Every year, the Visual Arts building at The OC Fair showcases work from local artists and photographers. Honestly, the past couple years I wasn’t impressed with what I was seeing — tacky collages, poorly executed paintings, too much Laguna-style plein-air work.
Then I came across Mi Salon by Michael Ward, which won “Best in Show.” Of course I am a bit biased because I live in Santa Ana and I love seeing the reality of it’s Downtown area depicted in artwork. However, it wasn’t just the fact that it was a painting of DTSA that excited me. It’s depiction of a Downtown Santa Ana beauty parlor had an amazing contemporary realist style, but it also made me feel as if I had been there before or seen it in a dream. It evoked a feeling of nostalgia and I knew then that I had to interview the artist. Once I interviewed Michael, I realized that the nostalgia I felt, was not exacted what he intended when creating these pieces. Read on to learn more about Michael and his craft.
Art in the OC: My favorite painting of yours is “Mi Salon.” It reminds me of all the shops where I live in Santa Ana. What inspired you to paint this piece?
Michael Ward: Mi Salon is based on a photo taken in downtown Santa Ana on one of my gallery-hopping excursions. I love the business of the image, with it’s multiple layers of stuff–actual, temporal and cultural. The figure of the girl was added from another shot. She was headed down the same street, so eventually would have passed the shop. And the guy inside would have checked her out, as he was checking me out when I took the shot. This was the second of three Santa Ana beauty shops I have painted. There is something about the aspirational nature of these enterprises that attracts me. The themes of transformation and re-invention are joined with cultural ideals (of both anglo and hispanic cultures), as a true expression of the American dream. They make that dream attainable, at least temporarily.
Art in the OC: Your work mainly depicts architecture and store fronts with a 1960s or 1970s feel. To me, these paintings evoke a feeling of nostalgia for “simpler times.” What was your intention when painting these images? What story did you want to tell your audience?
I am not particularly interested in nostalgia. For me, nostalgia is a longing for an imagined, and usually imaginary, past. “Simpler times” is usually an illusion. No time is simpler than any other; all times are complex and trying in their own ways. All my work is based on photographs I have taken, some of which are now 30+ years old. So those older images may appear nostalgic to some, but that was never the intent, even though I may just now be getting around to painting them. One thing that interests me is the layering of different times, that is usually most evident in my urban scenes. By that I mean the evidence and artifacts of earlier times is all around us, and incorporated into our present. You can see this in the Mi Salon painting. The structures date from the Teens and Twenties (of the last century), and have provided a canvas for subsequent eras. The “Fantasy Beauty Salon” sign probably dates form the ’60s or 70’s. It persists as a shard of one of many eras this scene has endured. So past and present exist simultaneously. We only need to open our eyes to observe it. So there’s really no need to long for a vanished era. As Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Art in the OC: You are also a very accomplished graphic designer. Your advertising design work has a very corporate feel to it, which obviously differs from your fine art. Have you had the opportunity to combine your talents for fine arts with your graphic design work?
Michael Ward: My painting is my respite from my design work, so the last thing I would want to do is combine the two. In my day job I am satisfying the needs of others, while trying to maintain a level of aesthetic quality. With painting, I am my own boss, and get to call the shots (most of the time). I’ve done a few commissions, but they are generally unsatisfying, as they commoditize my art, which makes it too much like work. That said, some things do carry over from the day job, such as my love of typography and signage. In fact, I sometimes have to resist the urge to “correct” the typography in my source photos. I consider my paintings documentaries (with some liberties taken), so it’s important to document the mistakes.
Art in the OC: Where are some of your favorite places in Orange County to draw inspiration from?
Michael Ward: The images I paint come from where I live and travel. As a long-time Costa Mesa resident, I’ve drawn a lot of imagery from my local city and neighborhood, as I did in Long Beach when I lived there. Outside of that, Santa Ana, Newport Beach and Laguna Beach have all provided me with source material. I have little interest in painting “touristy” or “painterly” scenes, concentrating instead on the everyday and relatively unnoticed. Costa Mesa and Santa Ana are good for that, but such scenes can be found anywhere.
Art in the OC: Here’s a cliche question, but one that I am always interested in hearing the answer to. If you could go back in time and give some career/design/professional advice to yourself, what would it be?
Michael Ward: I’m self-taught, so I don’t know what advice I’d give my younger self. Maybe I’d send myself to art school, maybe I wouldn’t. I’d say paint more, and take more photos of things you see everyday, because before you know it they’ll be gone and you’ll miss the chance to paint them. For instance, I grew up next to the Foremost milk processing plant in Long Beach, and daily walked past the milk trucks, the repair shop, the processing machinery and the attached soda fountain, but never took a photo of any of it. So the painting of rows of milk trucks in the Foremost parking lot at dusk, their refrigerators all hooked up to external electric outlets and chugging away, will never get painted.
I’d tell my youthful self to take all that money you’re wasting on candy and soda and save up $75 plus bus fare, then head to the Ferus gallery in LA to buy a Warhol print. Then my present self could comfortably retire.
Art in the OC: Any exhibitions or group shows coming up?
Michael Ward: I have work on more or less permanent display at Tirage Art Gallery in Pasadena. There’s nothing upcoming in Orange County, sadly. I would love to be showing in an OC gallery, but have had no luck so far. So my fans will have to wait for the next OC Fair