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NAME: Michael Fitzsimmons
BASE OF OPERATIONS: Parker Street Studios, Vancouver
Above even the circular saw next door, the spraying booth drowns out all noise. Michael Fitzsimmons hovers over a piece — his mouth and nose protected by a multi-coloured respirator, and his hearing shielded from the roar by industrial earphones.
We stand in his drab and paint-stained studio, which serves unlikely double-duty as both furniture-finishing operation and artist workspace. Before us, he pours multi-coloured liquids onto a what looks like an unfinished door, smearing them around with paper towels, and then blowing them across the surface with an airgun. The chemicals he’s playing with are not just mildly unpleasant, they are severely toxic.
His unique adaptations of industrial techniques and materials have created an effect entirely his own: dark and vibrant scenes of deep space and particulate energy, splayed out and pulsing before you.
So… what is Zebo Designs?
We do Furniture Finishing. Primarily, it’s work with custom cabinets. Say, an Interior Designer has a customer who wants something unusual built; they’ll deal with a custom Cabinetmaker who will build it and ship it to us for finishing.
A lot of the Furniture Makers have their own finishing departments, so what we get are the jobs that have a particular kind of finish that not everyone can do.
Does the Furniture Finishing tie into your artwork?
I don’t know that the paintings are triggered by the aesthetics of what I’m doing on the furniture, but certainly the technology of what I’m working with is a big part of it, because I work with catalyzed lacquers and all kinds of conversion varnishes and solvents, and it’s not the kind of material that most people would or could- without a specific setup to safely use it, start working with for art. I mean, you HAVE to have a respirator and a Spray Booth. You couldn’t use this stuff in a residential neighbourhood. Just the fumes coming out of it would have your neighbours storming down the doors.
And you’ve sort of translated this industrial application into painting, with your understanding of the relationship between these chemicals and the paint, is that fair to say?
Yeah. Because I’ve worked for quite a few years with these paints, doing a lot of unusual finishes and odd combos of materials and colours, I’ve had a lot of experience manipulating them. I’ve got cupboards full of all sorts of materials. Because, on the furniture side of things, I’m more of a paint technologist than most artists, I’m able to actually MAKE the paints that I work with. I deal directly with industrial suppliers who I get all the ingredients from.
So you’re not even dealing with colour base?
No, I start from a lot of clear bases, and I’ve got a couple of different resins, binders, solvents, catalysts and pigments, powders, dyes — I’ll use all kinds of things to generate colour. Some things I want to be fairly rigid, hard, solid paints; others I want to be able to dissolve or melt away, so I’ll change the way I make the paint. When I started doing artwork with it, I had a… VOCABULARY, if you want to call it that, that an artist who just picks up the materials would take awhile to learn. Anyone could, of course, but it wouldn’t be instantaneous.
It certainly creates some very unique and interesting effects. When I first had a look, I had the impression it was digital.
Yeah, I’ve had that comment a lot — on some of the paintings, people first think it’s something digitally produced, but it’s all analog.
Do you have an idea when you sit down how a piece is going to end up, or does it evolve as you work?
Well, both. In many cases I just walk up to the panel and I don’t even know what the first colour will be. I just start working, and so it’s like an improvisational thing, I suppose: you put down one bit of colour and you look at it and you think ‘well, what’s next?’ and the route that it will go to in the end is hard to know. There’s a lot of other paintings I do where I know before I start the panel what it will look like, pretty much. Where I’ve got a plan and an approach. ‘Field’ was created in that way.
I’m curious about the effect you’ve achieved in Field — did you use different colours of paint, or is it all one colour, and you’ve generated that bursting effect by way of a chemical reaction?
It’s more the chemical reaction. I DO use different colours, but a lot of the colour happens after the paint’s already on there. I move them around a lot after they’re on the surface. I can melt and partially dissolve and get a chemical reaction between two different things to make a colour change. It’s one of the things that I’ve learned over the years, working with these materials: what kind of solvent is going to produce the desired effect.
There seems to be a recurring theme of red and black – is that intentional?
Well, it’s not a symbolic reason. Working in the furniture trade, over the years, I worked with a lot of browns and taupes and earthtones, and I think that enhanced my liking of strong, vibrant colours. Even though I know how to do muted tones, I seldom do. I really enjoy the bright, vibrant aesthetic.
Is there an inspiration for you behind this, or is the inspiration the final product?
Both. I do a lot of things where I just love to see what happens. One of the big sources for my imagery is particle physics; detection images; Bubble-Chamber photos– where it’s tracks of electrons or other particles that leave the arcs — and I’ve done a number of paintings that have made use of that image. I’ve got a fascination with elemental forces, I suppose.
I’m not painting just to do abstract painting. For some people, paint is what it’s all about, but I’m happier if someone forgets that the surface of the painting is there and just thinks that they’re looking at something in a mysterious space.
Can you tell us about your first sale?
Well, when I was doing just the furniture for a few years, and my wife was painting, she was putting things in the Eastside Culture Crawl. So, I started putting out some… well, what we call Mounting Boards– we attach them to finished or painted surfaces so that they can be handled; picked up and moved around without touching the paint, and, bit by bit, they get a lot of interesting drips and spatters and residues of colours on them by pure accident.
I always liked them and thought of them as artwork in themselves, and a couple years in the crawl I sold a bunch of them — about a thousand bucks worth of Mounting Boards, which is great because they’re literally off-cast, accidental crap from our shop. But on the other hand, they were interesting artworks, a lot of them, and that was kinda my ongoing connection to the arts even though I wasn’t doing it, and my paintings are kind of similar. I mean, I take similar approach in my paintings.
The first real SIGNIFICANT sale that I had came along in a nice way, in that we had finished a set of dining room chairs and, one day, a woman came in with one that had a problem. While she was here, she saw a painting and loved it. She ended up buying it, and just taking the chair back without us fixing it.
It must have been nice to know that your art had that kind of an effect on someone.
It’s a very nice compliment when someone purchases your work. People give compliments all the time, and with all genuineness I’m sure, but when someone also parts with money out of their bank account it’s sort of an extra-special comment– someone liked it enough that they actually wanted to keep it on their wall. It’s a very satisfying thing.
If you moved to selling paintings as your primary source of income, do you think that having to paint, or having to paint things that are commercially viable might might suck some of the fun out of it?
I like to think not, but it’s a concern I suppose, and it’s one reason that I’m not rushing to chop out the other source of income. As it is now, I don’t feel any deep pressure to make an income from art, so if I wish to start doing some odd paintings that people may think are ugly or won’t sell, I won’t need to worry about it, whereas any artist who makes their living solely from their art, there’s always an eye on the market -which is not an altogether bad thing. I don’t think it’s selling out doing that, but it’s a little extra source of pressure that can, in some cases, slow you from experimenting.
You’ve decided to donate some of your work for charity — can you tell us about that?
Yeah. I’ve donated it to an auction called Unite with Art, which is a UNICEF-run charity for children with HIV. It’s an excellent cause and they have an auction with a dinner and all, and quite a number of artists from around town participate. It’s the third year that they’ve done it, and they have about 50 or 60 artists participating. I’m hoping I’ll bring a good price — it’s a good cause.
We hope so too, Michael. Thanks very much.
Michael Fitzsimmons works out of suite #280 at Parker Street Studios, and welcomes visitors to both his studio, and website: www.zebodesigns.com
Contact Michael by phone at 604.255.7473 or by email, at firstname.lastname@example.org