I met Mike Stephens briefly last year at Delmar College when I was sitting in Cain Gallery, during a show making sure visitors were signing in. He had a couple of pieces in this show and he was very kind and helpful with info about art resources for emerging artists like myself. A short time later, He did a talk in my Art History class when our professor was out of the country and he talked about some of his art.
I found his work to be deep, intriguing, very personal and full of meaning. I especially like what he had to say about his art and art within the artist so I am very happy he agreed to do this interview with me.
Bio~ Mike Stephens
Born in El Paso, TX and grew up in Arlington, Tx. After going to College in Corpus Christi, TX, He went to University of North Carolina-Greensboro and received his Masters in Fine Arts. Since then he has taught at numerous Higher education institutions, but currently is a part-time professor at Del Mar College and a full-time dad. Mike Stephens adds, “I got into art because I wanted to be a comic book illustrator and kind of just fell into the fine art scene.”
Who is your favorite artist?
Mike: Bob Ross, no I’m kidding, actually I like a Japanese Woodcut artist named Yoshitoshi.
What types of art do you prefer?
Mike: Tough one, I would say contemporary Pop Art also a lot of the underground work that is under the radar of mainstream art. As mentioned earlier I look at a lot of pre 1900s Japanese woodcut prints.
What is your ‘method’?
Mike: I’m a woodcut printmaker.
Can you explain that process a bit here for those not familiar with this technique?
Mike: I basically get a sheet of wood ( I use birch plywood) and carve out the image. Then after that I roll ink on to the block and then lay paper on top running it through a printing press. In simple terms, I make a wooden stamp.
What is your dream for your future in this field?
Mike: I just want to make art and hopefully enough people continue to like it.
When did you first discover your creative talents?
Mike: Early on in school, I was always the kid that was asked to do the art on projects that the teachers would assign to groups. My grades were always higher when there was a drawing involved.
Could you tell us about some of your work?
Mike: My work is basically about me and finding my place in the world. I love comic books and incorporate myself as various super heroes, but instead of being heroic, buff and handsome I place myself as a fat, geeky victim. I wish there were more heroes in life, now that I’m older I really wish there was something to believe in, but all I have is me and I do my best. Sadly that usually isn’t good enough. Lately the work has started to focus on me being a father and what that entails as your child sees you as this perfect figure contrary to reality.
How would you describe your style?
Mike: I had someone recently tell me that it reminded them of German Expressionism and I think they were pretty close.
What is your favorite medium and why?
Mike: Prints and thats because not only do I get to have multiple copies and sell them inexpensively compare to paintings or sculptures, but prints also have an outlaw, underground and revolutionary history to them. I like the fact that it doesn’t really fit in the elitism of the art world.
Describe yourself in 5 words.
Mike: Bitter, old, drunk, obnoxious and idealistic.
“What is Art?” is certainly too big of a question to ask here, but what do you hope your audience takes away from your art? What statement do you hope to make?
Mike: I don’t know anymore, I don’t make my work for anyone and don’t care what they take away from it. Don’t get me wrong, I hope the audience likes my work and buys it. However, as an artist I make work for myself. As soon as you stop making art for yourself, you stop making art. When you worry about what others think and make artwork to please them, then all you are making is posters or crafts.
I like that, “Don’t worry about what others think, don’t make art for others but for yourself.”
When did you come to this conclusion or revelation?
Mike: Early on in my career. People either loved my work or hated it, which for an artist is a good response. I would rather have my work hated and get a reaction out of someone, then get no response, but back to your question. I realized a lot of people really don’t know or understand art and rather have something pretty to look at instead of work that engages or questions your world. So why should I care about what they think?
Art is about self expression, so I need to make art that is 100% me, not 90% me and 10% what others want. No one should become a fine artist in hopes of pleasing others, because they will fail in terms of making real art. When you are making art for yourself you never lose interest and always want to be in the studio working.
What is the best advice given to you as an artist?
Mike: I saw an outlaw printmaker and owner of Evil Prints Tom Huck at a printmaking conference and he said something that I needed to hear at that moment and it fits into what I stated earlier. I’m paraphrasing but basically he said that “…those who get your work, will understand it and those who don’t…….. $#@& them. Because no matter what you do those people who don’t like you work will never like it.”
For a young artist at the time it was very freeing and let me do what I wanted and not try to reinvent the wheel that has already been done so many times in art history.
I can imagine it opened the doors to creativity and just expressing yourself more fully, is that right?
Mike: Yes very much so… Many students try too hard to make something unique and something that has never been seen before in the art world, but that is not where a unique style comes from, it comes from taking your likes and experiences and spitting it back out with your vision. Not trying to make something new, it all has been done before. The only thing that is unique and different is you and how you see the world.
Wow, very profound words. Makes a lot of sense to me.
Where do you go online for good art resources, whether to find a new artist, or
to see what is going on in the art world locally and otherwise?
Mike: I go to http://www.dirtypilot.com mostly and evilprints.com.
Lastly, any words of advice for aspiring designers/artists?
Mike: Don’t do it. Go into another field, but if you are going to go for it and try to make it as an artist, practice every waking minute. It is a brutal and tough field and only the best of the best make it. In fact a lot of those guys still don’t make it.
Pretty sound advice.
Do you have any exhibits to promote in the near future?
Mike: I have a print in the UMKC National Print Exhibition in Kansas city MO and also one in The Line exhibition at Prescott College in Prescott, AZ.
What can we expect to see from you in the future?
Mike: Hopefully more prints.
Well thank you, Mike Stephens for sharing yourself and your art with us.
Here is a sample of Mike Stephens work and a little bit about each piece.
Doom-This work is me experimenting and trying to challenge myself in terms of not only technique but also subject matter.
Laughing gull-This is my emotional reaction to a local university that did some shady things in terms of my employment and the lies that were told.
Night of the Blue Hairs- This work is in response to show I had once with a bunch of us younger contemporary artists where a group of older ladies tried and censor the work according to there standards of what is proper art.
Teachers Pet- In this print I’m dealing with the hurdles of teaching and poking fun at myself as well.
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