Interview Series: Michael Shapcott

Is it the touch of aboriginal flare? The expert color washes? The piercing gaze of his subjects? Or is it the delicate incorporation of animals into his paintings that make us love Connecticut-based painter Michael Shapcott? Really, we are not quite sure, because WE LOVE IT ALL. His work oozes with soft and sensual, but explodes with emotion and longing. Crafted on large-scale canvasses to convey a life-sized quality, the acrylic and oil color palette drips and contours with perfection over the graphite drawings. To boot, Shapcott documents his painting process with short, creative, musically-driven videos, which he posts on his blog. In a candid interview, the artist talks about his muses, his process, his passion for Native American culture and what makes him tick. Check it out:

LF: What makes you tick / what makes you click?

MS: Things that make me tick are the things that make me feel something, inspire, or change me like art and movies and music and love. Things that make me click are the things that give me a sense of balance like positive relationships and nature and hard work and a sense of home.

LF: Tell us a little about your process (you don’t have to go into great detail. Don’t want to give away your secrets) – particularly your use of color washes.

MS: The easiest way to describe my process is to break it down into three steps: the graphite underdrawing; the overlay in acrylics; and the “wash” in oils. I suppose I can also describe the three steps like this: the meditation; the free expression; and the refinement. After preparing the canvas, I map out the drawing and begin the long hours of graphite work. This is where I make the most important decisions about the piece. Depending on the size, this part could take anywhere from three days to a couple weeks and so it is a time of focus, spacing out, contemplation, reflection, or just stillness. Once I feel the drawing is complete, I spray it with a workable fixatif and begin painting over it with acrylics. My acrylic work is a big contrast from the intricate, tedious drawing process so, at this point, I really let go – I blast the music, feel myself fill with emotion, throw the paint around, and make a really big mess. This part is freeing and intuitive. I just do what feels right. Once the acrylic is dry, I start to refine the painting with oils. Here I build up the paint in many thin layers and then work on the finer details of the piece like hair strands and eyes. I tighten everything up at this point and finish the piece. The “wash” technique happens throughout the painting process. This is where I apply a layer of paint that is sometimes thinned out with linseed oil, turpentine, or water then wiped away to achieve a watercolor look. With oils, the result is melted and fluid; with acrylics, there is more of a layered, rougher effect due to the nature of each medium.

LF: We love the white shapes intertwined in the “Onawa” portraits – they give the work a whimsical, dreamlike feel. What is the inspiration for this?

MS: The white shapes in the “Onawa” series are symbolic of our modern day. Those shapes are joined by tribal markings on the women’s faces to express a melding of our tribal past with our technological future. I have always felt that our human ancestry, our tribal history, and our roots in the earth are a part of us and influence our present whether we acknowledge it consciously or not. In the present day, we are very much in contact with technology and are building ever expansive and complicated networks of consciousness, communication and innovation with them as our tools. In the “Onawa” series, I wanted the white lines and shapes to represent waves of this new energy and the tribal lines, markings, and paint patterns to represent the “scarred” or “imprinted” history inherent within us. We are bringing all that we have been and all that we are into this community of new energy and I wanted the women in the “Onawa” series to embody that layered evolution in a hopeful, powerful way.

LF: Your paintings are exploding with emotion. The subject’s gaze directly at the viewer in a lot of the work is quite powerful in this way. Talk a little bit about this:

MS: I’ve always been an emotional person – I have been caught more than a few times busting out a couple tears just before a song reaches its climactic chorus or when I see two people experience some type of connection or special moment for example. I tend to cry very easily at happy moments and not so much (if at all) at sad moments. I’ve seen my father and grandfather display the same response to things that get inside of them so I guess that contradiction of sorts just runs in the family. I think my paintings reflect that internal thing going on inside of me in the way that the surge of emotion that I strive to express or capture in my work always feels more light than dark even if the subjects never smile – like the expression or eyes can be a bit sad or angry but those emotions still suggest a positive transformation, moment, or experience (or at least I feel they do).

LF: What does “the female portrait” mean to you?

MS: The female portrait means a lot of things to me. As a symbol, women are creativity, birth, mystery, the moon and the night, wisdom, and beauty. I like to play with these symbols in the objects, animals or placement of my work. As a person, women are complex, real, emotional, and hard to pin down or categorize. Their flaws and history and emotion at any given moment make up their unique beauty. When painting a female portrait, I want to capture those qualities and caught emotion in her eyes, expression and position.

LF: Where do you find your muses?

MS: My muses and inspirations are everywhere really – in nature, in music, in people I see, in my head.  In most of my work, I usually start a drawing with a photo reference in mind as a base and then let my imagination do the work of crafting the portrait to suit my intentions. The photos that I use as reference come from family photos or magazine cut-outs, are found online or in old master painters’ works. My fiancée is also a big inspiration. Everyone asks her, “Is this you?” when looking at a lot of my paintings. We’ve been together almost 11 years and I think I subconsciously craft the features as similar to hers even when I’m not meaning to.

LF: There seems to be an underlying “native american” theme in some of your pieces. Where does this interest come from?

MS: I have been fascinated with Native American and aboriginal tribes since the day I saw my first dreamcatcher. I don’t really know where the interest came from but it has deepened greatly as I’ve come to learn more about the different cultures. I admire the various dress, dance, and ritual and feel for the rich yet troubled histories, and appreciate their affinity with nature. The things that really awaken something deep inside me though are their beliefs in dreaming, animal and plant spirits, medicine, shamanism, and concepts of time. I feel a connection and truth in many of those things.

LF: Your work is being exhibited in cities across the country. Can you tell us anything about your recent 2010 shows this year in SF and LA?

MS: The west is the best! I definitely feel an affinity with the emerging style and galleries that reside there. Recent shows in SF and LA were at The Hive and Lower Haters. The response I got from those shows was incredible. I will definitely be taking part in more exhibitions on the West Coast and hopefully I’ll be able to make it out to one or two.

LF: Talk a little bit about the importance of almost life-size scale of your work:

MS: I’ve always enjoyed paintings that are really grand in scale. The monumental feeling of standing in front of a 10-foot painting is incredible. It feels more powerful or more real to me – like you are inside the painting or the figure in the painting is standing right next to you. Even on smaller canvases, I prefer to keep the figure’s proportions life-size or larger. I often have dreams of painting on enormous canvases but sometimes it’s just not practical and sometimes it’s just logistics – my studio isn’t big enough to fit 10-foot canvases… yet.

LF: You said in your interview with hDl magazine that you think about art about 95% of the time. Tell us why this is important to being a successful artist.

MS: I’m not sure if thinking about art 95% of every day is important to being a successful artist, I just can’t help it. For one thing, I want to learn and evolve as much as I can in this lifetime and, for another thing, I definitely have addictive tendencies. The constant obsession is helpful in keeping me “in it” and allows me to be more productive because I’m always working – but maybe there needs to be a downtime where I stop working or thinking about art and just let things simmer and rest. I don’t know.

LF: We love your videos – they offer the viewer a much more intimate/personal perspective of your process and the music choices/creative editing really compliment your painting process. Why are these videos important to your work + how have the video concepts evolved?

MS: Thanks. I’ve always enjoyed making home movies and I like to record where I am at certain points of my life and work. My videos are evolving as my art evolves. They are an extension of the specific piece of art it portrays with parts of my personality thrown in for fun. I know what it feels like to take yourself or your art too seriously so part of my intention with the videos is to show how unserious the creative process can be; how it can be light and fun and flow. I hope to continue with the videos for as long as I can. People seem to like them and I’ve received comments that watching has inspired some to pick up a brush and paint. That’s so awesome to hear and makes me love being an artist that much more.

Painting a Painting with Michael Shapcott No. 5 from Michael Shapcott on Vimeo.

LF: You talk a lot about music as an inspiration for you, and it is apparent in your videos. Can you name a few climactic moments in music that have strongly affected your work/though process?

MS: The first ‘climactic moment’ that comes to mind is the experience of Joanna Newsom’s “The Milk-Eyed Mender.” The first time I heard it I was like, “Whoa, I want to make paintings that feel like this.” That’s the only way I can describe it. I think the fact that I was a musician before I was a painter has had a huge influence on me. Making a series of paintings and writing/recording an album are pretty similar in my experience.

LF: What is currently on your playlist?

MS: I’m really into the “Genius” button on iTunes. If you’re not familiar with it, you pick a song, click the science flower symbol, and iTunes magically creates playlists with songs that match the song you picked. My “Genius” playlists include Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Hendrix, Dylan, Lennon, and The Doors on one; Arcade Fire, The Shins, Modest Mouse, Bright Eyes and Neutral Milk Hotel on two; The Knife, Portishead, MGMT, Cloud Cult, and Warpaint on three; Band of Horses, Thom Yorke, Iron & Wine, Lissie, and Elliot Smith on four… it goes on to infinity.

LF: What do you want to be when you grow up, or would you already consider yourself grown up?

MS: I’m pretty much doing it. I just want to get better at painting and hopefully, over the years, the rewards will outweigh the struggles.

LF: How do you LIVE FAST?

MS: I try not to think about it.

LF: Fashion talk: How would you classify your style? What is your favorite trend?

MS: The style that I usually go for is the disheveled artist man. I hope that when people see me they say, “Damn, that guy looks disheveled but strangely attractive – how does he do it?” A beard is a must have for the disheveled artist man. Clothes that have history are best. You need lovingly worn leather boots with splashes of paint on them. Black jeans worn for at least a week before washing, ingeniously placed holes in a basic white tee, and an old baseball hat or winter beanie complete this look.

LF: Art talk: What inspires you? Favorite artist or work?

MS: The intelligence of DaVinci’s work and his amazing unfinished drawings; Jan van Eyck’s detail and contrast; Ron Mueck’s play with size and use of subject; the romanticism and beautiful faces of Waterhouse’s figures; the drama and grandness of Maxfield Parrish’s work; Andrew Hem’s use of color and overall style; Norman Rockwell’s style and placement… so many more.

LF: Sex talk: What gets you off? Literally or figuratively.

MS: I like my woman smart, sexy, talented, and tall. Lucky for me my fiancée is all of the above.

LF: Travel talk: Favorite destination or travel stories you want to share?

MS: Lately it’d be a miracle to venture out to the grocery store. Seriously, I need to get out of the house more.

P.S. Want an iPhone case with one of his paintings? Michael has been selected as an artist to participate in, a site that sells merch done by a select few of today’s most prolific modern artists.

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