Creighton Michael’s art studio is housed in an airy barn adjacent to his Bedford home. Sun streaming through the windows illuminates bright white walls bursting with diverse artistic creations. Ranging from colorful paintings and monochromatic digital prints, to springy wire sculptures and large knot-like ceramics, it’s a collection that doesn’t seem tied together on first glance. It turns out that the common thread of his artwork—most of which is abstract—is a focus on the relationship between mark and pattern and drawing’s association to other marking systems.
“If you consider drawing as really nothing more than a collection of marks that create a pattern—either a pattern that one recognizes or does not—then you start to see drawing in its relationship to musical notation, choreography, calligraphy, and, now, new technology.”
Michael talks often about the “marks” in his artwork—the pencil lines on a drawing, paint strokes on a canvas, forms that are multiplied and stacked on top of one another to create a sculpture, or even the pixels in digital artwork. He calls these basic units “marking episodes” or “doodles,” each representing a period of time in which you are making art. “It’s very process driven and not based upon arrival at a specific end result, much like what you see in improvisational jazz,” Michael says. It’s a process that has earned the stamp of approval from the country’s top art institutions.
Michael’s artwork is in collections ranging from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, to New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His work has been displayed at galleries and museums around the world, at exhibitions in Montreal, Copenhagen, and Reykjavik. He has been on the art faculty at the Rhode Island School of Design and the Pennsylvania Academy of Arts, and he has been a visiting lecturer at Princeton University and a visiting artist at numerous other colleges and universities. Earlier this year, Michael received ArtsWestchester’s “50 for 50” award, given to 50 outstanding artists who have made significant contributions to the county.
The 66-year-old can trace his love of art back to his early childhood. Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, he spent his youth growing up in both Memphis and Nashville. He always wanted to be an artist and remembers well the first time he was able to get close to an original, historically significant work of art on a trip to Washington, DC. “I saw the brushstrokes up close, and it was exciting. You could feel the viscosity of the paint and the presence of the artist,” he says.
But Michael’s parents didn’t initially understand his desire to become an artist. “I came from a part of the world and during a time where and when there was very little information for me in terms of exploring visual phenomena,” he says. “No one wanted to talk about art; it really wasn’t part of the conversation.”
“My mom and dad wanted me to have a good life, to survive,” recalls Michael. “So they urged me to learn commercial art.” Michael heeded their wishes and took the required courses at the University of Tennessee in two quarters. “I got good grades and a couple of job offers, and then they said, ‘Okay, now you can go back and do what you want to do.’”
Upon completing his academic training in 1978 (Michael earned a master’s degree in art history and an MFA in painting and multimedia), he moved to Manhattan and landed a bartending job, which enabled him to save some money. In the early 1980s, he bought a building in Brooklyn and was able to sublet some of the apartments so he could live rent-free and have time to create art. That is when he began to develop a unique style of abstract “dimensional drawing,” as he calls it, inspired by Lee Bontecou, whose abstract sculptures challenged conventions by hanging on the wall like a painting. “[Bontecou] was saying everything I wanted to say—in a visually recognizable way,” Michael says. “She was doing it through texture, nuance, association, and suggestion. And she was talking to me about how marks can be three dimensional, and ‘drawing’ can be sewing.”
Michael met his wife, Leslie Cecil, in 1984 at her eponymous Manhattan gallery after hearing about her interest in his work; her parents Jane and Donald Cecil are Westchester philanthropists known for their longstanding support of education and the arts. The couple married in 1989 and have become inseparable partners. Says Cecil, “In fact, it’s difficult to draw the line between one of us and the other.” Michael adds, “The biggest line I guess would be my time in my studio. That said, Leslie likes to come in and give her critiques. And, of course our greatest collaboration is our son, Balin.” Balin, 23, is a financial analyst in New York City.
Cecil has watched Michael’s work develop over the past three decades and is continually amazed at how his exploration of mark-making has evolved. “I’m still fascinated by his use of materials and the way he expands traditional boundaries of drawing,” she says. “He’s also an incredibly generous artist which is unusual in the competitive art world. He supports and encourages students, artists, and curators without promoting himself.”
Together, Michael and Cecil are a tour de force of the Westchester arts and education community: Both are highly involved with the Katonah Museum of Art (Michael is a current member of the Board of Overseers); they regularly host composers from Copeland House’s residency program; and they have raised money for organizations such as the Jacob Burns Film Center and the Boys & Girls Club of Northern Westchester.
Michael is also an active member of American Abstract Artists (AAA), an artist-run organization that organizes abstract exhibits and programming. This past spring, he helped assemble the AAA show Sensory Impact in the lobby of Morgan Stanley’s world headquarters in Purchase. “Creighton is interested in making connections to make things happen not only for himself, but also for others. It’s rare to find someone who puts so much effort into promoting projects in which they are not directly involved,” says artist Daniel G. Hill, president of AAA and assistant professor of fine arts at Parsons The New School for Design, who has worked with Michael on AAA projects.
Michael has no plans to slow down. He is busy, as he says, “connecting the dots” to put together several upcoming traveling exhibitions, including one that explores the drawings of inventor and cartoonist Rube Goldberg and another on Mimi Garrard and James Seawright, a prime figure of the art and technology movement in the late 1960s.
Forging connections between artists and arts organizations is rewarding, Michael says. “Looking back, I wish I had a mentor who could have paved the way for me,” he says. “Now, I’m in a position to do just that. It’s just like teaching—it’s passing on your experience. And to see that positive chain reaction that I helped initiate is really very fulfilling.”