Michael Garfield – How To Live in the Future: Music 4 Change Interviews MG

15 March 2010

Music 4 Change Interviews MG

(Originally published in March 2010 at MusicForChanges.com)

First off, what were you like as a young artist in junior high and high school?

Growing up, I drew dinosaurs and H.R. Giger’s Alien all the time. Every day. I coped with boring classes, and distracted myself from interesting classes, with margin art. In middle school I had about five friends and one of them was always copying my art and trying to pass it off as his own. I spent a lot of time reading in solitude; my main social scene was playing Magic: The Gathering with other dorks (and I miss those days). My freshman year of high school, I met a guy who would bring his guitar to classes with him and play it at any available free moment…that was pretty inspiring and I started playing guitar at that time. I suppose it was only a matter of time before my compulsive dot-connecting tendencies brought music and art together in my life.

What was it that really turned you onto art? Was there anyone special that got you into it?

I don’t think I ever really considered myself an artist, growing up. I was an amateur paleontologist with aspirations of a PhD and professorship, touring the world digging up dinosaurs and lecturing to people about them. My biggest role model was a dinosaur hunter by the name of Robert Bakker, who was instrumental in teaching the public to understand dinosaurs as active, lively, complex creatures instead of the slow and stupid beasts they’d taught my parents about. He used butcher paper and markers during his lectures and augmented his presentations with very rapid, lively dinosaur sketches to illustrate specific points about anatomy and movement, etc. Looking back on this, I think it’s pretty funny that I ended up getting derailed from academia but still draw dinosaurs in front of crowds and give impromptu biology lectures to tripping hippies.

Bakker didn’t exactly turn me on to art; I was drawing since I had the fine motor control to hold a pen. But he did encourage me in a profound way, from the age of three, to be an artistic scientist and a scientific artist. And I think he’s probably had the greatest influence on my work of anyone, except more recently from Alex Grey and his whole philosophy of art as a sacred practice, connecting the human splinters of the divine mind.


What do you like about painting live versus in the studio?

I don’t actually do much studio work. Music and writing occupy most of my time at home, so live painting is a wonderful change of pace. Dividing my attention between three media in this way keeps me inspired, keeps me from getting stuck, and gives me the superpower of never, ever being bored.

The studio work I do, custom hats and album covers and the like, is usually in a small format and I don’t get any feedback until it’s completed. In that sense, I prefer live painting ninety percent of the time because it’s so interactive. You get immediate criticism from all kinds of people…sometimes they have great ideas I’m able to integrate into the piece, and sometimes they crash drunkenly into my gear, but it’s always more of an adventure than working at home. I take the boors and the jerks with good humor, and I relish the opportunity to inspire people with such immediacy.

How does the crowd energy and music affect your final product?

I wonder this all the time. Certainly if I think the music sucks, or if the crowd isn’t showing any interest in the painting, it interferes with my ability to get into the mood where I do my best work. And if there’s a strong positive vibe from the artists and audience, it really doesn’t seem to matter what kind of music it is. But I haven’t been able to find a one-for-one correlation between the kind of music and what I end up painting. The actual outcome on the gross scale of the whole painting seems to have more to do with invisible dimensions, the astrological transits of the day or something. The zeitgeist. On the fine scale, though, I can definitely tell a difference in the strokes I use based on the BPM of the music: if it’s too fast or slow, I spin off into my own world, but if it’s somewhere in between the act of painting and the beats of the house merge into a single phenomenon. You can definitely tell the difference, too, between a painting I made in the chill room and one I finished directly in front of the subwoofers.


What is the driving force behind your creativity?

God is my co-pilot. Seriously, it’s not “my” creativity. I am one instance of this unfathomably deep creative impulse that permeates and I believe precedes space and time…ideas, in a sense, own people, and not the other way around. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace released their theories of evolution by natural selection within weeks of each other. Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell submitted patents for the telephone ON THE SAME DAY. When Joe Satriani sues Coldplay for stealing one of his riffs, I have to think, “Are you kidding me? You think that music BELONGS to you?”

In this respect, I guess I’m kind of on board with the Native Americans and their whole philosophy about belonging to the land. People identify with their ideas, devote their lives to them, work harder for those ideas than they ever would for another person. If you visualize, for a second, a view of Earth from space lit up by the electrical activity of everyone thinking about, say, atheism, then you have a picture of the body of an idea, its fingerprint in our four-dimensional consensus reality. We could watch the same view of everyone believing in the Jehovah as the two belief systems compete with one another for territory in the minds and hearts of the human race. I would argue that, like Daniel Pinchbeck suggested in his book Breaking Open The Head, there is a higher “dimension” of reality in which these patterns are entities in their own right, entities that require us to live, as we do them. That ideas are alive and distinct and in SOME sense deserve to be recognized in this way. Ancient cultures like Greece certainly did not give people credit for their ideas – they gave this credit to a person’s Genius (later, Genie), a kind of air elemental.

At the very least, I regard the tendency for people to try and capitalize on their ideas as an unfortunate side effect of the delusion of individuality. Buddhism teaches that thoughts bubble up from the void; modern cognitive neuroscience has pretty much proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that most of what we think happens before we are even aware of it, and that the ego just takes credit for all of these unconscious processes. So to summarize, the driving force behind MY creativity is THE creativity, the same experimental evolutionary playground craziness that is responsible for “my” body and yours, for this planet, for the night sky. I’m just playing my part in a much, much bigger production, and I don’t remember my lines.


Did you receive any formal training in painting or are you self-taught?

Well, I use markers because I didn’t get any formal training in fine art. I took a class in scientific illustration my senior year of college and was pretty much hired right out of that class to draw frogs, snakes, and lizards for the University of Kansas Department of Herpetology. I learned a lot of value from that class…and these days, to what degree can I legitimately say I’m “self-taught” when that often means using the wealth of knowledge online and carefully watching my friends and the artists I admire? Again, we’re getting into issues of “Is there even a self to teach?,” especially in the climate of this developing world-hive-mind that the internet is scaffolding right now. But yeah, I’m an idiot with brushes and formally trained with pens, so that’s what I use.

What does the role of "ARTIST" mean to you?

I think there’s something truly ugly about the way our society views artists and the arts…on the one hand, we exalt them, we imagine that they are somehow of a superior race, we wonder at their powers; on the other hand, we hold them in contempt for refusing to abide by the same rules as everyone, we have toxic stereotypes about self-destructive behaviors and craziness and poverty, we regard art as a luxury expenditure and the arts as the first expendable item when it comes time to cut school funding.

For me, as is probably apparent by now, I regard art as just one more thing the universe does, and artists as valuable in their own way but not necessarily any more or less than doctors or lawyers or engineers. Every task in the world can be suffused with artistry, for one, and a surgeon or a plumber is just as capable of fine art as a painter. And in fact, a lot of art is trite and repetitive, more craftwork than artistry per se. Every one of us is a cell in the tissue of the roles we play, coming together to form the human organ in the body of Earth. So the notion of artists as somehow special to a degree that other creative vocations are not is ridiculous to me. In fact, one of the most important things to me is demonstrating that everyone can enrich their lives by engaging whatever it is they do as an art form, connecting with that creative source.

That said, for a while I was on pretty shaky footing with my role as an artist. I started live painting about two years into my first real massive identity crisis, after my dreams of paleontology went up in a huge fireball after college. I had just been laid off from my horrible job at the local yuppie shoe store; my head was full of ideas about how art isn’t “real work” and how I wouldn’t “get away with it.” But after some time I came to really understand how important inspiration is to the well-being of a person or a culture. We NEED to be reminded of our place in a bigger context, a broader myth, a grander story in the same way we NEED to eat and sleep and breathe. Meaning is essential to human existence and in fact the search for meaning pretty much characterizes human nature, so artists are indispensable. Paleontologists regard the origin of art as the line in the sand between human beings and all other animals (which is crude, of course, because some other animals do exhibit creative play, but for the sake of distinguishing between human beings and chimps, cave paintings are a pretty reliable place to set the boundary). Eventually, the guilt of “not contributing” as an artist and musician like my friend the chef or my friend the construction worker evaporated. I found my worth, and it’s intimately tied to helping other people find theirs, in age of fear-mongering media and alienating social infrastructure.


Who are some of your favorite artists? Who should we be looking out for?

I think my fondness for both Alex Grey and Keith Haring should be fairly apparent. Also deeply in love with the work of Andy Goldsworthy, who uses only what he finds in nature and his own zenlike patience to create utterly astounding sculptural installations, like a hanging web of sticks connected by thorns, or intricate gravity-defying ice minarets made by gluing icicles together with body heat. Kris D was the one who inspired me to start live painting (you can read about that here
), and he and I have had some epic and truly inspirational conversations about what the hell exactly we think we are painting. I am a huge fan of the natural history illustration of Ernst Haeckel, as well as contemporary paleoartists like Russell Hawley, William Stout, and Gary Staab. H.R. Giger’s work haunted my dreams growing up and still does. Kris Kuksi belongs right up there in the pantheon of creepoid visionary artists with him. Andrew Jones is so talented it makes me want to give up.

As for more kids to put on the watch list:

My friend David Titterington is a positively luminous still-life and landscape painter in the tradition of the visionary realists like Vermeer and his teacher Robert Brawley. Utter, UTTER, dedication to mastery of the craft and realist depictions of the elegant simplicity of enlightened awareness. David is also largely responsible for turning me onto just about everything, back in the dorms.

My friend Sylys Schipper is not only an amazing painter but can kill it on the drums. We inspire each other, which is always amazing to experience, and I really look forward to the day we actually get our game together and collaborate.

Adam Scott Miller hardly needs my help becoming a world-renowned visionary badass, but I have to put him on the list here because it would be disingenuous not to. He is everything I’m not, as a painter – but we’re still grasping at the same ball of light, as it were. Beautiful, ludicrously detailed work.

What experiences have influenced your life and how has that manifested in your work?

Oh man. If this interview weren’t already a book, I’d answer that.

How long does it take you on average to complete a piece of work in the studio?

Thus far, my most time-consuming studio pieces have been music. The artwork takes about the same time at a show or at home because of certain limiting factors like the size of the media; but I’m going to attempt some much larger pieces and digital art projects with which I can work on the timescale of 100+ hours instead of five to ten.


Do you often work on several pieces at the same time?

I will occasionally decide that a painting needs more work and put it down for a while to let it germinate while I work on other projects. And sometimes I take another look at an old painting and decide I want to “open the case” again, so there are – unbeknownst to me – probably a few “unfinished” pieces lying around at any time. But the real multitasking in my life is BETWEEN media, between art and music and writing.

A little off topic but can you tell us who some of your favorite musical artists are right now? Maybe your favorites to paint to? Who are you listening to a lot right now?

Live painting has introduced me to a lot of music I might never have otherwise learned to enjoy, were I not occupying my analytical mind with creative work while at the show (eg, dubstep). Also, I have painted for artists that might never ordinarily get live artists at their shows because I play pretty consistent opening gigs for other acoustic artists and more intimate, soulful, thoughtful music. So that’s definitely two questions.

Favorite musical artists of all time include Peter Gabriel, Elbow (total heartbreakers), Andreas Kapsalis (AMAZING guitarist, major inspiration), Ratatat (also great for painting music), Jeff Buckley, Cat Stevens, Fiona Apple, Ween, Bobby McFerrin (would be good for studio painting), Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Boards of Canada…you know, profound stuff.

Right now, I’m way into Yeasayer’s new album, my friends Papadosio (fabulous jam band I just opened and painted for during a few of their ski town tour dates), and Bon Iver…but honestly, I don’t listen to a lot of music in my “off time.” Somewhere between going to shows for a living and valuing silence and balance, I spend a lot of time turning stereos OFF.

As far as painting to music goes, like I said, I will always delight in the opportunity to work during D Numbers, Daedelus, Everyone Orchestra, The Glitch Mob (I don’t care if their set is exactly the same as last time when I’m painting), The Heavy Pets, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, Lotus, Ott, Random Rab, Toubab Krewe, and Vibesquad. I’ve painted for each of them a few times and they’re all so…there’s something throbbing and glorious and transcendental about the space their music takes me.

Tell the fans a couple reasons why they should check out your work? What are you doing that stands apart from everyone else?

To my knowledge, and I really do try to keep my ear to the ground about these things, I’m the only person in the live painting scene who:

1) uses paint pens almost exclusively;

2) has a background in biology and scientific illustration that strongly informs my work;

3) devotes equal time to my career as a performing songwriter and aspiring electronic musician, and understands the music I paint for from a technical perspective.

Although it’s not something I strive for, exactly, I do hear pretty frequently that my work is unique, that it’s a remarkable depiction of higher states of consciousness, and that I have inspired someone to make a significant change in their life (either by embracing their own creativity, or by taking a chance to live their dream). Those are good reasons, right?

Where can we check out your artwork right now?

I have a biweekly newsletter I archive online for anyone who doesn’t want it by email. Go there, and you can find links galore to my galleries and profiles at Facebook, Photobucket, Bandcamp, etc. as suits your social networking and web viewing preferences. I’m always happy to answer questions and engage in far-out conversations, so any interested parties are welcome to email me as well.

Thanks for taking the time to check out my work, and have a beautiful day!