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Michael Pittman - Terrible Creatures

Location: Grand Falls-Windsor, NL
ArtsNL Program Funded Under: Professional Project Grants Program
Amount Funded: $5,779

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Work in progress for Michael Pittman's Terrible Creatures project.

Project Dates: May 15, 2017 to April 10, 2018
Artist Website: http://
Artist E-mail:

Visual artist Michael Pittman is originally from Corner Brook but is now based in Grand Falls-Windsor. He completed his academic studies to earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Visual) from Grenfell College in Corner Brook in 2001. He also held a residency at the campus in 2002, and then participated in a group exhibition called Newfoundland Artists at the Waterford Institute of Technology in 2003. The following year he would enroll at WIT in Waterford, Ireland to complete studio based research for a Masters in Creative/Performing Arts with a full scholarship.

Ever since his graduation from WIT in 2006, he’s been busy at work amassing a large collection of visual art pieces. Pittman would eventually go on to be a semi-finalist for the Sobey Art Award and he was a finalist for ArtsNL’s BMO Bank of Montreal Artist of the Year, both in 2013. His work is part of The Rooms’ provincial art bank collection, the City of St. John’s Art Procurement Collection, and on permanent display at WIT.

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Work in progress for Michael Pittman's Terrible Creatures project.

To date he’s had a number of solo exhibitions, including Toward a More Indigenous Art at the LSPU Hall in 2006. Some of his subsequent exhibitions were installed at The Leyton Gallery (A Disquieting Strangeness in 2007 and Stories in 2015) and the View Art Gallery in Victoria, BC (Terra Ephemera in 2009 and Implements of Capture in 2012). Pittman was the subject of an installation at The Rooms in 2012, which was called Haunted Half and his exhibition Nightlights was seen at Eastern Edge in 2015.

Now Pittman is following up his 2016 exhibition, Almost Ghosts held at the Abbozzo Gallery in Toronto, with a new collection of work, funded through the Professional Project Grants Program, called Terrible Creatures. This new series will use the process of klecksography (the art of making images from inkblots) as an entry point and Pittman is exploring ink drawing and abstraction while investigating the notion of "monsters" through imagery. He feels the Almost Ghosts collection has influenced the direction of this new body of work that is leading him to investigate his own fears and anxieties associated with contemporary society.

The images will be comprised of gesso, acrylic paint, and an array of drawing materials. Pittman is using rag board and Baltic birch plywood panels as his canvases and the resulting collection from this project will be part of a solo exhibition that will take place in The Leyton Gallery in 2018.

As the Terrible Creatures come to life, we chat with visual artist Michael Pittman to learn more about his work …

Q and A with Michael Pittman...

ArtsNL: How did you come to decide on the concept of the Terrible Creatures collection? What motivated you to want to explore those concepts?

Terrible Creatures image 3Work in progress for Michael Pittman's Terrible Creatures project.

Michael: I’ve always been attracted to things often considered macbre; I definitely think there’s a very real power in all the things that crawl from our darker corners. During some unrelated research, I became sidetracked by some readings regarding “fin de siècle” fascination with monsters drawn from the pessimism and perceived degeneration associated with progress at the turn of the 19th century. As I followed the trail, I was led chronologically back to Justinus Kerner and his inkblots. I was struck by the similarities in the processes that created both, and the way that fears or ideas were made concrete. Kerners’ gobolinks (which foreshadowed Rorschach’s namesake test) were simply skeletal structures on which to hang subconscious anxieties, much like the fictional monsters of Victorian fiction…or those of any era really. The graphic strength of the images also intrigued me and I found the simple palette appealing. The fact that the images were created with ink also resonated - it’s been such a big part of my process for a long time.

ArtsNL: What kinds of personal fears and anxieties do you hope to explore through the creation of these works, and why is it important to study them?

Michael: I’m not really aiming at anything specific. It’s become primarily about investigating processes of how thoughts or anxieties are made tangible: how we assemble an often diverse array of perceived threats into something solid which is in general opposition to our well being. It’s about how we assemble these things to create something solid. I think that there are positive and negative aspects to combining and solidifying our fears in this way. I think on one level, it gives them form and makes them manageable. On another it makes them more real and therefore, more terrifying and insurmountable. I guess understanding this is beneficial in some way to my process; it helps me understand were things come from.

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Work in progress for Michael Pittman's Terrible Creatures project.

ArtsNL: How do you approach the composition and creation of each piece? How does that change or evolve through your creative process?

Michael: Formally, I find the work has primarily been influenced by the symmetry of Kerner’s inkblots; that’s something that’s really different for me. I think with these new pieces, it’s mostly the graphic strength as well as bilateral duality and symmetry of the inkblots that has provided direction for the work so far. I usually avoid symmetrical balance in my images unless it’s necessary for a specific purpose, but I find it definitely has a visual strength that an asymmetrical composition doesn’t carry, and in a way, forces abstraction through position and repetition. It’s the intention and result of the klecksographic process, rather than the “inkblot" process itself that I find interesting - conceptually, it’s a way to create images that have a type of borrowed authority as some kind of subconscious mirror (or window).

ArtsNL: Why did you choose the canvas / framing materials and media that you’re working with to create these pieces?

Michael: I’m working on rag board presently because I find it allows me to work quickly to develop ideas without having to commit to a more “precious” support. It helps things develop if I can get a lot of ideas out without having to be immediately concerned about infrastructure. It’s highly archival and great to work on, particularly with drawing materials, but it isn’t as quite as big an investment as a cradled panel until you consider framing. For me it helps development and it allows me to be less concerned with creating something polished every time, which keeps me from overworking things (a tendency with which I’ve always struggled to overcome). It gives the freedom of editing, I guess. I’m looking forward to working a little larger again, which is why I also chose cradled wooden supports for this project. The rag board will only put up with so much and the wood allows me to layer a little more. Combining the two for the development of the past couple projects has been useful.

ArtsNL: What kind of relationship does the Terrible Creatures body of work have with the Almost Ghosts collection? Was this relationship an intentional one?

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A piece from Michael Pittman's Almost Ghosts collection.

Michael: The focus on ink as a primary material for the execution of both bodies of work is the most obvious connection. I utilized ink more heavily during the Almost Ghosts project then I had in years. I think this led to a change in the ways that I was using it, in terms of pattern and texture, and I’d like to push this further and in different directions. With this relatively minimal work I also found the way in which I was setting up relationships between different parts of the image was changing. Many of the images had some level of reflected symmetry between figures or objects. The figures sometimes mirrored the forms of one another around an axis of clasped hands or chairs touching back-to-back. Conceptually, there were things that prepared me as well. While looking through Hamilton’s photographs, I found myself wondering what unseen relationships existed between the participants; what hidden meaning narratives were informing the situations that were being captured on film. I began assigning my own value to the scenes, which obviously speaks more to my own thoughts and preoccupations then those of the participants; my very own projective experiment.

ArtsNL: What texts or works did you look at in the research phases of your project to inform your new collection?

Michael: While developing my proposal I was looking at Kerner’s images as well as (the much later to develop) standardized Rorschach test blots, and reading about this type of projective psychological test and its questionable validity. I was reading some texts and essays about fictional monsters in both literature of the past and popular culture, and primary material where some of these monsters are brought to life. The ways that projective tests were assumed to reflect the perspectives (or perceived malignancies) of an individual were strongly mirrored by the way that the anxieties of a particular place and time were made solid in the fictional monsters of folklore, literature, movies, etc.

ArtsNL: How has your approach to creating your visual art pieces changed over time, from the early years of your career to now?

MIchael: I think earlier on, I really let myself be confined by the boundaries that I set for myself within a given project. Now, I have more faith that lateral movement is sometimes more valuable. It’s important for me to move in the direction that the work wants to take me; otherwise things can start to feel forced. I’m not saying that I abandon the underlying premise of the work, but it’s important to acknowledge the value of movement, adaption and evolution throughout the process.

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A piece from Michael Pittman's Almost Ghosts collection.

ArtsNL: What advice would you offer to a young person interested in a career as a professional visual artist?

Michael: I’m not entirely sure how to respond to this question. I’d like to be entirely positive and encouraging but the visual arts are definitely a tough row to hoe. I definitely haven’t locked down a formula of making it a career. I have a young son who already says he wants to be an artist and I’m honestly not sure how feel – he’s only four and he’ll likely go one to find his own path, but it’s still a source of both pride and terror to hear him say this. I’m honestly never more content then when I’m making work, but I think deciding that it’s a “job” creates forces that can exert some very real pressure on you. It’s easy to forget that if you’re in it for the long run, you have to pace yourself. It’s too easy to burn out; excitement and enthusiasm for a particularly project or body of work can lead you to expend a lot of creative energy in a short period of time. It’s a catch-22 because I think that you have to invest yourself entirely in everything that you do and, at the same time, you have to be aware that you’re not drawing from an unlimited well. You’re frequently subject to external forces over which you have no control, and that sometimes have the ability of throttling your output in either a positive or negative way. I would say pacing and persistence are very important when deciding that visual art is something you want to try to make into a career. It also helps to have a good support structure and a thick skin.

ArtsNL: What challenges do you have to overcome in the creation of your work, generally or with respect to this specific project?

Michael: Everyone has challenges in whatever they do. I think that they can sometimes seem amplified when you’re depending on your creative output. Sometimes they can push you to create and other times they can completely immobilize you. I’ve had a bit of a tough year…probably no worse than anyone else’s and likely better then many, but it’s definitely affected how things have unfolded for me, and how I approach my work. The little logistical hiccups don’t really bother me anymore; it’s the life-changing stuff that’s been bringing its weight to bear on my practice lately.

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Work in progress for Michael Pittman's Terrible Creatures project.

ArtsNL: What kind of a statement do you hope this new collection will make for its audiences, and what do you want them to take away from the work?

Michael: I don’t know. I often struggle with the validity of my own work, which I frequently consider too internal to have any broad appeal or relevance. I’m surprised and heartened when people respond strongly to one of my objects or images. It validates some of what has been poured into it. Over the last decade or so I’ve learned that there are very few artists that don’t wring themselves out in the pursuit of their craft. The statement I’d like people to take away from this work is that it exists and that a significant amount of energy and effort went into its production….as long as people take the time to look at it and not dismiss it offhand, it will have been worthwhile and I’ll be pleased.

ArtsNL: What does the ArtsNL funding from the Professional Project Grants Program mean for you? To your project? And how does the grant enable you to continue to develop as a professional artist?

Michael: We are so lucky in this province to have the support of ArtsNL. I feel honoured to have been given the opportunity to pursue my work with the freedom that I have over the years, and I don’t take that for granted. I feel a certain responsibility because of it and I think that pushes me sometimes when I feel like stepping back. There is so much invested (on multiple levels) into an artwork by the time it reaches an audience and I really believe that it, in turn, has much to offer. I think if people take the time to understand and respect the many layers that contribute to the production of creative work, everyone benefits.