Making Artwork Accessible

An Interview with Mike Upton

By Jessica Antony – January 7th, 2020

Designer and artist Mike Upton strives to create art that inspires feelings of creativity, joy, and love in our homes – spaces that are sacred, spaces in which we create memories with the people we love. He’s been making artwork for as long as he can remember – picture a 6-year-old Mike sitting at his family’s kitchen table, creating oil paintings for hours at a time. While his career has gone from apparel design to fine art creation to screen printing and sculpture, his process has always remained intuitive: something that flows through him and onto the medium he’s working with, shifting and evolving as he considers and reconsiders lines, colours, and materials. With his new studio, Upton, Mike’s goal is to make good, original art attainable. Mike shared how he got started, his process and inspiration, and how he sees Upton evolving to include the creation of experiences that aren’t simply transactional, but transformational.

Growing up in southern California, Mike attended a public high school that focused heavily on creative arts programs, like ceramics, recording, metal working, and woodworking. Similar to a college campus and only a mile from the beach, it was at this school that Mike first learned to screen print and fell in love with it. “I always knew that I’d be doing it,” he said. “It felt right, it felt intuitive.” This experience stuck with him – today he remains friends with his high school art teacher, still getting together every other week over beers or a bonfire. A month before we talked the two had even been out to the desert to paint. With his high school experience of screen printing on clothing, studying apparel manufacturing at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles was a logical next step.

After college, Mike was hired as the first designer for then-start-up apparel brand, Brixton. After eleven years designing clothing and helping to grow the brand, Mike learned all aspects of running a business – the result of wearing multiple hats when working for a small company. “It was almost more of an education than college was because it was hands-on,” he explained. “I think I’m actually a better learner that way, when I can get in there and actually try something.” Feeling the need for a change, and taking a cue from the fact that he would spend all of his free time painting, Mike decided to leave Brixton. “I never really felt at home in the apparel world,” he said. “I was more interested in the home world or the architecture world.” He credits his wife, Mariel, for pushing him to take the plunge: “I owe a lot to her for encouraging me and giving me the freedom to make that choice. So, I just took a leap off the cliff and didn’t really have much lined up. My thought was that I was going to try to pursue fine art, mostly oil painting.”

Early in his foray into painting full time, Mike found himself in a situation that would eventually lead him to his current practise. He spent months on a painting and found two potential buyers. Despite pricing it at cost, both buyers ended up backing out due to the price point – it was too high. That’s when he realized that he needed to find a way to make art that’s more affordable. “I don’t like that only one person gets a painting,” Mike explained. “So, I wondered if I could take this painting and screen print it to create multiples and make it more affordable.” He did just that, and when a sales rep from Brixton saw Mike’s prints, she asked if she could use them to decorate her booth at an upcoming trade show. He made her a few different prints, and she ended up not just using them for decoration but selling them. “She called me and said, ‘I just showed these to eighteen accounts and we already have twelve orders,” Mike said. “I knew this was something I wanted to pursue, but having that commitment of people expecting the product really forced me to sit down and figure out ‘how am I going to do it?’”

His time with Brixton was clearly a benefit, as he had the experience with the business side of things to help bring his artwork to market. This was especially helpful with the goal of making his work affordable. “I love art,” Mike told me, “but I don’t even go into an art gallery and buy paintings. For one, I can’t afford it – and nobody I know can afford it – and also it can be an intimidating experience. But I also don’t want to buy cheap, mass-produced, shiny poster art. So, I felt there was a gap: there was really nowhere for people like me to buy accessible, good-quality artwork, so that was the need I wanted to service.”

So how does Mike produce original artwork without an exorbitant price tag? His medium, screen printing, is a part of the equation. Every single piece produced by Upton is an original piece of artwork – whether it’s a print on canvas, a print on paper, or a metal sculpture. “It’s all very intuitive,” Mike explains. “I make very loose ink drawings, hundreds of them, so I’ll have stacks and stacks of drawings. I’ll pin those up and stare at them for days or months and refine them and edit them. It’s truly a process to get to the finished design.” From the ink drawings, Mike creates the screens that the ink passes through to make the print. Then, after choosing the colours and mixing the ink himself, he creates the final artwork. “That’s what I love about prints – there’s an evolution of the original drawing, gesture, or design that occurs through the print process,” he told me. As the design moves from its first drawing through the screen and onto the paper or canvas, that original design itself begins to evolve even more. “It takes on its own character and the lines get blurred or the edges get a little rougher, so there’s a transformation process,” Mike said. Each print then takes on a life of its own, with variations between them due to the handmade nature of the process. The same applies to Upton’s metal sculptures: “every one of the sculptures is patinaed by hand with a custom patina that we mix here.” No two pieces of Upton art – whether print or sculpture – are alike.

Intuition coupled with inspiration taken from everyday life – from cookbooks to music to architecture to music – is what drives Mike’s creative process. “I’m always trying to dispel the myth that an artist just sits down and whips out a painting,” he told me. “I’m listening to my gut and trusting my eyes and pushing and shaping and trying to get something to the point where it feels intuitively right. The art is based off of everything I’ve seen in my life, or seen in my daily travels, or experienced, or tasted. It’s a culmination of these experiences and things I’ve gathered.”

In a world where we can easily fill our homes with that “cheap, mass-produced, shiny poster art,” Upton aims to help as many people as possible find joy in the artwork they display in their homes. “Homes are a sacred space for me,” he explains. “It’s somewhere where we create memories and it’s a place we share with the people that we love the most. If a home is filled with art, it helps inspire feelings of creativity and joy and love in this sacred space, and that’s something I really try to provide for my audience.” Following the philosophy of Charles and Ray Eames – wanting to create the best for the most for the least – Upton’s focus is on bridging the gap between fine art and everyday life. And despite his experience and talent, Mike still considers himself an outsider to the art world. “Even when I was in the apparel world, I was a complete outsider, and I think that’s why we were really successful. I designed clothes that I wanted to wear, not clothes that I though everyone else wanted,” he explained. “Being an outsider can be good.”

It’s being a relative outsider to the world of fine art that perhaps helps Mike see the art in everything around him. “The way that someone views the world and interacts in the world – to me, that is artwork. The designs I produce are just a product of that mindset,” he explained. Whether we are creating art in the way we interact with loved ones or the way we cook a good meal, Mike collects those experiences in his own life and creates a product from there. The process, in this sense, is the most important element. “The mindset around it or the intuition behind it is the artwork to me,” he said. “A cook – the way they’re cooking and the flavours they’re combining and the materials they’re using – the food is the final product but the artwork is how they prepared it and the mindset that went into it and all the experiences and everything they tasted before that. Combining all of that to make a dish, that’s the artwork. And that to me is what is exciting.”

What else is exciting for Mike? Looking forward, he sees himself expanding the mediums with which he works to include ceramic, tile, or stained glass, or even shifting into furniture design. He’s also interested in creating experiences. “When I have a unique experience, it’s really moving to me. I love watching a band play and I love the energy in the audience. If you see a really good band play, you’re talking about it for the next week and you’re telling everyone you know about it. I want people to have that same feeling seeing artwork,” he explained. Interested in both moving experiences and in the notion of sacred spaces, Mike can see himself combining thoughtful, handcrafted products with a unique experience held in a space that feels sacred. “It’s something that I feel people need now more than ever,” he explained, “because I think a lot of us are losing our lives online and it’s great if people can get a break from that and have those experiences that give them wonder or joy.”

Mike’s appreciation of creative and thoughtful experiences is one of the reasons his philosophy and artwork align so well with EQ3. “I feel we’re in pursuit of the same goals,” he said. “I love that EQ3 has invested time and energy into the New York building: no one is doing that, actually thinking about the spaces that people have to interact with and dedicating time and money to them.”

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