An Interview with “Emanation” Artist Michael Oatman

An Interview with “Emanation” Artist Michael Oatman

How did you get involved with ‘Emanation: Art + Process?

MO: Hank asked me originally if I would be the curator for the show, but I had my hands full, and didn’t think I could take on a giant organizational role. I was hedging, and we both knew it. Then the conversation drifted to being on the artist side, and I said yes right away.

What were your expectations about WheatonArts? How did they match up with your experience when you arrived?

MO: Expectations exceeded, especially going back to one of my first visits with my students from the School of Architecture at Rensselaer in the fall of 2013. We took on the idea of expanding Wheaton’s museum as a premise for a design studio, and got to work closely with Hank and Kristin Qualls, the recently-appointed curator. A great experience for the students as they got to cast glass and engage with the very social nature of the glass community. Most of my work on Emanation so far has been as a designer, getting and approving of the test castings fabricated by Hank and his team.

Do you think your Emanation experience will affect your future work?

MO: It already has  I’ve made 9 new editions of prints based on the studies for the large snowflakes that are being fabricated. There are plans for continuing the editioning process at Wheaton and we’re already talking about future projects.

What do you expect to take away from this experience with WheatonArts?

MO: Most likely the thrill of seeing something emerge that I don’t have total control over. It’s really exciting seeing your idea transformed by many voices, technical prowess and material limitations. Somehow my best collaborations are the ones where I can only envision about 70% of the finished project. In the “Cold War” snowflakes that we are making (from hexagonal arrangements of cast glass fighter jets, bombers and drones), I feel like they are operating right on the knife edge between image and object. There’s also something plainspoken about having to employ an armature, clip the planes on and then wrestle with a really temperamental and fragile work that weighs 1000 pounds. We’re looking into making military styled-display cases for the componentry, not unlike Duchamp’s case for “3 Standard Stoppages.” I like having a particular dialogue with another work of art via its storage crate.

What about WheatonArts made you want to participate in this unique project?

MO: Scrappy, “we’ll figure it out” sensibilities, a chance to work with Hank Murta Adams who has long been one of my favorite artists.  I guess having a great experience in 2010 when the stained glass artist Debora Coombs translated one of my collages into a window – I was ready for another go at the medium, and being a novice was thrilled to make a bunch of mistakes that might turn out to be compelling.

How did you get interested in working with glass?

MO: It’s been a longtime fascination for me, probably as far back as grade school science classes. Other kids had battleship models in their rooms; I had rocks, minerals and junk from old Gilbert Chemistry sets. Over the years I’ve gotten to know Toots Zynsky, Lino Tagliapietra, and others through my former RISD mentor Alfred DeCredico.

How is working with the studio and museum at Wheaton influencing your vision and process?

MO: Certainly. I’ve approached this project as another evolution in this particular set of images and memories associated with Vietnam, the Cold War and the influential work of Wilson A. “Snowflake” Bentley, a fellow Vermonter and the pioneer of microphotography. I feel like it is imagery that I will be re-visiting for a lifetime.

Have you learned/developed any new techniques by virtue of working with the glass ​studio staff artists?

MO: Strangely enough, it has mostly been about re-calibrating initial ideas with what is actually possible.  Material testing, the demands of the studio calendar and the opinions of many experts have re-tooled my initial ideas of absolute need for precision into something much more sympathetic to the realities of imperfections on the microscopic level. In a way, I’ve arrived at a more earthy project, rather than something smoothed and slick.

What has been inspiring to you from the museum exhibits and displays?

MO: Density, historicity, variety and an unusual container in the form of a 1.5:1 scale Victorian building!  Part of me wanted to respond just to that curious condition.

Why should people come see the Emanation: Art + Process exhibit?

MO: I think to see many artists who are not primarily working in glass, and to see how they embraced the “less known,” if not the “unknown.”

What are you working on in your studio right now?

MO: Currently I’m making very large scale collages about our supposed “management” of the natural world.  Also at work researching ideas for a film project and an oversize comic book.

Can you describe your working routine?

MO: Lots of research, mishearing snatches of conversation and looking through my books.  I cut out images and sort them into a vast number of categories. That process feeds into my collages.  But my other, larger practice involves the making of large-scale installations, often years in research and fabrication.  As a collector of “stuff,” I’m never sure what’s going to rise the surface or become necessary. Right now I’m very engaged by the 1939 World’s Fair “Duralloy Time Capsule” as conceived of by Westinghouse.  I’m pretty sure an expedition to Queens is in the near future, perhaps with some artist and scientist friends.  Maybe a composer and historian to boot.

Can you describe your studio space and how, if at all, that affects your work?

MO: I have three studios: The first is about 1800 sq. feet and is part storage, part shop and part white box in which 5,000 books, sorted by category, are within easy reach. I work on large rolling tables and tend to make pencil and watercolor studies of the collages and installations that I’m working on, or trying to raise funding for.  Well organized, but a kooky amount of stuff.  Studio 2 is at my apartment, and is really a room with lots of drawing tools and a smaller, yet holographic selection of the same books as in the large studio.  Studio 3 fits in the trunk of my car and is a bit like the crime photographer Weegee’s setup.  A Klein Tools bag with cutting mats, blades, knife handles, rulers, glues and other gear for surveying a site (as well as making collages and drawings).  I always feel prepared for anything I stumble across.

Tell me about your process, where things begin, how they evolve etc.

MO: Some ideas arrive fully formed, other develop over years. I try to have at least half a dozen projects going simultaneously. I use drawing, and increasingly digital modeling to help me visualize the right scale, componentry, etc.

What are you having the most trouble resolving?

MO: Well, on Emanation, it was getting over the fact that I was not going to have fighter jets detailed like Swarovski Crystal. But living with the test planes and seeing how they handled light during the course of a day was very revealing.  In the end, there was no compromise, just a kind of accumulative appreciation of the process that Hank revealed to me.

Do you experiment with different materials a lot or do you prefer to work within certain parameters?

MO: My projects rarely have material consistency. At this point it is a strength, whereas when I was younger my tendency to drift caused me much concern.

What does the future hold for this work?

MO: Hopefully increased audiences due to this new medium and also a lessening of my preconceived notions of glass!

As you look back through art history, whose work has been influential to you?

MO: Wow, this is a giant list. Top 10:  Marcel Duchamp, Giovanni Bellini, Piero della Francesca, Jasper Johns, Tom Phillips; and my teachers Alfred DeCredico, Ana Mendieta, Jack Massey, Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler

Can you tell us a little about your early years and what influenced you to become an artist?

MO: My parents made everything in our home – they grew and canned vegetables, built furniture, sewed clothes and screen-printed stationery and t-shirts.  My mom and dad still live in the house he built in 1963.  I remember my dad once making a forgery of a VT State car inspection sticker because he knew the 1959 Jeep wouldn’t pass.  So, art seemed like a kind of “special permission slip, a little bit off-center.  But a specific incident sticks out in my memory: as a boy scout, we got to participate in a competition whereby each scout was given a paper bag containing a toilet paper tube, styrofoam balls, feathers, pipe cleaners, etc. – in short a mess of “craft” items.  We were challenged to turn that stuff into a kind of vignette or diorama.  I made a pretty credible hobo, I remember, but my my neighbor Scott Bell designed a TV station with cameraman and anchor, and I thought, “wow, this kid really surpassed us all.”  I wanted in on that level of imagination.

What have been some of your most important influences that shaped how you create today?

MO: Eugenics, The Apollo program, having and maintaining a childhood beer can collection;  a love for science and questioning authority; my teachers.