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Art. Environement. Interview.

Michael Sweere
Minneapolis, MN
Interviewed by Sam Edsill | Web site | Pilot Arts | Rosalux Gallery

A Waste-Note Approach to Art

Looking at the work of Minneapolis-based artist Michael Sweere could have you thinking, "Some part of that may have once been mine." That's because Michael crafts his mosaics and sculptures out of discarded commercial packaging, stones, glass and just about anything he can salvage. Michael's subjects range from playful to pensive, and often depict fields and forests of the Midwest. His imagination shines through in each piece: a pile of clipped barcodes becomes a rainstorm, yardsticks turn into smokestacks and cardboard soda boxes transform into verdant landscapes. Michael is a member of the Rosalux Gallery and Pilot Arts collectives.
"There is a feeling of accomplishment and reward creating fine art from discarded elements." – Michael Sweere

Last Breakfast

MC: You've used everything from stone and glass to jar lids and cereal boxes in your mosaics. Where do you find the materials with which you work? How long have you been making them?

Michael Sweere: I've been incorporating recycled materials in my artwork for about 15 years. I "acquire" my raw materials from a variety of sources. First off, I've got a great network of friends and relatives that keep an eye out for interesting and unique objects that I might be able to use. Also, thrift stores, building sites and abandoned lots are often good hunting grounds. Ever since I was a kid I've been a skateboarder, and I still enjoy looking for new "secret spots" to ride. Industrial parks and warehouse loading docks can be good spots to skate and usually have nearby large industrial dumpsters filled with items I can salvage.

MC: What inspired you to choose discarded packaging materials as a medium? Was it an environmentally-influenced choice, or because you liked the variety the materials offered?

Michael Sweere: For many years I worked as an advertising art director. Many of the accounts I worked on were packaged goods clients like ConAgra, General Mills and Pillsbury. I became very familiar with packaging used by my clients and their competitors. My office was always filled with packaging samples that I never threw away. Around the same time I was traveling extensively, both for business and pleasure. With travel came more exposure to different types of art. I became very interested in folk art and mosaics due to trips taken to New York City, Mexico and the American Southwest. One Saturday morning I was having breakfast with my son, it was raining and we decided to build a paper mosaic from a cut-up Fruit-Loops cereal box. The results were a bit abstract and crude, but, something clicked and I realized that I was on to something really new, with lots of possibilities.

Land of Giants

MC: Some of your pieces are more noticeably constructed from salvaged goods than others. Is there a specific way you prefer to work with your materials—to mask their origins or showcase them? Describe your process.

Michael Sweere: It depends on the project. To be honest, most of the time I look for colors, patterns and availability of material more so than the actual "branding". I try to keep my work from looking like an actual advertisement for a specific product (unless it's a commercial assignment that needs brand recognition.) Being an ex-advertising dude I got kind of burnt out on "the power of the brand." For me, it's more rewarding for the viewer to look at an image I created and know that the entire background is "Mountain Dew Green" without seeing the actual Mountain Dew logo anywhere. It's almost like stealing part of the corporate identity without giving any recognition to the brand.


MC: So, in a small way, through commercial assignments you still dabble in the commercial art business. How often do you do these types of projects? Do they challenge you regarding your artistic point of view?

Michael Sweere: It's been an interesting transition. Being an art director for so many years has definitely been a huge influence in my work and business. These days, my income is mostly from taking on commission assignments, and some of the projects are definitely more "commercial" than others. One thing that I've been able to really take advantage of is applying advertising agency business practice to my own fine art business. I like working the client on developing ideas to create an original piece of work that we'll both enjoy. It's challenging, but totally worth it, especially if I'm going to be working on the project for up to nine months at a time. So far I haven't been approached to work on a project that I thought was overly commercial. I have a feeling that sooner or later I'll get an opportunity to do something blatantly consumer driven, if so, I'm not sure how I'll react. If it is a product or concept that I'm down with, then maybe.

The jobs that I've been doing lately are pretty cool, not really commercial at all: a cityscape made out of recycled wood yardsticks (for a Minneapolis ad agency lobby entrance) and a giant, paper mosaic of the plants and animals of Minnesota (for a pediatric hospital lobby.) I'd like to apply my work to book arts, maybe someday illustrate a Children's book manuscript that I wrote a few years ago.

MC: Many of your mosaics depict stunning landscapes like Above the Prairie. How do you relate to the interplay of turning consumer waste into lovely vistas? Are these images how you see the world? Are they ironic?

Michael Sweere: Creating a thought-provoking image (art?) from items that were meant to be thrown away is very rewarding. And yes, the images that I create are sort of how I see the world. Or, at least how I've seen the world. The bright colors of some of my packaging mosaics bring back memories of toy stores or candy counters when I was a little kid. Maybe it is a bit ironic that my paper mosaics (especially the landscapes) depict trees—the natural resource from which paper packaging comes. Once a tree, still a tree.

MC: Corporate consumer goods packaging is deliberately interspersed throughout your work. The assumption is that this is a comment on corporations' misuse of our resources. If this is true, are the corporations you chose direct offenders or is it more of a generalized statement?

Michael Sweere: I'd say that it's only a very generalized statement. Something that I do find interesting is the amount of thought and energy that goes into creating and marketing product packaging. After the purchase is made, this same packaging becomes consumer waste without any afterthought.


MC: So would you say you are trying to reclaim some of the energy lost to a cycle of waste?

Michael Sweere: Yeah, maybe. Or prolonging the process for awhile.

MC: Do any problems arise as a result of using packaging in your work?

Michael Sweere: Sometimes. It's taken extensive experimentation to find the proper paper varnishes and sealers to protect my mosaics. Inks and paper can react unpredictably and I've learned to avoid certain packaging or paper goods. Another issue has been availability of packaging. Often brands "update" their packaging and colors; patterns that I've grown to rely on become unavailable.

MC: It's been over a year since the artist co-op Pilot was founded. How are things going?

Michael Sweere: Pilot continues to grow and create new opportunities for all of us on the "flight crew." For myself, the affiliation with Pilot has helped land some great commission assignments, including a giant 16' x 6' paper mosaic mural for a large healthcare facility.

MC: In your artist's statement on Pilot, you mention a feeling of accomplishment from using discarded items to make your art. Is this feeling purely personal or is it part of a larger artistic statement?

Michael Sweere: Mostly personal, but I do like the idea of being part of the solution instead of contributing to the consumer waste and pollution problem.

Deep Blue Sea

MC: Are there other artists, writers or organizations who have influenced your work?

Michael Sweere: There are SO MANY. My parents and siblings. My son Mickey. My wife Carole. Favorite artists include: Andy Warhol, John Sargent, Andy Goldsworthy and the Reverend Howard Finster. Locally, I get inspiration from my peers at Rosalux Gallery and the Pilot Group, especially visual artist Jen Davis, she's very prolific and consistent in keeping her work fresh.

MC: Through creation of the mosaics, is there anything have you learned that relates to American consumerism that you would like to talk about?

Michael Sweere: Not about consumerism as much as creativity. Finding beauty in everyday objects and your surroundings will build your imagination. Don't be afraid to look at things differently, it's what makes you original and unique.

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