Michael Walsh Interview
By Andy McNeil, Assistant Editor
Artist Michael Walsh exists and creates in a realm of juxtaposition. The Sonoma-based sculptor has found a way to successfully fuse art forms that possess antithetical shelf lives and are comprised of unrelated mediums: metal crafting and graffiti.
“See that’s the contradiction – that’s what I like about it,” Walsh says, speaking from a friend’s studio in Northern California. “I’m trying to take something impermanent and go backwards in a way to make it somewhat permanent.”
Walsh, a man as transient as his work, is returning to Gallery 4 in Pittsburgh on Friday, January 28 for the closing reception of “Coming Full Circle,” a fitting name for his solo exhibition since his first memory of spray painting graffiti took place in an alleyway behind the gallery.
The exhibit is a collection of pieces that showcase Walsh’s deconstructionist presentation of graffiti-style letters and words through metal. Earthy-looking, heavy pieces made of cast iron, which he calls a lost art, rest on the gallery’s floor. “Iron is what makes up the entire electromagnetic field on our planet – without it we wouldn’t be here,” Walsh says.
Conversely, the walls of the gallery are lined with pieces that he describes as “airy.” These follow the same deconstructed letters theme, but are crafted from foam, resin, wood, and paint. The art is loose and organic in shape, which he attributes to his affinity for chucking the blue prints and creating from intuition. The collection invites viewers to reconsider their notions of what sculpture and graffiti should look like.
“I’ve been doing this for awhile, but until recently it was hard to validate this work because the sculpture people were like ‘Well, what the hell is this?’ and the graffiti people were like ‘That thing looks like a boat anchor.’”
Growing up in the Highland Park neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Walsh forged his work ethic in a place best known for its ties to the steel industry. He cut his artistic teeth by painting graffiti, which he discovered through skateboarding and the 90s street art movement.
In 1994, he met a night club bouncer named Ed Graham who turned out to be a Medieval-style metal craftsman who hammered out full suits of armor and swords when he wasn’t tossing out unruly barflies. Graham took a liking to Walsh’s work and invited him to paint a mural in his studio. Walsh ended up staying there for a several years.
“It just bit me hard. I went from wanting to destroy to wanting to create pretty quickly. I still like to destroy,” he says, laughing as he works on a mother mold used for casting. A sign of a diehard artist, Walsh doesn’t stop creating even while giving an phone interview.
During the early days, the studio in which he worked and lived had no heat and Walsh often showered in the sink – a stark contrast to his current digs in California where he can be found cruising around a wooden skateboard bowl outside of a friend’s spacious studio. Through Graham’s guidance and the skills taught to him by other metal crafters, he welded together his first metal graffiti piece in 1997, which he featured in an art show that he put together at a legendary underground joint called the Turmoil Room.
“There was something missing from my work – the minute I started sculpting I knew what it was,” Walsh says. “I was still painting graffiti pretty aggressively through the 2000s. In tandem, I was doing all kinds of interior design and sculpture work, which again is kind of a path less traveled by a graffiti artists.”
Walsh’s design work eventually led him to relocate to Toronto, a city he holds in the highest regard. He credits his time spent in the interior design and architecture field with helping him understand the relationship dynamic that exists been the conceptual side of his work and the practical application of those concepts – such as the way in which humans interact with a space as well as the strengths of different materials. For the time being, however, he is happy to focus his creative energy on art.
I was contacted about a design job not too long ago and I threw them an astronomical figure,” Walsh says. When asked why and told how unrealistic it was I said it’s because I really don’t want to do this. If you’re going to make me stop making art then you’ve got to pay me really, really well for that sacrifice.”
Over the years, Walsh has learned to walk the tightrope stretched between satisfying his artistic appetite and seeking out paying gigs. In 2001, prior to moving to the True North, he was selected to do a stainless steel sculpture for the Pittsburgh Sculpture Commission, which oversaw a federally-funded intuitive to bring permanent works of art different city neighborhoods. Two years later, he found himself lured back to the States to help design a restaurant. Although the projects were as far apart as you could be in scope, one thing was evident at the time – fiscal support for the arts was strong.
“The government at the time wasn’t a bunch of war mongering psychopaths – and you can please quote me saying that. All these corporate assholes weren’t quite making it happen for the general public like they are now. So there was money around for the arts because we had a surplus.”
Walsh explains that the current lack of governmental support for the arts has led many artists to seek greener pastures in countries like Canada and Germany. The downturn in the economy hasn’t made it easy either. He is honored and grateful when people buy his sculptures because he knows the money could have gone to something more essential. Walsh understands the importance of art, but isn’t delusion about its role in society. While others may be content to do little more than “put a needle in a cup and write a seven page paper selling their concept as high art,” Walsh remains a doer, not a talker. This action-driven ethos gives Walsh a positive outlook on an often times shaky career path because in the end he’s doing what he loves most.
“I’ve got to say I’ve had my ups to downs with this whole creative career thing, but I’ve pretty much lived life on my own terms and got to live a very youthful life into my mid-30s,” Walsh says. “Every day I can wake up and go ‘What am I going to do today?’ Not what some guy tells me to do in my cubicle or trying to figure out how to better serve my corporate foes as they dismantle the America that matters because I need a paycheck.”
Fortunately for Walsh, his path through life has not gone unnoticed. The Carnegie Museum of Art featured his work during their International Sculpture Conference, which honored the renowned Korean-born American artist Nam June Paik. Walsh’s street art and several sculpture pieces also made their way into Nicholas Ganz’s Graffiti World – a Bible-like tome of urban art.
Walsh says his next move is to splash into the Bay Area’s art scene, which comes after stints in Philadelphia, Toronto, and Miami. In the end, he is still proud to come from the City of Steel. Walsh says he is encouraged to see that the changes set in motion by his generation are finally coming into fruition and changing the city for the better.
“The fact is that each time I go back to Pittsburgh, I’m really like ‘Wow, people are really making it happen here.’ There’s a lot of cool stuff happening in this city,” he says.
Welcome home, Michael Walsh. Welcome home.
“Coming Full Circle” Closing Reception
January 28, 2010
7 p.m. to 11 p.m.
206 S. Highland Avenue