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Satisfying the Soul: An Interview with Michael Newberry

Satisfying the Soul: An Interview with Michael Newberry

10 Mins
October 4, 2015

Michael Newberry is an American representational artist based in Idyllwild, California. Now in his 5th decade of creating art, Newberry has exhibited his paintings in major galleries in the United States and Europe. His major works are typically on life-sized canvas and took years to complete. He has taught at the Otis Art Institute and has been a popular lecturer at several IOS and TAS summer seminars.

[Editor's note: the above biography has been updated from the original article printed in 1998.]

Navigator: How did you discover your talent?

Newberry: In college I discovered that I could paint, draw, and sculpt easily. Any project I had in mind I could go about making, and the finished pieces were more exciting for me than the mental picture I had had. I loved the feeling of making the art, and I loved the results. As a teenager, I didn't wonder whether I was talented or not. Making art was like making sand castles. The time simply flew.

Navigator: What you describe is a pleasure in doing of the work—a pleasure so satisfying that the work seems like play. When you studied art in your studio classes, did this feeling continue? Or did the mastery of your craft take long, hard, sustained work and study?

Newberry: The answer to both questions is "yes" and "simultaneously." In most ways, it's the same now. I try new things, different challenges. Can I paint a foot kicked out toward my face? Can I paint the light from the window as it is filtered through the mosquito net? These are actually sub-issues, not the main ideas of the works, but they are part of the process. I enjoy the "Can I do it?" challenge.

Navigator: At what point in your life did you decide to build your life around your talent?

Newberry: When I was twenty, I faced an excruciating dilemma: to be an artist or a professional tennis player. In tennis, I had been in top ten in the U.S. Junior division, I played third and fourth position on my university team the year we won the N.C.A.A. championship, and my sister was ranked top twenty in the world. I knew if I continued in tennis I could make a good living and travel the world as a professional. But in comparing my choices, I felt a lack of magic in my skills as a tennis player. I had some technical weaknesses. No matter how hard I worked on correcting them, the results were less than satisfying. In art, by contrast, it seemed the opposite. Every challenge I undertook gave me satisfying results.

The clincher was contemplating what kind of life I would have as an old man. In sports the height of your career is from your mid-twenties to, perhaps, your mid-thirties. As an artist, by contrast, I could be making my most fantastic work at eighty. This thought made my decision to be an artist. I also knew that I needed to learn a great deal to be the kind of artist I wanted to be and that I would never reach that vision if I gave tennis ten to fifteen years of my youth and then tried to become an artist. It's much easier to learn and automatize skills while you are young.

Navigator: Let me phrase the question in a different way. When did you know that you are an artist, and when was it clear to you that you'd never be happy as, say, a computer programmer or an insurance salesman?

Newberry: There was a later point in my decision to continue as an artist. Up to my mid-twenties all the works I made were like tests: Could I paint two people in one composition? Could I make the colors more intense? Could I make the objects more realistic? But I hadn't reached the point of maturity, where my art was a complete expression of my soul. I wanted to move beyond technical problems to express in paint what I consider the most important moments in one's life. At that time I was living in a slum of Staten Island, and in low emotional moments I would think of other places I could be—playing on red clay in the south of France, or making good money giving tennis lessons, or studying to be a chef (I love cooking) and opening a restaurant with friends! At this point, I decided to give myself a few more years of painting, to test myself, and see if I could paint a painting that satisfied my soul. And if I could reach that point, I would be willing to endure poverty that inevitably accompanies being an artist.

The painting Pursuit was the result of this period. After its completion I realized that I had a talent not to be wasted and that I had to act accordingly.

Navigator: I recall seeing that painting when you displayed it at the Jefferson School in 1985. I remember gasping when I looked at it, and I suspect my response is shared by most women, and probably men, who have seen the painting. What did you call on to capture the disconcerting mix of excitement and fear that the painting represents?

Newberry: This painting's concept came from an abstraction: What does the pursuit of an ultimate value feel like? What is the emotional feeling of being three yards away from the top of Everest? To be walking down the aisle for your wedding? To be two games from winning Wimbledon? What does "love at first sight" feel like? I didn't want to paint a man climbing a mountain, or a tennis player, or a wedding ceremony, or a date at a restaurant, but I did want to paint the concept of love at first sight in a less-than-conducive environment.

I am pleased you call it a "disconcerting mix of excitement and fear." Accomplishing big dreams is not "a walk in the park"; doing so is scary and very exciting . . . and disconcerting.

I know that many people feel very uncomfortable with that painting, seeing it as a promotion of rape. But I think they're afraid of actually being "out on a ledge," of realizing their utmost potential. It seems safer to lose, to be a spectator of life from the living room, than to feel the rush of being "out there." Incidentally, many people absolutely love that painting.

That painting marked my transformation. At that time I could feel I was in the process of becoming the artist I wanted to be.

Navigator: At what point in your life did you discover Objectivism?

Newberry: At twenty, I had chosen to give my art studies all my attention, and I was attending art classes in Holland. I was full of questions: What was so important about art? Why did people around me act the way they do? I had stored questions from my youth about mixed feelings connected with my family life. I had a vague attraction to principles, and I knew money wasn't the answer to life. Perhaps it's artistic exaggeration, but throughout my childhood I felt there were some heroes [and] heroines around me. I also had a vague but intense sense that my immediate surroundings were imbued with evil. At this point my sister, Janet, gave me Atlas Shrugged to read. There are too many impressions to recite about my reaction to Atlas Shrugged at that time, but two things stand out: the momentum of the work and the insightfulness of the characters. The momentum excited my emotions, and detailed studies of the characters and situations resolved many questions I had about human interrelationships. Reading the novel was a revelatory experience for me.

Navigator: Can you be more specific about the questions that reading the novel resolved for you? I want to press you on this point because many Objectivists report a similar experience of the novel. I'd like to know in more detail how Atlas Shrugged clarified or confirmed the worldview of a young man who had just decided to make rendering is worldview on canvas a career and a way of living.

Newberry: Ah, to be specific . . . Here is one example: When I as about 13 years old, my older brother (17) asked me if I wanted to go to an amusement park in San Diego. I was so excited, it was like the day before Christmas or like getting a gigantic package in the mail. For those of you who know opera, it was like the ship coming into port in Madame Butterfly. He said that we had to walk past this construction site on a hill to be picked up by friends on the other side. We were walking along a dirt road, high on the side of a hill, when he shoved me over the edge of the road, and I tumbled down a rocky incline, about 50 yards, to the bottom. I was bruised, badly scraped-up, and quite bloody—that was my gift from him. Though I was in tears and feeling crushed, a detached part of my mind wondered why—not a "why" thrown out to the universe, but about my brother. Why was he like that? Why did he do that to me?

I had no way to answer those questions then, but my question remained close to the forefront of my mind. Reading Atlas Shrugged showed me the evil I had already experienced, and more, the motivations of people who hate the good for being good.

As an adult now I can be more sympathetic to my brother, more understanding of his situation and his problems at the time, but only to a point. I am not interested in a codependent relationship with a sadist. There are professionals for those sorts of problems.

Navigator: Has your interest in Rand's ideas affected your work?

Newberry: The effect of Rand's ideas on my work—what a question!—is more complex than you might imagine. I think the biggest effect on my work is that I work at all! The aesthetics of nihilism and subjectivism in the twentieth century is so pervasive that it touches or dominates every art school and museum in the world. The problem I had, early on, was that every teacher I had tried to convince me that meaning was silly, that form was nothing important, and that realism was an outdated and dead art form. That Rembrandt's paintings felt alive to me was not going to help me through the subjectivity (proudly held) of the art world elite.

In contrast, Rand's body of work has been like a symbolic pat on the back—a confirmation of my approach to art and life and an encouragement to continue. Her analysis of second-handers and manipulators in The Fountainhead—rather, her creation of Roark—was a great guide to the sort of problems I was to face in establishing myself as an artist. Her characterizations saved me from the anxiety and stupidity of entering juried shows, or of sending out expensive submissions to galleries, or of doing commissioned work. I'm often asked to do a commissioned portrait or project. If an artist wants to torture his soul, he has to look no further than accepting commissions! To surrender the choice of subject matter, or to hang on the acceptance of a client, is a hell I went through only once.

Navigator: What is your sense of the artist's role?

Newberry: An artist is the closes thing we have to the concept of God—someone who re-creates the universe and makes humanity in his own image. Incidentally, this concept is handy when you go to art exhibits. What you see in the artworks is the artist's vision of the universe. If you're staring at a tar-black painting, you could of course think about the shape of the canvas, its size, how it would look as a design element in a bold interior. But if you think of the artist as a god, you quickly realize that the universe the artist is holding out for you to contemplate is empty of thought, emotion, and entities.

Navigator: I can imagine that Objectivism has had some influence on the subjects you choose—one look at your renderings of the human body would tell me so—but has the influence worked in other ways, too? I know this is an impossibly broad question, but I want to ask it just that way. Narrow it down as you please.

Newberry: Probably the most significant influence of Objectivism on my work is the concept of integration. Many artists deal with only some fundamental attributes of painting—say, color harmony or flat graphic design. But from my study of Rembrandt and Michelangelo and Rand, I concluded that I needed to master essential attributes of painting, such as human anatomy, composition (the arrangement of objects within the limits of the canvas size), color harmony, form, and spatial depth. Related, though separate, is the choice of the subject matter. And then one is off on a journey of putting all these aspects together into an integrated whole. At some points this journey is a mind-boggling experience, like closing a too tight plastic lid on a container. You push down on one side and the opposite pops open. But when all the elements of a composition come together, it is a fantastic experience.

Another aspect is the influence of Rand the passionate artist. I remember some fantastic moments of living in New York, painting continuously, and devouring Rand's fiction. Her use of cruel justice contrasted with exaltation, as in Dagny's flight sequence, charged all my energies and I easily focused them towards my art.

Navigator: Your responses make clear that Rand was an influence on your decisions to be an artist and to be the kind of artist you are—trend-bucking, independent, commission-scorning, and so forth. But I've always sensed with you that "influence" is the right word, that the driving force of what makes you want to paint comes from yourself alone. Is that perception accurate? Is there a point at which "influence" ends and Michael quite happily begins?

Newberry: I'll have to set up my answer first. Art can have the amazing power to make people feel. In many cases their responses to art can be stronger emotionally than their responses to their personal lives. People can experience the passion of life-or-death issues in opera, or the driving exaltation of Atlas Shrugged, but in reality they rarely get to "bawl their eyes out" or feel romantic love. For me, the artworks of Rand, Michelangelo, and Puccini are alive. But for an artist to use these feelings and responses as a starting point of creativity is a complete waste of time. It's spiritual copying. And when artists emulate other artists, their work becomes a shadow, without passion or genuine perceptions. No matter how much I respond to Rand's work, to work with that response as a central motivation for my own images would reflect her sense of life, not my own. Artists are egocentric; I work from the inside out. The key is to dig down deep inside myself and find that spark, that passionate burn, and focus on that feeling, magnify it, and bring it out through paint. That's the difference between artists who copy and those who are "real."

Navigator: How do you know when a painting is finished?

Newberry: There are a few answers I can give you. The simplest one is that the work feels "right."

Another is that I start a work with a particular "gut" feeling and begin painting. At one point all the forms or entities look correct and I feel towards the painting the same "gut" feeling that I started out with. For example, I recently made two paintings of my bedroom at night. I painted one of the paintings during a melodramatic storm, the other during a lovely spring night. What I was literally seeing—the doorway, the glow of the bedside lamp, its reflection on the wood floor—was the same for both paintings. But in painting them, I found that the atmospheres of the two contrasting evenings had a strong influence on my "gut" feeling. One of the paintings is painted with very dark turquoise blues and with very soft green highlights. The other has the colors of a freshly cut trunk of a tree. I don't know if the examples are obvious, but the blue painting was painted during the storm, and I painted the one with cream and brown colors on the calm night. In both cases, I was painting realistically what I saw, but my mood was guiding all of the subtle choices.

A third partial answer is very technical. When I see things in reality and when I see the colors of paint on a canvas, I don't so much see colors as I see the vibrations of the color and light—it's kind of a super-sensitivity, like focusing your whole body on the "ring" of a piano. In painting I try to recreate the light vibrations I see in the world around me. To give you an example: You are seeing a woman lying on a couch wearing an orange terrycloth bathrobe. The orange-covered shoulder is the first object in your field of vision. The color will be intensely bright, but the color of the robe around her calf, much farther away, will be less intense, more transparent. What has happened is that the vibration of the orange color has changed. This is an observable phenomenon, involving the light source, entities, and our sense of sight. My theory is that when the color vibrations are in harmony (that is, the different colors look good together), and when the vibrations mold the form of the entities, the painting is finished.

Navigator: Many people perceive artists as people who don't quite operate as "normal" people do, who are touched by a kind of divine fire that makes it difficult for them to articulate what they do. You're unusual in seizing opportunities to discuss your art and art in general in public, intellectual forums, such as the IOS summer seminar. Tell me about the intellectual dimension of your artistic practice—what it is that motivates you to take on the challenge not just of making art but of theorizing about its making and meaning.

Newberry: One part of the answer is a kind of innocence. I love painting. The other part is that I enjoy understanding what I am making, why I am making it, and what other artists are doing and why.

My sensibility and my mind have been thoroughly bombarded by the insanity of most of the "high" points of twentieth-century art. Here's a typical example: There is an artist who had a museum exhibition in London. He needed to fill a huge space with artworks, and had made nothing until nine days before the exhibit. He began by going to junkyards to find or buy the materials, he then assembled the trash he had found, and he made enough sculptures to fill the museum space. He commented that that was an exhausting experience.

How is this exhibit possible? Why is it considered important artwork? What is the art expressing? Why arc the values that I see in artists of the past, and why is my own vision discarded as being inferior? One can pick up any international art magazine and read through it, looking for answers about the value of the artists they are reviewing. You'll find that the reviewers do not critique the actual works. They will talk about historical context, the influence of other artists, drop names, and often mention the mediums used. But I have yet to read a contemporary critique of the artist's theme and how well it is expressed through the artwork alone. Why is contemporary art criticism as vague and meaningless as the artworks it covers?

Rand gave me a clue when she commented that philosophy is the blueprint for cultural phenomena. The answers are to be found not by looking at these works or reading the reviews, but in reading philosophers' writings about art. Part of me must be masochistic, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading Kant's aesthetics. The enjoyment comes from the discovery that Kant's aesthetics is at the root of every mid- to late-twentieth-century deviation in art. I would sum up some of Kant's points in this way: "A genius has no idea of what he is doing." "Art criticism is subjective." "The senses are inadmissible." "The sublime is formless." "The sublime violates one's sense of understanding." He goes on and on. In reading Kant, one can simply check off the propositions that have obviously led to the state of art today.

If we were in the middle period of a new Renaissance, I probably wouldn't give a hoot what was going on intellectually; I wouldn't have to. But out of respect and love for my work, for that of past masters, and for the potential greats, I have chosen to shine light on absurdities and on the sublime. Unfortunately, that job cannot be done by paint alone; it must be explicit; it must be done ideologically.

Navigator: When you need to fill your head with beauty, what do you do? Sit by the sea? Go to museums? Look at images in a book? Listen to music?

Newberry: I have found that no amount of beauty really makes me feel good or inspired if I have problems that are creating stress. So I try to clear the space in my brain by taking care of problems first. I will do the laundry, arrange my finances, work out, and so on. Then I find I really enjoy the things you mentioned. I love to swim, more like splash, in the Aegean. When I like a writer, I will go through everything he or she has written, like Agatha Christie stories. Sometimes, I lie in the middle of my studio with a pillow under my head, close my eyes, and listen intently to a singer like Leontyne Price, or to something symphonic. I love to hear the different recordings of Beethoven's Ninth and some six versions each of Puccini's Turandot and Bellini's Norma. Of course, romance is, among other things, a very special inspiration.

Navigator: Whose paintings satisfy your soul?

Newberry: There is a lot of work out there that touches me. And I can love works for the ways they reach different aspects of my soul. One, perhaps shocking, example is The Scream by Munch, a skeletal figure crossing a bridge with its mouth open in a scream. That work doesn't begin to encompass my soul, but I relate to that painting when I imagine myself in a concentration camp as a victim of the evil that humans can do. I would feel just like that image in that context.

In the Classical (500–300 B.C.) Greek rooms of the Metropolitan in New York or the Archaeological Museum in Athens, I feel a white calmness. Those sculptures are elegant, simple, and idealistic. I could go on like this, about the different feelings I get and love, from Rembrandt and Michelangelo, the Impressionists and Picasso.

Perhaps a different question is, "What would my personal art collection look like if I could have my pick of the world's art?"

There is a Vermeer painting, The Girl with the Red Hat. It has a wonderful luminous quality, and the shadows on the woman's face are the same colors as the tapestry in the background. Those colors create a fascinating atmosphere. From Picasso's Blue and Rose period, I would choose A Boy with a Pipe. I would be happy with any of the drawings of Michelangelo. In sculpture, I would choose the Three Graces in marble from the Parthenon frieze. There is also a classical bronze, a boy galloping on a horse, that I would love to own. And then there is a small Rembrandt painting, a quick sketch in paint, of a woman standing in a stream ready for her bath.

There really isn't any painting that completely satisfies my soul, except for my own. I look to art as I do to friends. Some are outrageous, some have black humor, others are sensitive and kind, some intellectual, and some more emotional. In that way paintings represent different aspects of humanity's attributes, and as with people, I can individually like, love, hate, or be indifferent to them.

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