Michael Stearns: Portrait of an Artist and Gallerist in Pandemic Times
Studio at the lofts, san pedro
through october 23, 2021
Written by Genie Davis
Artist and gallerist Michael Stearns has a new exhibition at his eponymous gallery and studio, one directly focused with laser sharp art, at the pandemic. Through October 23rd, the gallery presents Leavings, a series of dimensional mixed media images that are ribboned with color and alive with texture – and serve as almost a direct rebuke to the sterile period of quarantine as well as the wastefulness of consumption that inspired the work.
According to Stearns, a lack of focus derailed him at the beginning of the pandemic. “I came to the studio daily as that is my routine, but I just kind of sat there, looked at art magazines, or pretended to be working. [I was] trying not to speak to or about the pandemic or politics, just going in circles looking for motivation, then finally motivation about the pandemic. There was/is so much frustration, anger, confusion, distrust, fear and politicizing of the pandemic, and I did not want to focus on that. It’s not how my head works.”
So instead, Stearns asked himself if there was something he could do that had a different message, one that could “cause positive behavior or raise awareness on an issue that the pandemic has amplified.”
And he found one. While waste was always an issue, it had been magnified by the pandemic. And it seemed an apt subject for Stearns to tackle. As a viewer, it also seems a prescient metaphor for the state of the world – awash in one type of waste or another. He used a dimensional format to examine the “many issues that created collateral damage caused by the pandemic, many still unrecognized, [in this case] something as simple as trash.”
He says that the show’s message on the issue of waste is “that the pandemic helped to magnify it by at least 2-3 times. [But] the works stand on their own without knowing the message. [They] use color, texture, whimsy, and a plethora of materials in their creation, and many can mount on a wall or sit on a flat surface. All are dimensional.”
Both Stearns’ Leavings series, and other past series and paintings, are created “in an abstractionist surrealist vein. Many of my works have a spiritual earth-based medicine message somewhere… and/or a philosophical question. But my choices of subject matter may change quite frequently,” he says.
How he presents his subjects, whether as flat or dimensional works, and in what style – he sometimes even varies into a representational style – depends on his inclination. “First and foremost, I am a colorist. I love color. I can become totally absorbed in how the paint or chalk comes off the brush, chalk off the stick, or how the charcoal pencil is being wiped or smudged.”
Equally absorbing to Stearns is the way in which “various colors come together at the edges or blend when wet or when working with different brushstrokes or tools…how color can make us feel; how some people will “hate” a particular color or hue, and others will absolutely love the same color.”
As Stearns considers himself both a painter and colorist and a dimensional artist, the current series, is not new territory for him.
His choice of style and mediums “seems to depend on the message or the subject matter and I’m not uncomfortable mixing them into a mixed media piece.”
He notes that Leavings is similar to other series and individual pieces he’s created in the past. “The series Mixed Gatherings uses corrugated paper, paint, sticks, stones, bone, metal, leaves, wood, and wheels.” He adds “It’s hard for me to work dark but occasionally I can go there. It’s also hard to work small, but many of these works are on a 6”x6” base, and a subdued or monochromatic palette is really tough.”
Stearns started drawing early, taking watercolor lessons at the age of 9, he says. Throughout a varied business career, including time spent at Douglas Aircraft, Stearns felt his art was “still bubbling up. During the time at Douglas, I met a potter who had a space in Long Beach by the Belmont Pier and who was looking for a partner.” They teamed up for a number of years, with Stearns doing hand forming, until at age 60, he says “I rented a small studio space and gave myself a year to see if I could chase my dream to be a studio artist, painter and ceramist. Still working it,” he laughs.
A second studio space allowed him to build a wall, hang his paintings, attract viewers on a busy street, and sell his work. He moved to larger studio space, and then rented a gallery separate from his studio space altogether, until 2008’s financial crash led to the gallery’s closing.
Today, he rents a combination of studio and gallery space in San Pedro’s The Loft building, where he curates a variety of artists’ works, such as a July 2021 exhibition by Anne Olsen Daub, and currently, his own.
Taking a deeper dive into Leavings, the series uses truly “found” material, or perhaps a better way to describe this, is as material found in the trash, “in its many forms. [I use] cardboard, corrugated paper, cans, bottles, milk containers, Styrofoam, plastics, Amazon trash in its many forms, broken things, and stuff from loading docks, street curbs, dumpsters, my home trash cans, and other peoples on trash day – organic and urban detritus from many places, anything I thought might work. I still have bags full for future projects and themes.” With the material in hand, he “paints, glues, screws, tapes, [and] wires to attach and put it all together.”
The work takes on a variety of shapes and sizes. His use of bright splashes of color, whether through paint or simply found elements, creates a rewarding energy that seems to emanate from the work; there is a sparkle to his use of bubble wrap, a rough passion to his use of raw wood, an evocation of musical instruments in his accordion-like folds of cardboard. “Leavings #2” uses old bottle caps with the reverence of ancient coins; “Leavings #3” uses a boat-like shape and bubble wrap curved ends to create a piece that alludes to a boat of trash with protruding oars, cruising through foamy water. “Leavings #4” is a swirl of color, in which painted elements bloom like flowers through the trash, while “Leaving #8” is a compressed beauty with an epicenter of lustrous bright green foam.
Stearns skill in manipulating the material is prodigious, but still, he says “I only wish I had more skills to work in more mediums. But if I’m being honest with myself, the skills I have today bring me much joy.”
As to the pandemic itself which inspired this work, Stearns says “This too shall pass, as will I. I think that this period has put us in touch with our mortality, and people are very uncomfortable with that.” However, he asserts “It should help remind us to be mindful and stay in the moment. If I can keep creating what I believe is art in some form and speak to things that are important to me through my work, that’s good. I will work in this style again; I am right now.”
Stearns feels that work using paper products has import. “Most paper products start out as trees. So, I take objects that were made from trees, and I am turning them back into trees to be reborn, to function as an art form made from one of nature’s art forms. I guess in a way I feel I’m giving back by creating something which can remind us of that and be magical in its own way.” His past series, Totem Forrest, which utilizes cardboard shipping tubes to create sinuous trees, is another example.
“If I can make work that can [be shared along with a manner of] thought, work that people find worthy of being on their wall or standing in a corner, and it creates questions, or reminds us of our need to be aware, then I have in some small way honored earth and us…” And turned the anger in the air into something breathable and beautiful again.