Making Space for Art with Painter Michael Nauert In His Chinatown Studio
Michael Nauert’s Chinatown art studio is two things: one, the perfect place for a game of laser tag, with a complex maze of hallways lined with post-it notes asking tenants in the building to turn off the lights as they make their way to their studios, and a place brimming with inspiration and personality.
There’s a little outdoor patio shared by a few of the studios — including a radio station that shares another room in the space — with makeshift furniture that feels like a post-apocalyptic hideout or an art installation in itself, complete with a TV with a face drawn on it and a handmade chandelier. Everything about this artist's enclave feels energized with a vibrant sense of life.
We move through all these different catacombs of creativity and finally make it to a small but bright room that serves as Michael’s studio: lined with canvases, experiments in-progress across multiple surfaces and levels.
I met Michael Nauert at a friend’s holiday party a year ago, and we spent way too much time talking about our favorite sci-fi novels. He had mentioned he was a painter, but was characteristically humble and soft-spoken about his work, and I didn’t realize how incredibly talented he was until I discovered his Instagram: a gallery of breathtaking paintings that bled life. Even through my iPhone’s screen, I felt my heart stop. I knew I needed to talk with the artist responsible for creating pieces that felt so vivid and alive.
What follows is a recollection of one of my favorite interviews of Kingdom of Pavement so far, and I’ll attempt to do it justice here on the page.
“IT WAS A shed on stilts IN THE MIDDLE OF THE JUNGLE”
“The jungle has a mind of its own,” Michael tells me as we stand in front of a wall of paintings inspired by his time teaching and creating art in a jungle in Belize.
He shows me a painting called “Forest Walks,” inspired by trees in Peru that literally move ten feet per year. They’re in the shape of teepees, and are known as Cashapona or Walking Palm. The natives in Peru used to use these trees for shelter, but as the trees would move, they would have to move their firepits -- which is how they found out the trees were moving in the first place.
“I had to position my bed really awkwardly in order to not get rained on,” he says of his time in Belize. The shed on stilts he stayed in had a tin roof and the rain would find its way inside.
“I brought my own canvas and figured out how to make my own primer from the materials I had available,” he told me. “I had to have someone come with me to clear trails, and since they had to stay with me, I taught them how to paint. That was a huge enormous shift for me. A few years earlier I was at CSUN, going to college for music, specifically trumpet. I was really passionate about music, and thought that was what I was doing forever.”
From there, Michael started his move into art, starting with magical realism before moving towards his abstract style. “I was very controlling with my art when I started: I couldn’t paint thick or paint with gestures — I couldn’t let the paint just be paint,” he explained to me. “It had to be a dream image and everything had to be blended together. When people interacted with my paintings, I wanted them to have one experience.”
Something had to change in Michael’s artistic life back then: his perfectionism was turning into self-sabotage, and he needed to either walk away from art or commit to it full-time and figure out a better process.
He couldn’t walk away: so he decided to face his fear around it.
That’s when the opportunity arose for him to paint in the jungle in Belize, and he jumped at the chance. “It was at the exact right timing — I had made the decision to completely pursue art. A month later, I was there.”
Through traveling to the jungle, he was able to break a lot of the fear. Being in Belize was the first time he’d been overseas by himself for a long period of time, and the breakthrough completely shifted his painting. He went from perfectly blended magical realism scenes to abstract painting with thick paint and visible brush strokes. He was finally able to play around with paint from the very first painting he did in the wilderness.
“It was so freeing,” he says, remembering. “The jungle was a perfect environment to tune me into that: it’s so chaotic and wild.” Some of the people he was with were afraid of the jungle and wouldn’t go in with him. “It was kind of as if the jungle became a myth,” Michael told me.
The jungle as a mythical, destructive place where artists go to flourish or crumble isn’t new. Nature has always played a critical role in shaping how artists approach truths about the natural world.
“I love how Werner Herzog talks about the jungle,” Michael says, and later sends me a clip of Werner Herzog in the jungle entitled, “Overwhelming and Collective Murder.”
“Everything he says is profound and hilarious,” Michael says. “I feel like he has such bitterness toward the jungle, but he can’t help being so poetic about it.”
In Michael’s paintings of the jungle, there isn’t any tracks of that bitterness that can sometimes arise from being held hostage to the chaos of the wild. He names each piece in a way that is also thoughtful and full of care: “I think back on the imagery of these places and write poetry,” he says.
From the poetry he writes, the name of the piece makes itself known.
“SOMETHING ABOUT THE PAINTING MADE ME DECIDE TO MICROWAVE IT”
What captured me about Michael’s artistic process was the incredible amount of experimentation — a much different approach than his initial perfectionism when he started out years ago in his painting career. Kind of like a mad scientist of form and creation, Michael shared with me the toxic ingredients (like cadmium) he used to get such bright colors, the decision to microwave a piece, and the exploration into trying to create a third dimension on a two dimensional canvas.
Michael begins by making space for a painting: he builds the frame of the canvas from scratch in his woodshop, then stretches the canvas over that. The artistic process starts from that very first moment: he describes this process of clearing space (both physically and mentally) as his intentions for the painting merge for what the painting eventually becomes.
The moment he started talking about this process — this concept of making space for your art — I felt the spark of an epiphany. All creative types need that runway and preparation that leads up to creating their work, and we sometimes forget that the mental preparation is just as important as the work itself. Ideas need to gestate, to be fed and nurtured and grow within ourselves.
All too often, however, the madness of daily life threatens to encroach upon that runway. If we don’t clear space, how can we expect to do our best work in a cluttered state of mind? How can we connect with our inner mad scientists, and find the most harmonic pairings of ideas? How can we hear if a painting needs to be microwaved or realize a piece needs to be rewritten from a perspective of a new character? There’s a dialog to creativity between the artist and their piece. We need to know how to hear it.
“IT FEELS LIKE THE PAINTING KNOWS WHAT IT WANTS TO BE”
As we move through the rest of Michael’s paintings that are currently in his studio, he talks about the element of surprise that’s part of the painting process. He describes the evolution of each piece as something beyond the conscious mind: an experience with different parts of himself in communication. Especially with gestural painting — painting with sweeping gestures — the paintbrush truly becomes an extension of self, a record of movement instead of just the record of mind.
One painting in particular stands out and Michael describes it as “an apocalypse in your eyes.” He walks me through his choice of colors, and how if you look at the painting and look away the light spots are the opposite color. Every aspect of the viewer’s experience seems to be considered in how Michael approaches the piece. Unlike his earlier years of being an artist where he was trying to control the viewer’s experience, instead he likens his paintings as a mirror for both the artist and the observer. Connecting things outside of ourselves.
“A painting becomes a junction in mindspace,” Michael says in earnest. “It feels like the painting knows what it wants to be.”
You can follow Michael Nauert on Instagram @michael_nauert, where some of his paintings are also available for purchase.
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