In 2002, I took my first photography class at Austin Peay State University. Thankfully, my teacher gave us an assignment to take a field trip to the library and read books about other photographers. Little did I know this assignment would change my trajectory as an artist. I picked up a book by Duane Michals, who I’d never heard of but who quickly seeped into the deepest parts of my artmaking soul. He became “famous” (as famous as artists get, I suppose) in the 60’s for his avantgarde approach to black and white photography and storytelling. As Mary Thomas said in an article for a Pittsburgh newspaper:
“An innovator in the realm of fine art photography, Mr. Michals is credited with introducing the use of several photographs, or sequencing, in narrative work, and with the addition of handwritten text. His subjects include such universal themes as familial relationships and sexuality, and his formal expression often includes elements of the poetic, surreal and metaphysical.”
Finding an artist whose words are as moving as their art is about as rare as finding a performer who can sing as equally well as they can rap (ahem… how many Lauryn Hills are out there?). Duane Michals is the total package. In fact, I typed up many quotes from that first library book in Arial Black typeface on my Compaq laptop in 2002 (printed on plain white paper), and I’ve carried them around with me ever since, decorating every new space with his thoughts. The one I always keep closest to my desk is this one: “I believe that art should touch. I believe that it should move one to a greater consciousness of what one’s life is all about.” Such words to live by! And I have tried. And I have felt grateful to Mr. Michals over and over these past 15 years for inspiring me to.
This past Friday, Cinco de Mayo of 2016, I got to thank him in person. My gift to myself for enduring my first surgery and all the subsequent physical therapy and such was a ticket to New York City to attend the opening of his new exhibit. He did not disappoint! At 83, he’s still pushing himself as an artist but he also has such impeccable humor and kindness, refreshing to see in someone with his amount of celebrity and accomplishment. In fact, I had been standing around trying to meet him for quite some time at the gallery, but being both very short and in a leg brace left me at a slight disadvantage for getting to the front of the line. Mr. Michals noticed this and, after a while, interrupted someone he was currently talking to, put his hand out towards me and said “This young lady has been waiting for quite some time, and I’m going to get her over here.” So he took my hand, pulled me in, and we began to chat about life and photos and where we were from. When I told him I live in Colorado Springs, he said “Oh, it’s beautiful there.” Then he pulled back quickly and asked in an almost frightened way, “You’re not a born again Christian, are you?” I was prepared to talk cameras or film or a whole host of things with him, but not my spirituality! Ha. So, in my caught-off-guard state, here’s what came out: “Yes. But… I love you!” Followed by, “And your work is SO important.” Relief came over him at that, so he went on to tell me some about his short films in the new show and said I should definitely see them. (In one of them, he’s walking up and down a NYC neighborhood street with a sign on him that says “Tickets to Heaven : $5)
So, that was that. It was a short conversation that was long awaited. It was worth it. I’m thrilled I got to meet him and thank him in person for being so courageous with his life and art and for inspiring me to do the same. And I think he liked hearing it because, as my college drawing professor just told me in January, “They’re just like you and me. They like to hear nice things about themselves.” :)
[below are pictures of Mr. Michals’ work and some my photographer friend Joanna took of me meeting him. it’s so handy to have photog friends! ]
Some of Duane Michals’ iconic work :