INTERVIEW WITH MIKE COLLINS
BTCF: Why did you want to become an artist? Many reasons or just one big one?
MIKE: I don’t think of myself as an artist, but I get where you are going with the question. The beginning for me was back in the eighties with skateboarding. I had a group of guys that I ran around with and we started using paint pens and spray paint on ramps, shoes, skateboards, clothes, backpacks…anything really. There was a rush in that for me, and a way to lay down a mark that said, “This is me. I’m right here. I did that.” I was (still am) observant of crowds and how they moved and interacted. I’ve always felt a nervous energy around groups of people and wrestle with the struggle to simultaneously blend in and stand out. I think those early marks were doing just that. I found a way to say, “Oh, ok, this is what we are doing,” but to then stand out within that same scene by making a mark and saying, “I’m right here.” I think it’s the same thing, 35 years later. I show work in art shows and it’s a way to blend into a crowd and try and stand out at the same time.
BTCF: Many of your pieces are quite large. Why?
MIKE: I remember when I jumped up to painting 4×6 canvases and the challenge of the size really drew me in. I was doing abstract stuff and I’d just get lost in the space and would find some sort of trouble or mistake that would motivate me to really get deeper into the piece. That is where it started, but with the stuff I’m doing now, I’m working with unstretched canvas that I lay on the floor. I really like that the size is too big to just stand there and work. I love getting down on the floor and crawling around on the piece as I work. I’ll leave them on the floor and walk on them. I’m finding a freedom in the fact that the size allows for a loosening of detail. The larger format draws me into the process in a way that I get totally lost in this world I’m trying to create. This new stuff has me swept away every time I start to work.
BTCF: There is a running theme in your pieces, one central character as well as another that seem to reappear. Can you tell us about that, why, and the meaning behind it all? Are they a part of a continued story or separate?
MIKE: You must be talking about the girl in the pink dress. The first time I painted her was about seven or eight years ago. My mom had just died and I just couldn’t get myself to paint. I went back to try and work on a piece and I ended up painting these weird circles and started covering older work. Whatever I had been painting was over and gone and there just wasn’t anything coming out. I had this idea to make 12 pieces that were related to the album, “Wish,” by The Cure. This album was on heavy rotation when I got sober (in 1996), and it’s just always felt like home. So I start listening and wondering and finally I start making some stuff. The work was totally different from anything I’d done before. I had this idea to make a painting related to the song, “Open,” that communicates my experience with addiction. I really wanted to try and capture the relationship between the addiction and the addicted, and specifically, was looking to represent where I was at that exact moment in time. I was 16 years sober, had just lost my mom and had this absolute knowing that I didn’t feel like drinking, but that I was really shook…so I’m painting and all of a sudden I’m grabbing a thin brush and outlining this young girl in a pink dress. I’d never painted a human figure and at the time I recall thinking, “what the heck am I doing,” but I went with it. The piece ended up with the girl, a bird, a cage and some flowers…it’s raining and there are hash marks ticking off 16 years worth of days. So who is she and what does she symbolize…she symbolizes a part of me that I keep pretty close to the vest. She absolutely does not just symbolize an addict or an alcoholic. Initially she represented that, but has grown to represent so much more. She’s a fighter. She represents being knocked down but not out…she’s braver than me most all the time and I think I’m trying to follow her lead. I’ll leave it here: I feel the most risk and vulnerability when I put her pieces up.
BTCF: What do all the black x’s represent in your work and the various ways you use them? Sometimes the x’s change colors and they are expressed quite often, what do they mean? Is there a story you can share?
MIKE: The X’s cover stuff up, they mark where the treasure lies, they remind me that some things are poisonous, sometimes they just balance things out, other times they represent the things we cannot say, or where the body is buried. I keep bringing them forward into my new work because they bring a thread of the past into the present.
BTCF: What does your art mean to you? How is it healing?
MIKE: The work I create most often marks an emotional place and time in my existence. It’s really no different today than it was back when I made marks on my skateboards, I’m just saying, “I’m right here and this is who I am.” The healing part of feeling driven to put it out there is the risk.
BTCF: There is a multitude of expression and movement in your work, it’s very alive and primal. What is your internal process you go through before you approach a piece? Is it different every time?
MIKE: Your question makes me think about how much I admire dancers. I am in no way at risk of becoming a dancer. I think they are so brave in their willingness to share that expression and movement in its most raw form. I feel the same way about singers and guitar players. There is something so awesome about watching a human just lay it on the line and communicate so vulnerably in that way. I dig that you see expression, movement and something primal in my work, because that gives me a clue that my process is coming through in the finished product.
Somebody once said to me that they imagined it to be peaceful to paint and my response was, “when I’m feeling happy or peaceful, the last thing in the world I’d feel like doing is picking up a paintbrush.” I think agitation is my internal process before I start a piece. I’m usually pretty wound up and grinding on something when the urge to paint comes on and so I’ll get in the studio and put on, “Plainsong,” by The Cure. I put it on repeat and will sometimes jump right in, or other times I might wind up just moving stuff around and spending a long time waiting, but once I start laying down marks, I’ll get swept away. Once that happens I stop the song from repeating…it’s be a little to obsessive to just keep it looping.
BTCF: What is your inspiration?
MIKE: Oh man…my inspiration comes from all sorts of places. Sometimes it’s a word, or a phrase, or a lyric, or a dream, or a nightmare…I’ll get something stuck in my head on a loop and won’t be able to let go. That’s where the ideas come from. The inspiration to get them out and onto a canvas always comes from agitation.
BTCF: You are also a therapist as well as an artist, how did that come about?
MIKE: Art didn’t have anything to do with me becoming a therapist. Addiction gets all the credit for that one! I got sober in 1996 and the process of figuring that out, and then of –not only- changing and growing in my own life, but watching other people change and grow, caused me to head back to school. I knew that my long-term solution was going to be to create meaning out of my struggle with addiction. I think that’s what binds me with the work you do with Breaking the Chains…that I’ve been able to use my experience to work to understand how those of us in recovery are all related.
BTCF: How do you think art aides in healing areas of one’s life who suffers from addiction?
MIKE: Creating art connects us to the parts of our being that are younger than words, or that have experiences that cannot be spoken. I think that creativity allows us to express ourselves to the world and that is where the healing happens…not so much in what the world does with what we say, but that we find a way to say it, regardless.
BTCF: As a creative soul, is art an important part to your healing?
MIKE: Creating gives me an outlet for whatever gets stuck and starts spinning inside my head and in my body. I think that is an important part of keeping my sanity, which must then be a part of my healing, or recovery, right?
BTCF: Breaking The Chains Foundation is art-based using various forms of art as healing tools for those suffering eating disorders, disordered eating, negative body image and underlying or co-occurring issues. How important is art to you in your own healing and why?
MIKE: When I first got sober, I was pretty numb to anything that was going on inside my body. I think that’s probably common for the people you work with at Breaking The Chains, too. The solution I’ve found that keeps me moving forward was to learn how to make peace with those parts of myself that I was trying to keep hidden. I think creating is a way to express the hidden and the unspoken. The freedom from all that –for me- is to put it out there and just ride the tail of the tiger. This is going to sound so corny but I’m saying it…remember that therapist character on Saturday Night Live….Stewart Smalley? Stewart was the guy that would have his clients stare in a mirror and say, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggonit, people like me.” Well…that’s the deal right there. That’s the secret. If I find a way to put myself into the world authentically, the chances are I’ll have that Stewart Smalley experience and realize that I’m ok. I think creating work and putting it into the world sets me up to chase that down.
BTCF: What types of mediums do you work on? Why?
MIKE: The type of medium I choose to work on is driven by what I’m trying to accomplish. Right now I’m working on used drop cloth. I like the way it feels, and how the stains and marks create a foundation to build upon. When I begin a drop cloth piece, I always start on the floor. I like to be able to get down and crawl around while I’m laying the foundation. It’s totally conducive to making a mess and really getting lost in the piece. As are as materials go, I’ve really been digging starting out with charcoal and other mediums that are going to smear and get pulled into the paint. I’ve been having fun with different types of paint, too. I used to use the same brand of Acrylic for everything and had every color on had before I’d begin, but for this latest series that will make up, “The Funeral Party,” I’ve had fun limiting myself to what is laying around the studio. It’s been fun to make due with what’s on hand, or to mix latex, oil, crayons, fishing line, or whatever I can scrounge up to try and tell the story.
BTCF: What types of tools do you work with and why?
MIKE: I mostly use Wooster Pro house brushes. I have an assortment of sizes but for most pieces I’ll wind up using the same one for the whole thing.
BTCF: Your work is so colorful, do you create your own colors?
MIKE: No, I don’t mix my own colors. I’ve learned that certain colors work better (for me) from certain brands, or one brand might have a different texture than another. I love the blues from Golden Acrylic, and I love the way Nova Color (which is made in Los Angeles) flows.
BTCF: What is your favorite piece you ever created and why?
MIKE: I have a sunset painting from around 2006 that is my favorite. The reason why is because that’s the piece that set the whole thing off. I had really just started painting again and I was trying to paint these sunsets that were so inspiring. I rattled off 3 or 4 pieces that were just flat out awful and was so frustrated. I called my friend, Robb Havassy (he’s a great artist) and asked him for some pointers and he said, “dude…don’t paint what you saw, paint what you felt.” That was it…I had this little pile of wet paint and a piece of cardboard and I tried what he said and there it was!
BTCF: How do you think your work inspires others? Do you have a story you can share?
MIKE: I hope that my work inspires people to get in the game and go for it.
BTCF: You have a show coming up on March 23rd, The Funeral Party at your Hermosa Gallery, Shockboxx. Can you tell us about it? What do you want people to know the most about it and why?
MIKE: The Funeral Party is my first solo show. I’m excited to have these pieces together and to let the story unfold. I’ve been working hard on this one and have built a world around the girl, the bird and the cage. I’ve got some new characters inserted into their story and I can feel them living and breathing now. I know the title might suggest that this is the end of something, and while that’s probably true, it is also just the beginning for where this world I’ve created might take us.