Michael Ward’s America is a pastel wonderland. Quiet, reflective, and honest, his paintings reflect an America often looked at but rarely seen. His interview is a meditation on the evolution of art and the idea of Americana. I suggest you take a read.
Tell us about your most recent piece, where was it? What was it?
My most recent piece is LLamame (“Call me” in Spanish). It’s of a wall-mounted payphone in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, seen in dappled sunlight. I added a wooden chair, also from Mexico, for compositional interest. I painted this at the Laguna Festival of Arts, while manning my booth. This was the last of four works I did there during the two-month run of the Festival.
How has your subject material changed since you began painting? How has your perception of your subjects changed? How do you think the public’s perception has changed?
I started painting, way back in the 1980s, by working from slides I had taken while wandering around Long Beach and Los Angeles county. I had managed to capture some striking images, and wanted to see if I could paint them. These images were part of my lived experience at the time: old (i.e. cheap) stucco apartments, palm trees, neon signs. Old things caught my eye: historic architecture, old signage, old cars. In those days you could find a Model A in daily use parked on the street, or a Wildroot Hair Cream sign stuck in the back window of a barber shop if you really looked. Was I being nostalgic? Not really, since I was born after those earlier decades. But I was raised by people who came of age in the Depression, and my cultural influences included 1930s cartoons and old movies, and my fascination with model trains led me to an interest in historic architecture, all of which influenced what I photographed in my wanderings, and thus the material available to me to paint.
I was doing this all naively at the time, of course. Only recently have I become aware of what I call the “layers of time” that are part of our existence. One age does not replace another, just adds another coat of paint, and the past pokes through in spots. This is something you realize as you get older, I think. Beneath that shiny new present is yesterday’s new present, and last Thursday’s.
How would you describe ‘Americana’? What does it mean to you? What did that word mean when the term was created in the mid 20th century and what does it mean now? As an artist, how is your perception of the romanticized vision of the West different from the vision of others?
Ah, Americana. I was driving on Beach Blvd. near Knotts Berry Farm recently and passed the “Americana Motel”, probably so named in the 1950s or 60s. What Americana meant then was probably Daniel Boone and Davy Crocket, or the quaintness of an imagined Main Street. How that would apply to a motel is
unclear. Were there crank phones in the rooms, or outhouses out back? A swimmin’ hole in lieu of a pool? Probably not, if code enforcement had anything to say about it.
I would say that Americana is maybe a better term than nostalgia for that yearning for an imaginary and imagined past that afflicts us as a society. It’s a way of papering over our faults and the faults of our forebears. It makes us feel better if we can imagine we came from a better past than we actually did. Then we can have Civil War reenactments without slavery, or Art Deco without Jim Crow. I remember seeing a survey of Dada art (at the deYoung, I think) that made no mention of WWI. That was an exercise in Americana-style historicism.
As I grow older, and learn more about the past, good and bad, my perception of America has changed. And my perception of the historical eras that make up those layers of time has changed. As a baby boomer, I grew up during the Cold War, under the shadow of the bomb. Only in the last few decades has it become apparent that the Cold War was all a big lie. The Soviets never wanted to attack us, we were the instigators of the arms race, and we were more at risk from nuclear accidents than actual bombs. It’s very disturbing when an important part of your experience, as the Cold War was, is seen to be a chimera. Especially in southern California, where the defense industry played such a central role in the creation and growth of the area. Almost everyone I went to college with had a father in the defense industry. If Americana came to be in the middle of the 20th century, that was the generation that created it, while making good money building ICBMs and U2s.
In college I read John Dos Passos’ USA trilogy and almost all of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was entertaining but ultimately insubstantial, like eating a whole can of Pringles. Dos Passos portrayed the same era, on the other hand, with a rich tapestry that placed the historical alongside the narrative, with little one-page vignettes of the shady doings of people like Henry Ford. The artistic analog to Fitzgerald would be Thomas Kincade, the analog to Dos Passos would be the murals of Diego Rivera. (Now I’ve pissed of fans of both literature and art). Obviously I preferred Dos Passos. That vision, of a clear-eyed look at how and where we live, in the present and in the past, has informed my art. It’s probably why I resist painting “pretty” scenes, beaches and sunsets and mountain streams and flowers in vases (to the detriment of my commercial potential). It’s why the cars in my paintings tend to have dents in them.
Do you think Americana will mean the same thing in a decade? In two? Renaissance paintings will always be Renaissance paintings, or one would assume such. Do you think that the term Americana will always mean the same thing? As a romanticized representation of a time period, that time period is framed with cultural context, how will a changing, and hopefully evolving, society re-contextualize ‘small town America’?
Our perceptions of the world and of ourselves are constantly changing. Renaissance paintings will always be renaissance paintings, but our perception of them is different than our parents’ perception of them. The Met bought a forged Vermeer in the 1920s that is laughable in its crudeness, which shows how art experts’ perceptions have changed over the years. So who knows what Americana will mean in a generation or two.
One thing that has definitely changed is that America is no longer the uncontested leader of the Free World. Our empire is in decline, and we are following the path England travelled after the collapse of it’s empire. They went from Gunga Din to Alfred Prufrock in a generation. And they’ve struggled to make peace with their diminished status ever since. America will go through the same process, in literature, in art, in life. It will probably be a painful transition.
Small town America: I grew up in small towns, and in suburbs of big ones, which is much the same. Long Beach, where I spent my teens and twenties, though 300,000 people, had a small-town soul: it was known as “Iowa by the sea” for all the small-town emigrants who settled there (my father included). Maybe these emigrants gave rise to Americana. They were fleeing something harsh and unpleasant, or they wouldn’t have left, but they still longed for what was left behind. Walt Disney was one of these, and we can lay much of the blame at his feet. My generation, the baby boomers, and subsequent generations reversed that movement, repudiating small towns (and Americana) for the big city and a more enlightened (or jaundiced) view of past history. All while harboring that same nostalgia for where they came from that our parents’ did. (The best book on suburbia, by the way, is Holy Land by my friend and traveling companion D. J. Waldie.)
Being in the Laguna Beach Festival of Arts has been an enlightening experience, because I’ve encounted a vast array of people with a vast array of opinions about my work. A lot see it as nostalgic, or “Americana”, which I would have protested in the past. But I’ve come to see what they see—certain resonances that speak to them based on their life experience. I paint a lot of houses, and they’re always “just like” the one they grew up in, or their parents did, or their grandparents. And the buildings I paint, people have always seen them, though they’re never sure quite where (or if they are, they’re usually wrong). I put a little map in my booth this year, to show where the images for the paintings were located—that got almost as much attention as the paintings themselves.
My painting “Lee’s Market” could be considered an exercise in nostalgia. It shows a 1920s-era zig-zag modern building in East Los Angeles, a rare architectural form from LA’s boom years. All well before my time, of course, though I grew up among similar buildings in Long Beach. I could have cleaned it up to be a more romanticized view (in fact I did add back some of the lost ornamentation), but I left it pretty much as it is today, with paint peeling and cheap replacement windows. So the romantic jazz age past is there, but the present as well, with reference to EBT and Korean real estate agents. And the future, if you count the little kid walking by. All those layers of time are there. It got a lot of response from Festival-goers, those who had seen it and those who thought they had. It’s not clean enough for Americana, but nostalgic, probably. I like to think of it as a documentary, slightly edited, of something overlooked.
I used to look down on nostalgia as a false emotion, a longing for a mis-remembered or imagined past. But as I see the resonances my images evoke in people, I’ve come to have more respect for nostalgia. It’s not just us fooling ourselves into believing the past is better than it actually was. It’s paying tribute to our lived experience, good and bad. We went through it, we remember some of it, and it is still with us, and will be until we die.
As Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”