Interview by Julie Rico on Tuesday, December 14th, 1999
J: So how did the two of you begin with art-- was it a lifelong pursuit?
M: When I was in second grade, my aunt, who was the nurse at the School of the Art Institute, was also an artist herself. While spending a Saturday with her at work, we walked through the museum gazing at a lot of intriguing art. Afterwards she took me to the school store and bought me my first oils and canvas. From that point on I felt a firm connection in being able to express myself with art.
G: From the beginning there were art books and art supplies around the house. Even though neither of my parents were artists, my brother, sister and I all sat around playing with art supplies. There was no TV in the house at the time, which I'm sure contributed. The shelves were loaded with art books, mostly old classic stuff, which was real inspirational. Art just seemed like the most natural thing to do.
J: So did you both grow up in Chicago?
M: I grew up in Chicago.
G: I was born in Michigan, but the bulk of it was spent in the Chicago suburbs.
J: Relating to the whole growing up thing, I always wonder... when did you realize you were an artist? Was it when other people noticed you were an artist? Did you take art classes, and realize it then? Or did you get a job, and then it hit you, "wait a minute, I'm an artist, what am I doing here"?
M: Since I was a kid, I've always felt artistically inclined. In grade school, I won several art fairs. In high school, I majored in art. I then went to the Art Institute, but was only able to take a couple of classes. I was planning on going full time, but my counselor had a nervous breakdown and never processed my loan application. I was really pissed off, I remember bawling my eyes out while talking with the Dean about the injustice of it. I felt like I was missing out on an important opportunity. This experience motivated me to try really hard to keep pushing and to keep exploring my possibilities as an artist. I started referring to myself as "a student in the universe of life". From that point on I've been doing art whenever I have a chance to, and it's just evolved from that.
J: So you actually don't have a degree in art.
M: No; I feel that I'm self-taught.
G: When I was in grade school, the other kids noticed I could draw and would ask me if I wanted to be an artist when I grew up. I'd always reply,"I already AM an artist". It just felt natural, and I always assumed I would do something artistic for a living as an adult. As a teenager I was really interested in album cover art. I was into heavy metal, Iron Maiden and the like, and I loved their cover art. So I did that for a couple years, and got paid really badly, but actually lived on my own and paid my bills doing record covers. I also has a job during high school in the art department at this corporation, so there was some formal hands-on, almost an apprenticeship kind of thing, but most of what I learned there has been replaced by computer programs that you can learn in a couple of days.
J: So you're a self-taught artist too.
J: It isn't that often that I meet art couples that really inspire each other's vision in such an awe- inspiring way that you seem to have, with such an incredible synergy. I meet a lot of artists, really talented artists, but most of them seem to be really lonely birds. I think being an artist can be a very lonely business, because it takes a lot of concentration and time and effort, alone, doing it. So I was wondering how you guys came to be so symbiotic in your vision. How did this all happen?
G: I had been noticing Michele for quite a while, kind of from a distance, and once heard that she had some paintings showing at a local bar. So I went and checked them out and was totally blown away. I that I think was the moment I started feeling a real connection with her, in a way I couldn't just casually pass up. So from my perspective, that's where it really began.
J: How long ago was that?
G: Maybe eight or nine years ago. Anyway, after we had first started to get to know each other I was contemplating, 'Gosh, is this someone I'm ready to be really serious with?' because I had sort of avoided that--
J: Like most guys do!
M: Yeah, how 'bout it!
G: Well you know-- not without reason, either. (General laughter). But I sensed that we could make a great team. Often, in a relationship, the artist will be thoroughly preoccupied with some inner space, which can sometimes get pretty abstract. And their partner maybe understands that a little bit but stands outside it; sometimes there's resentment.
M: When we started dating it was fun because we could hang out, spend time together AND be productive. It was a mutual thing. Even though our subject matters were different in terms of our interests, we both enjoyed doing art and pushing ourselves to see what we could create. I think that's what made us stay together, and why we're still together now. Before we started seeing each other I had a studio space and needed someone to share it with. So when we began dating it was perfect, because he was interested in painting and I had this big painting space. It was a total work environment with few distractions, so we were really able to crank out a lot of art. I think that was a big contribution to how we've managed to build our lives together.
J: From this experience that you've both had, would you encourage artists to work with other artists? I know Timothy Leary used to always say it's great to work in small groups. I think that's kind of a tribal notion, that people can assist each other better in society if they're acting as a kind of tribe, and not as egocentric.
M: I think there's a lot of truth in that. As long as you can put your ego aside and share your experiences with others, you can have a larger perspective on whatever your artistic nature is.
J: Yeah, I think it's a good point to make to artists; a lot of them are taught otherwise. I think too that a lot of what happens is that in the university, the professor becomes the end-all to all of the questions that you might have about your work, where really this is an isolated person in a bureaucratic society. I think it's really much better to work in a tribal sort of situation.
M: When you work with others, you can create a dynamic energy field. However , it's also necessary to make personal time with your art.
J: Do you think the artist can make a difference in society? Do you think they should make a statement with their work to try and benefit mankind in some way?
G: Well, art continues to exist and be supported, so it must be making some kind of a difference. Everyone is familiar with art, and everyone has a little part of their brain that is dedicated to art. That's got to do something to their way of dealing with the world. I think that if you ingest a lot of hostile or aggressive art it may make you more that way, certainly that happens with TV and the popular media. But if your diet consists of not only good food but powerful transcendental art, you may be affected in a very positive way.
M: There are a lot of artists like Alex Grey who do paintings about healing and transcendence that are really strong and effective. You can look at a painting like that and enter it; there's more than just a surface, there's a lot of space to it, there's a lot of symbolism and ideas... I think that art is a really powerful way to communicate. It's a universal language, and for a lot of people that can be a great form of escape or contemplation-- an outlet for them.
J: Michele, your work seems to be based on an organic structure, or is inspired by Nature; and you have this really Earth Goddess charismatic sort of energy. What's up with your inspiration, how do you get to your images? Is there a philosophy about it, or is it purely intuitive?
M: It's a little bit of both-- the philosophy has come with the intuitiveness. Basically, I'm just very attracted to shiny things, to textures, colors and forms-- especially the way that Nature creates and organizes itself. I started to become more conscious of it when we moved to the country and I became more aware of flowers, buds and other organic compositions. My photography is very intuitive; I'm not a very technically oriented person. I started looking at things through a macro lens and was amazed. It was like seeing a whole new world; what was right in front of me all along took looking through a lens to really see. So I wanted to pull that out and explore it. I'm really fascinated by looking at the micro in the macro, the way that the piece contains the whole. The photography thing came out of that. From there, my paintings have evolved to incorporate these ideas.
J: Yeah, Because the first thing I noticed about your work was... I would have sworn you guys were from California because of the light, the boldness of the ideas... But I then came to realize when I had the Alex Grey show that there is some kind of telepathic connection going on among artists and other people around the world right now that's related to this kind of organic natural connection in art. It also has to do with God, sacred geometry, everything down to the molecular level. It's really interesting to me now that I'm starting to meet artists from all over that are involved in this kind of thinking. And Guy, in your work I can see the inspiration that you get from Michele, how the natural forms have worked their way in. Do you have a philosophy about it? Because you're a self-taught artist I'm sure much of it must be intuitive, but you guys have very strong philosophical characteristics about yourselves. I feel like you're trying to say something. Oftentime artists don't articulate what they have to say about their work, so I'm going to try to wangle this out of you somehow.
G: I've got so much philosophy I could talk you into a coma with it, so I'll have to trim it down. It must have begun intuitively, just in noticing what I was attracted to. As a child I saw a lot of famous classic art, and certainly appreciated it. But then one day I saw this strange green organic thing-- I'd give anything today to know who did the painting or what it was called-- that just glued me to the couch. I was maybe 11 or 12, and that painting carved a channel deep into my brain that has forever left me hungering for more. Later on I discovered Giger, and did many Gigeresque paintings and tattoos in an effort to formulate a style of my own. Other tattooists that I knew had similar interests, so there was this melting pot sort of thing going on. I continually devoured art such as Beksinski, Venosa, De Es Schwertberger, Eyvind Earle, Ernst Fuchs-- you'd be suprised at how many painters have worked with organic motifs. Eventually I formulated a personal language by which to approach the subject, and have kept modifying this language with each painting, trying hard to stay in motion, not settle too soon on something just because it might work. Right now I'm using a lot of photo references of natural forms and models of my own making, trying to find ways to optimize visual impact and dimensionality. The goal is to be able to convincingly render photo-real impressions of purely psychic spaces.
J: Looking at your work, it's almost like it's become a sort of sacred geometry, and the reason I think it's become like that is that much of it is derived from pure organic structures. It's interesting how you're able to sort of dissect the inner structure of something that you're seeing on the surface. I think probably that you guys have hit on something pretty important with this work.
M: I do projection performances of natural forms incorporated with multidimensional color fields of light and space, an otherworld/ innerworld type of thing. The idea is to create a sort of trancendental experence. I saw a bumpersticker the other day that said, "minds are like parachutes-they need to be open in order to function". Greater awareness plays a key role in preserving our world.
J: Actually, one of my questions is: Do you think that humans will destroy this planet?
M: The condition of the world is a direct reflection of its occupants. There are people who try to live in a more eco-friendly lifestyle and maintain a balance with the planet, and there are people who are engulfed with greed, corruption and financial gain at any cost who are destroying the planet.
G: It seems like we need some kind of critical mass in order to evolve at any time, that evolution does not happen without constant challenge. And to make the ultimate leap, we really need to have the ultimate challenge. So here it is, we're creating it for ourselves.
J: Guy, people are telling me that you're the most significant tattooist alive. Why are they telling me that?
G: Gosh, I don't know; how do you answer a question like that?
J: Well, I didn't want to ask you that, but it just seems to keep coming up in conversation, ever since I've been announcing this upcoming show, and I think that it has something to do with this organic kind of understanding...
G: Well, the whole tattoo thing has been a really incredible experience for me... I got tattooed when I was sixteen and immediately felt the calling, although it didn't actually start happening for another four years or so, and when it finally did, I was already a fairly experienced illustrator entering a field which had very few experienced illustrators in it. And so the timing was very good. After getting that first tattoo, I encountered Ed Hardy's Tattootime books, which many people have acknowledged as being pivotal in the unfolding of tattoo history. There were all these young punk kids getting tattooed back then, and they already had this well-developed graphic style to their posters and record covers that tended to be anti-authoritarian, colorful and bold and experimental in a way that was quite tattooable. Hardy's books showed these hip young punk kids with cool tattoos, and I wanted to be a part of that movement. I managed to hook up with Bob Oslon, who had a clean and well-established shop in Chicago and needed a new artist. After that things unfolded very quickly. I had my first published tattoo article after only about a year, which drew a very positive response. But it was really the timing that made it happen for me, the way my budding career intersected with this art form which was just starting to enjoy a real renaissance, I ended up at the crest of this wave...and since then I've had no intention of slipping off that crest, and have worked very hard to stay on it.
J: How many hours a day do you spend tattooing?
G: I used to tattoo full-time, five or six days a week, sometimes from one o'clock p.m. until four in the morning.
M: His hands were always sore.
G: Sometimes it was only until midnight, then I'd go home and work on tattoo drawings until four in the morning. Since then I've cut back drastically. I needed to be in a situation where I could really explore my own personal vision. Although I can do that with tattooing to a great extent because my clients are very trusting and often give me total free reign, I need at least a certain level of understanding of a subject before taking the chance of trying to put it on skin. Which means painting.
M: Guy does these seminars at tattoo conventions where he helps educate other tattooists on graphic skills and visionary ideas. One of the things he promotes and encourages the most strongly is to always have a second medium, to help them keep their fluidity in art, not just relying on tattooing as their only artistic practice. Hopefully they can incorporate that into their skills and create more of a beautiful vision on skin, in their personal visions and the art world in general.
J: Here's a question relating to that. There's the world of fine art, then there's the tattoo art world, and to me, it seems a little incongruent, how they're not really overlapping. And here you are, doing that, overlapping the two worlds. How have you been able to accomplish that?
G: Well, I still make most of my living doing tattoos and tattoo seminars, and almost all of my painting sales have been to tattoo clients. But I feel like my body of painting is now at a point where I can really make an attempt to get it out there into the world, to see if I can actually bridge that gap in terms of a profession, and not just as a pursuit.
J: Do you get the feeling that no one cares in the formal art world about the planet, or each other, or communication, or Nature or love? It seems to me that the more obtuse you are and your art is, the better chance you have of obtaining some stature in the art world.
M: That seems to be a form of denial, like the Emperor's New Clothes theory; people can create this psedo-environment of what they think they are or would like to be, blanketed in a transparent disguise while the obvious shoots right through them --this guy is Naked!
G: Meanwhile, no one wants to admit it.
M: On the other hand, all art is valid to the person who is creating it, I suppose. What makes me drawn to something is, "Do I want to look at it?". In a world of chaos and high-impact visuals,their is no shortage of retinal stimuli. So why not indulge a little and tap into the rhythms of sacred geometry and reflective light?
Guy Aitchison's and Michele Wortman's work was shown along with works from Chicago sculptor Chris Garofalo at Biogenesis, which opened May 6, 2000 at the Julie Rico Gallery , 208 Pier Ave, Santa Monica, CA, 90405.
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