|Cause & Effect
Michael Sweere Minneapolis, MN
Interviewed by Sam Edsill | Web
site | Pilot
Arts | Rosalux
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
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
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
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
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.
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.