Interview with Michael Somers
Photos © Avram Golden Photography, 2009, and Mark Piotrowski

Mark Piotrowski lives in Bay City, with his wife Jennifer and daughter Raven. He has taught for the Bay City Public Schools for over ten years, as well as teaching art classes at Studio 23 in Bay City and Delta College. Piotrowski earned his Bachelor Degree in Art Education at Eastern Michigan University and his Master Degree in Fine Arts at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. He creates his original artwork, which has been on display in local, university, and out-of-state galleries and businesses, in his home studio. 

Michael Somers: How did you first know you saw the world in an artistic way? 

Mark Piotrowski: I can't remember any one specific event that triggered the realization that I was seeing the world in an artistic way. I think that it was more of a gradual evolution. My parents have told me that I was able to sit for hours playing with blocks, building, or coloring and drawing. I was always doing some kind of project that involved an artistic technique or craft. There was latch hooks, weaving, wood burning, calligraphy … I was always doing something. For a while, I think in middle school, I set up thousands of dominoes all evening so I could watch them tumble for 20 seconds. 

I recall one Christmas when everyone in the family got these stocking hats that I made on a loom that my grandpa had made. You had to do 120 rows or something like that and then make a puffball for the top.

In looking back I feel that there was always an opportunity to do something that was arty or crafty … but I can't identify one defining moment where I said A HA! I just have always enjoyed making stuff.

MS: Are there other artists in your family?  Here I don’t just mean visual, but certainly, if that's the case, I'd be interested in knowing about that.

MP: I mentioned my grandpa. He was a wood worker. He made my sister a dollhouse and all the grandkids desks. My grandma crocheted. Sports were my dad's art while he growing up, and my mom is always showing an artistic empathy with people and now she is an amazing knitter. When I was younger, she would sew a lot.

I really believe that while there is the classic definition of an artist who makes music/sings, something visual, an actor/actress, but there is an art in each of us in how we live our lives. Some are still looking, while others have latched on.  

My wife is extremely artistic in the gardens she has all around our house and how she decorates, as well as how she thinks of everybody else. She does magic with flowers! And watching our daughter grow and develop her own personality, she most definitely has an artistic flair! She, too, can sit and draw and build for hours, but she also has a certain way of setting her environment. Everything has to be just so.

MS: How supportive was your family of your artistic endeavors?  I get the impression they were. 

MP: They have always and continue to be a huge support system. I am very fortunate in that aspect.

MS: Who were influential teachers in your life related to art?  Here I don't just mean classroom teachers, but I also mean artists you admire or have tried to emulate.

MP: This is another area that I have been extremely blessed. All through my education I have had excellent teachers who allowed me to explore areas of art that I was interested in. Along with the freedom to experiment, they also exposed me to what they were into and their specialty. I can remember being in kindergarten and pressing down to get a shiny surface … very similar to the surface I am interested in attaining now!

I remember bringing in a large drawing for my middle school art teacher to look at. I drew MAD magazines spreads. The more characters the better. That is where I really learned how to draw, by emulating the MAD masters! So I brought in this drawing and she put it in a drawer and the next day it was gone. Either the drawer really liked the drawing or someone went through a lot of effort to take it.

There were opportunities to be involved in an after-school art group in high school, although I wasn't able to take advantage of it until college because of sports. My first year at Delta, I was asked to be the "visiting artist" in the open studio at Bay City Central.  The program was called A. I. S., for Artists in the Schools.  Very cool! Due to budget limitations it is no longer in effect and hasn't been for over a decade.

When I was a freshman, I recall starting this drawing of geometric forms in a really tight pointillism style. When I brought it in to show my teacher, Mrs. Serreseque, I had told her that I wasn't sure why I wanted to do it, I just did. She told me, "If you don't do it, who will?" That is a thought that I have keep throughout my artistic development.

As few artists that I really look at … Robert Longo, Chuck Close, Todd Schor, Ron English, Sheppard Fairy, Mark Ryden, Cy Twombley, Yayoi Kusama, Larry Butcher, Armin Mersmann, Aribert Munzner, Takashi Murakami, Jeff Koons, Wolfgang Laib, Geoff Mitchell, Dallek, Niagra, Lori Early, Gerhard Richter, Bev Fishman, Ryan McGinness, Matthew Ritchie … I know that there are hundreds more.  The list is endless. 

MS: You're also a teacher of art.  How does your teaching practice reflect your artistic practice?  What is that you most want students to learn about art from your perspective?

MP: I believe that there is reciprocity between the studio and the classroom. Sure, there are days when I would much rather be in the shop working in seclusion, while other days the interaction with the students is as valuable as the work time.

The main thought that I would like my students to grasp is that they value their creativity. Having worked at every grade level from Young 5's through college, there is an unfortunate tendency that the older a child gets, the more ART becomes this thing that is separate from everything else. You really do not see this in young children. Creative thought is ingrained and natural. They are all over it. Absolutely no hesitation. More colors? No problem. Draw this, draw that, no problem. Their creativity is an integral part of their inherent nature. Somewhere along the path, there is the idea that,"I can’t draw. I can’t do this." I try to that challenge that notion, as well as, combine the techniques and concepts of art. I feel that the thought process is just as important as the physical manipulation of materials. I want my students to learn that ideas take a little time to germinate. One idea leads to another and another. Dominoes. They wouldn't write a theme paper without rough drafts and revisions. The same thought process is found in my art room. So many just take the first thought as the end all be all and do not allow themselves the opportunity to expand on their original ideas. The action of thinking and creating ART iare intertwined. The techniques and concepts will come as they are doing rather than lecture and preach. Learn by doing.

MS: In looking at your work as a whole, I see the frequent use of circles, waves, fluid lines.  What is it that draws you toward those kinds of lines?  What do they symbolize to you?

MP: I feel that these systems I am working with are in a continual state of growth and I have just snatched a momentary snapshot of where they are at that instant in time. They symbolize an interconnectedness of our lives and how nothing is isolated. How we are in one part of our day effects how we are in another part. We may have the ability to compartmentalize but we are the whole of our experiences. Not just pieces and parts, but how those small pieces and parts make up a greater, grander whole. 

MS:  One other thing I've noticed in your work is that you use different media.  How do you know which medium to use for a particular piece?

MP: I have been focusing on oil-based enamel paint for the past few years. I have always leaned towards oil-based paint, but the enamels have much different consistency and physical tendencies than oil paint that come from a tube. So I have switched from a canvas-on-stretcher support to an all-panel. Enamel responds better to a rigid painting ground. The vases I have done are another extension and application of the larger two-dimensional painting. As I have stated, ART is a journey and I try to be open to the what-if. "What would happen if I used this instead of this… and so on." When I get a system that is really working for me, I try to stick with it and let it grow to see where it takes me.

When I got out of graduate school I would have been absolutely shocked if you had told me that I would be creating meticulous, very controlled and tight paintings and that I was really into it.

MS:  What would that grad-school self have said you'd be creating?

MP: My thesis exhibition consisted of large abstract paintings where everything was reactionary. I would begin a piece by asking what color today, lay it down, react to it, and go on from there. However, in looking back, it was in this body of work that the seeds were sown for my current work. Many of the pieces in the thesis show had an abstract background but I would tie everything together by incorporating a web-like device that made it appear that you were looking through a cellular structure.

I would have thought that I would be making similar pieces but, of course, in retrospect, I am, just a new and improved variety. Whittled away the extraneous content and now am focusing on the structure. 

MS: What sets your most recent body of work apart from your previous bodies of work?  What territory are you charting with it that you haven't before?  Or, to use your own language, what kinds of shifts in your individual situation are represented here?

MP: I had an exhibition at Studio 23 in 2005 that was a combination of large canvases that I had based on collages made from the pages of fashion mags. I was looking at the patterns and taking pieces from here and there to create a small image that I transferred to 4-by-6 foot canvasses. The canvases were paired with painted vases that my wife filled with flowers, and numerous smaller, pattern and collage based paintings. When that show was finished I felt a little disconnected to the imagery, and I was thinking about simplifying everything. It figures that by "simplifying" I have gotten much more complicated.

I always keep a sketchbook and those books become my catchalls of meeting notes, drawings, family matters, and small doodles. I took a closer look at the doodles that were happening in the margins and began focusing on those. I began playing with the drawings on the computer. Scanning the drawings in while not altering their overall dimensions, I would multiply them and look for the natural connections. Each "doodle" became just a small microcosm of a much larger system. The cutout shapes literally came right off the canvas. I was really into theses complicated designs that were floating amid linear elements. So I started focusing on the shapes themselves. They are now getting bigger while getting smaller at the same time.

I am finishing up a new large piece for an exhibition at the Anton Art Center in April and planning other big cutout pieces for a large show in Ann Arbor in 2011.

MS: In talking to artists in the past, I've discovered some have a consistent, almost ritualized process when they create, and others have an anything-goes approach.  Which camp do you fall into?  If you have a consistent process, what is it?

MP: The approach I am working with now is very methodical and process oriented. From the moment I start on a piece I have a vague notion of what the finished outcome will be. There is room for serendipitous moments when a line here or there creates an inner system that I am able to expand upon but the basic outline is present throughout. At this point in my life, I like knowing that I need this color, right here, and this color, right there. Having a basic understanding gives a framework to the piece while still allowing room for exploration. It also saves time. I am not going down to my shop asking what I am going to do with this time. I know exactly what needs to be accomplished. On the other hand, I have an on-going series, "Beneath the Surface," where I allow myself the opportunity to let the forms and imagery the freedom to grow in a loose framework. In the studio itself, everything has a place. 

MS: How has being a father changed you as an artist?

MP:  It has given me extreme focus. I was talking about the process in the previous question. I have evolved from hanging out in the shop and thinking what does this painting need and spending more time in my head than on the canvas. Now, I like knowing that even if I only have time to work on a 5-by-5 inch section, I pretty much know what I need to do. I feel that a lot of the thinking takes part in the huge amount of preliminary work that is done on each piece before I even pick up a brush.

MS:  Final question: Which piece of art takes your breath away? 

MP: This is an insanely hard question!! Every time I open up Juxtapoz magazine, I am blown away by the sheer amount of talent and ingenuity that is now getting its much-deserved props. There is so much wildly good ART going on the world today!

However, I specifically recall going to Chicago with my family when I was in my second year at Eastern Michigan University. I spent a day walking around to galleries and to the Art Institute. William de Kooning’s "Excavation" made a major impression on me. It has a tan ground with an almost cave like drawing element to it. It has both a system and a freedom within that system to wander.

© Michael Somers, 2010