture, and there’s a guy crossing the street with his kid, and he’s sort of looking back to see, oh, is it open yet? It’s kind of anticipating summer coming on, which I thought was neat.
Express: When you visit a place like Traverse City, do you set out looking for subject matter? How do you go about finding images to make paintings?
Ward: In the past, I’ve just walked around town, and I take a lot of pictures, not necessarily with an idea of making up a painting from them, but just building up an archive of stuff. I like old houses and old signs and stuff like that. It’s just whatever catches my eye as I’m walking through town.
Express: You seem to be drawn to places that have been weathered by time.
Ward: Yeah. They are always more interesting to me than newer stuff. I guess I can relate to it. I grew up in a town very similar to Traverse City. It was smaller, but the layout is very similar. So, there is a lot of stuff that I see that reminds me of my childhood when I walk around town.
Express: What about the northern Michigan scenes out in the country? Where did you go to get those images and why did you choose those?
Ward: A lot of those are on [M-] 72. When we come to visit, we’ll drive around and see the sights. I like barns because you don’t see a lot of barns out here in California that are like the quintessential barn that you see in Michigan. So, I just started taking pictures of those, and they lend themselves to painting. Also, we have a summer house outside of Grayling on the Manistee, so we drive out there when we visit. A lot of those barns are on the way to the cabin.
Express: What time frame do the Traverse City photos and the paintings span?
Ward: Probably around 2010 or so I did my first Michigan paintings. I just wanted to see if I could do something. You know, there’s a lot of art up there, and we always go to art galleries and look at the local art. I decided to see if I could do that, so that got me started. The barns are the most iconic thing that people like. I think when I started, my first paintings were the barn paintings.
Express: And then you moved on to houses. And I’ve noticed that houses are sort of a theme of yours.
Ward: Yeah. I’ve been doing a whole series. It’s about just ordinary houses, like the one that I grew up in. Just simple places. They are not elaborate, you know. They’re not mini-mansions. They’re just where ordinary people live. Like I say — houses like the one I grew up in. And I just expanded from that series to include Traverse City houses. There’s a lot of great little houses in Traverse City. But I’ve done houses all over the country, and even one down in Mexico, that fit into the series. They have a lot of resonance with people, you know. People see these and they, if they’re my age, they may have grown up in a house like that, and if they’re younger, their parents grew up or their grandparents grew up in a house like that. It really resonates with people. It brings back a lot of memories of growing up and family and all of that.
Express: Yeah, it’s hard to sort of put your finger on what’s so appealing about them, because they’re ordinary houses in a familiar neighborhood, but the way they appear in your paintings, there’s almost something magical about them. Do you have any way to account for that?
Ward: That’s a good question, and I don’t know if I have an answer for that. You know, you see a lot of houses, and some of them resonate and some of them don’t — I don’t know really what it is. It’s probably the size and the simplicity of some of the houses.
Express: Do you think your paintings of a place like Traverse City would be different if you lived here? I mean, do you paint from a tourist’s perspective?
Ward: It’s possible. I think I’ve been there enough times, you know, I’m not a native, but I can sort of see it through the eyes of the people that did grow up there, that do live there, rather than someone that’s just coming to see the sights. I would never call myself a native, but I sort of can relate to it more than someone who’s there for a week to see the Cherry Festival, you know?
Express: I understand you never went to art school. How did you go about teaching yourself to paint in a photorealistic manner?
Ward: No. I am self-taught. I just started doing it. I’ve taken no formal art classes, but I did a lot of pen-and-ink drawing before I started painting. And in the early ’80s I had some images that I thought would make nice paintings, so I just tried doing it, and they came out pretty decent, so I just kept going from there.
Express: Did it take you a long time to learn how to do it?
Ward: Yeah. I mean, you learn by doing. You do something, and if it doesn’t work, you try a different way. I am constantly learning. I’m still learning new ways of doing things. You never really stop.
Express: Have you ever, or do you plan to have a show in northern Michigan?
Ward: I haven’t really pursued that because I’m only there a couple weeks out of the year. I would love to, but I really haven’t pursued that.
To check out more of M. Ward’s paintings, from northern Michigan and beyond, check out