2013 Open Studio Fellowship Artist Mike Rathbun, OR has been involved with Franconia for nearly 20 years. In 1996, our inaugural year, he built one of the first sculptures installed at the park, a massive wooden wave-like structure titled N45º 22.822, W92º 41.087. As an artist-in-residence in 2002, Rathbun created the looming 40-foot tall sculpture titled, Heroic/Pathetic Irony. This summer he returned to the land of wide open sky to make the tallest sculpture in the park, Parade.
I’ll start by framing Mike’s work and practice with a paradox: it is equal parts humility and exaggeration, steeped in both impressive ambition and poignant admissions of frailty.
“The ideas I pursue are related to my ability and inability to function in the world,” says Mike. He cites George Brecht’s Two Excercises, as a major influence, and an apt description of his life as an artist:
“Consider an object. Call what is not the object ‘other’. Add to the object from the ‘other’ another object, to form a new object and a new ‘other’. Repeat until there is no more ‘other.’ Take a part from the object and add it to the ‘other,’ to form a new object and a new ‘other’. Repeat until there is no more object.”
Brecht’s quote truly captures the idea of practice, a repetitive, seemingly mundane process of trial and error. Eventually, the work pays off, and for every 100 back-to-the-drawing-board moments, something clicks, and there’s a single revelation. This is can be seen throughout Mike’s work, both in the way he devotes himself to making, and the truly impressive objects he produces.
With titles like “I’m Bad, I’m Good, I’m Bad…”, “Icarus”, and “The Situation He Found Himself In”, (shown in order below), one gets the sense that Mike’s work explores intensely personal, vulnerable moments in his own life. In a 2013 interview with the Vancouver Vector, Mike confirms this, saying, “I think, like everyone, I have things that tug at me, things that run through my mind constantly, memories that don’t seem important except for the fact that they present themselves over and over.”
During the course of his performance, Icarus, Mike burned all of the sculptures in his studio. Icarus, as the myth goes, died tragically when he disobeyed his father’s instructions, flying too close to the sun where his wings melted. Mike seems to be commenting on his failed ambition, renouncing his ego, and yet again pledging an almost spiritual devotion to the artistic process. To publicly state that starting over would be better than duking it out with work that wasn’t worth another minute? That’s the ultimate back-to-the-drawing-board moment.
Even though Mike’s sculpture is inspired by his own heroic struggles, it never depicts an exact scene, but rather approximates a feeling or a state of mind. He admits that he’s not always sure what the sculptures mean, just that they mean something and needed to be made. In that way, it’s possible for a viewer to enter the work from his or her own point of view. Mike’s interest is in provoking an emotional response, and he achieves this with monumental sculptures that overwhelm space, dwarfing existing structures, and placing the viewer at the center of it all, looking up. He’s not exercising his ego by building the largest sculpture he can, but rather showing us what it felt like to be him, at one time or another.
I caught up with Mike recently and he shared insights into his latest work on exhibit at Franconia titled Parade, his artistic practice, and his experience here as a fellowship artist.
When you’re making sculpture, what is your creative process like? What path does your work take between the inkling of an idea and finished project?
I usually get an image in my head. It is sometimes related to something I am reading or a place I have been. But not always. I take the picture and work backward to figure out the steps it will take to get it done. I break it up into a series of steps and build it one piece at a time. The piece is fluid and changes to meet the need of the step. This usually has to do with things like; material availability, time help, the space available…
What inspired your project at Franconia this summer? How does it relate to your past work?
I have had some recent intense personal trials. I needed to work hard on something for a long time. I got a fortune cookie that said, “ Someone dreams of being you.” It made me cry. I found it again few months later, and realized it really said, “Someone dreams of being with you,” this did not make me cry.
Why did you propose your project to Franconia and what did the experience of working here offer you?
Franconia is a place that offers a great deal of freedom. Things like faith, space, willing hands are in abundant supply. I have been making sculpture at the park since just after grad school. It is always like going home. It has been an important and present part of my career.
What other residencies have you done, and how do those experiences compare to your time at Franconia?
I don’t know if what I have done before have been considered residencies. But, I will say that I believe that “Parade” is the most important work I have done and I could not have done it anywhere else.
Where did you study and whom did you study with? How have those experiences influenced your own work?
I have many important mentors. But, two come to mind. One was Stewart Luckman at Bethel University. He taught me to love obscurity. And the other is Guy Baldwin, at the University of MN, who taught me how to sail. These are two things I could not make it without.
Who (or what) are your greatest inspirations as an artist?
The ideas I pursue are related to my ability and inability to function in the world. I like George Brecht’s assignment Two Exercises. I have long considered it to describe my life as an artist. Or, anyone’s life who committed themselves to their work. My greatest inspirations are the things I love and the things I fear.
Bonus Question: What do you consider the most important work of art in the world?
The Capri Battery, Joseph Beuys
So there you have it. What a fitting way to end a discussion of Mike’s work. What do you when life gives you lemons? You use them to generate something.