Works on LPP
★ MEET N‘ GREET ★
Jess Wheaton: Hi Michael, thanks for talking with me. To begin at the beginning, which came first, your art practice, or your curiosity about the early history of the Great Plains?
Michael Krueger: Growing up in South Dakota, the lore and history of the west and the plains has always just been a part of my consciousness. And I have made drawings as long as I can remember. Since my father is an artist, I grew up in a household that encouraged creative activities. Even more so than that, I was embedded in a world of hippy art projects, funky candle making, macramé, trippy abstraction, fiberglass dinosaurs in our backyard, eco-environmental conceptual sculpture and lots of- albeit friendly- derelict activities and social activism. For me the weirdness of all of this was normal, but nonetheless illuminating for a budding artist.
JW: I can imagine! What in that zany environment first inspired your connection to and fondness for past history?
MK: The interest has always been there, but it was when I read the texts of the late great Howard Zinn, principally “The Peoples History of the United States,” that I became compelled to re-examine my own personal sense of history. I am interested in not only all of the wrong history that we learned in school, but also in sorting out how past histories have directly impacted my life, my intellect, my emotions, and my perceptions of society and other people. I do believe that our understanding of history directly affects our social perception of the world.
JW: I read that while working for the University of South Dakota Museums, you were charged with retrieving Chief Red Cloud’s feathered beaver hide top hat along with several other Sioux Indian artifacts from a Monastery on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Can you retell this story, and elucidate how this crazy experience molded your perception of the world, its past events, and your place in and amongst it/them?
MK: This was a life altering experience for me, even though the actual act was in some ways very ordinary. I was sent to the reservation to pick up some artifacts and drive them back to Vermillion, South Dakota in a van. There were all kinds of things on the list, but one of them was Chief Red Cloud’s hat. This happened to be the beaver hide top hat that Red Cloud wore on his first visit to the White House to meet the president. The story of Red Cloud and the Sioux nation is no doubt a heart wrenching story, but nonetheless full of courage and wisdom. Without going into the entire history, let’s say that he was put in the position to negotiate with the US government over land in the west and principally the Black Hills. He maintained that the land could never be bought or sold because it did not belong to anyone, the earth is the earth and it feeds us all, and the earth is not to be owned by any people. Of course we all know the tragedy that befell the Sioux nation and many other native tribes, as the land was taken and they were moved to reservations. For me Red Cloud is an important anti-hero in US history.
Transporting his eagle feather-clad top hat for me was an honor and a moving experience. I did not expect this object to have such a strong effect, but it did. I drove the van from Pine Ridge through Fort Randall Dam, the tribe headquarters of the Sioux Indian, and back to Vermillion. As I passed through Fort Randall the sun was setting and the sunset completely enveloped me. I had to stop the van and just sit by the side of the road in the total silence of the prairie until I was surrounded in darkness. Indescribable by words, the moments spent immersed in that sunset changed me somehow. The object affected me emotionally and intellectually as I moved it across the landscape. I am not trying to say that the hat was magic or anything like that, but that my consciousness was so open to the force of its history that I was able to tap into my own experiences and understand the power of ruminating on the past. I know that I was only able to have this kind of spellbinding experience because I did then and still do try to maintain a state of ‘readiness’ and openness to influence, and a longing- a searching for a confluence of events, memories and experience to bring ‘otherly’ meaning to my life.
JW: What progression or sudden realization (after this event?) led you to create representations of historical figures mingled with contemporary events?
MK: I simply wanted to fold time and make comparisons between the past and present and somehow ruminate on my own life experiences.
JW: How do you go about transposing these themes into work?
MK: It is not a super conscious process, even through I might spend a lot of time researching certain subject matter. I must offer the caveat that while the research is there, it is not always visually overt. And that is okay because the works are also about, and perhaps more so about, the quality of the drawing: the color and marks and the emotive response. I am interested in using images and narrative to evoke tenderness, drunkenness, sorrow, humor, confusion, anxiety, pathetic nostalgic and decadence, and to evoke all this, oddly enough, tinted with optimism. I want to create the potential in the work for the audience to access different levels of content.
JW: What’s a day in your life typically hold?
MK: I start my day drinking coffee until the fuzz clears, then I try and eat something and then I get to work. If I had my way I would sleep until noon every day and stay up as late as I wanted. I love to work in my studio late into the night. As it is, my days are usually a flurry of different activities, very disjointed, but I have learned to deal with that. I teach two days a week and usually spend a third day in meetings with students and faculty. I travel a fair bit so that breaks up the months and keeps me bopping around. If I am not traveling or teaching I am spending time with my family and working in my studio. Whatever the day brings, I continually think about my art and feel like that is a constant progression in my consciousness.
JW: Does research, fatherhood, looking at certain things, and/or other facets of life factor significantly into your studio practice?
MK: Being a Dad is a great motivator for improving your outlook on life. My son Jasper came along when I was just 23, and I soon found myself being a single Dad, which I loved, by the way. I decided early on that the best thing that I could do for my son was to set high goals for myself, so however I could I had to continue to make art and work my ass off. The real payoff of being a parent is learning to love and being loved by your child. Nothing matches this life experience. All of this has made me a better artist.
In terms of other ‘life’ influences that impact the everyday, I would have to say music plays a major roll in my creative life. And for most of us that make art, we would probably never be as good as we are or want to be without all of the amazing musicians past and present that break the silence of our studios. For me making art and listening to music go hand in hand, and I am grateful to all of the musicians past and present who continue to inspire me.
JW: How do you approach the task of teaching? If you have one, could you share your philosophy about what you are there in a classroom to do? How has the experience of both being taught and teaching affected you?
MK: When I teach try to give honest criticism and nurture knowledge. That really is the heart of it- trying to be very honest with students about their work and encourage the desire to learn. I am still trying to figure out how to be a better teacher; it is looking like it’s going to be a lifelong project. What I do is work hard to remain open and am constantly learning, so I can bring my new experiences directly back to the classroom. Maintaining a rigorous studio practice, being fully committed to my own work, and pushing myself to be out there with my work makes me a better teacher. Teaching is a great gig- the experience is rewarding and challenging every day.
In terms of what I learned from other people, I know that I missed a lot of opportunities to learn and also that I was very lucky to have had some amazing teachers that believed in me. In hindsight, it is probably harder to be a great student then it is to be a great teacher. These days I just try to be both.
JW: I’d like to know how colored pencil became your medium of choice. Also, what mysteries lie in your counterintuitive color choices, and what role do your works’ numerous rendered details and oddities play- for example the strong sunbeams and wide stripes, or your densely-patterned natural features?
MK: Honestly, I never really thought I would be using colored pencils. It just seems to be the best medium at this moment. And I love paper.
My current studio work has been an aggressive return to drawing, drawing that is relatively unencumbered by tradition. The way that I am drawing (now) is simply the most honest means for me to express myself. I am disconnecting from much of what I have learned about drawing and relating to techniques that best allow me to lose track of the conscious world. For me drawing is transformative, and when I draw I am able to leave one world and enter other(s). This approach is perhaps an evolution in the continuum of my creative practice, but in other ways more of a regression.
JW: And lastly, what is your biggest concern right now, and what are you anticipating most right now?
MK: I am currently working on a series that draws on a variety of utopian imagery, from hippies to early American colonies. I am interested in making connections between the 1600’s - 1670’s and 1960’s - 1970’s, and exploring themes of utopianism and the euphoria of communes and colonies. I am researching the origins of the colonies and cults, the source of spirituality, perceived persecution, utopian ideals, and specific histories and events. Some of this work was recently in a solo show titled “Endless Colony” at Steven Zevitas Gallery in Boston.
I consider the pieces that I made for Little Paper Planes to be a continuation of this series, even though they do not have specific clues to past histories. Instead the sensation of history is conveyed through the mood of the landscape and the use of color.
What I am anticipating most right now in terms of my creative life is just getting back into the studio and working things out.
JW: Thanks very much for your time, stories, and insight Michael. I hope your work gets all the studio time it deserves.
Michael Krueger is a father, an artist and a teacher. He was born on January 5, 1967 in Kenosha Wisconsin. His family moved to South Dakota in 1970 and he spent his childhood years in Sioux Falls. These formative years in the West cultivated a fondness and curiosity for the history of Westward Expansion and the epic struggles that were cast on the Great Plains. In 1990 Michael earned a BFA from the University of South Dakota and in 1993 he graduated with an MFA from the University of Notre Dame. In 1995, Michael moved to Lawrence for a teaching post at the University of Kansas. Michael’s creative research has taken him all over the globe from Asuncion, Paraguay to the United Arab Emeritus, to Scotland, England, Belgium, France and Italy. He has recently had solo shows at Sunday L.E.S., New York, NY, OSP Gallery, Boston, MA & Anchor Graphics, Chicago, IL.