And Things Change – Interview with Michael Shumiatcher

Michael Shumiatcher

Gray DeForge. lol, 2009. Courtesy of the photographer.

I sat down with my old high school media teacher in a cafe a few blocks away from his studio and had to stop several times from calling him by his nickname “Shumi”, the shortening of his last name that so many knew him by. I finally settled on the uncomfortable but familiar “Mike” for the duration of the interview, but still my head was pulling up “Shumi”. When he first became my teacher, Michael had a reputation for teaching the easiest elective class in the school. As I got to know him, however, his class became my social hub and go to outlet as a “troubled creative youth”. He was a friend and mentor to those of us who felt isolated by our other classes, and he opened many of us up to new media. Michael Shumiatcher is still a high school teacher in Burnaby, BC. He is also an established sculptor, painter, and musician. Michael and I had a chance to sit down, catch up, and reflect on the trajectory of his practice.

JT: What’s the timeline of your practice, how did you get to where you are now?

MS: It started when I was in grade 12, I went to a hippie boarding school in Vermont. It was a wild school. We had a painting teacher, his name was Peter Devine, he’s still a fairly well known American painter, and he really inspired a group of us. When I was in university at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD), I took lots of painting classes, but no one ever really inspired me as much as he had. In the other areas, sculpture of course, it had nothing to do with my past. But for painting it’s still my high school painting teacher. He remains my muse.

After that, I started off at Langara College in 1980 at their fine arts program. I was there for a year and then I went to NSCAD in january of 1982. The field really opened up for me when I went there. It had been a very exciting place in the seventies, those that were still there from the seventies of course complained that it was only a shadow of its former self, but to me, it was exciting. All the most famous artists of the day were coming through giving lectures, seminars, and classes. I met Robert Frank, Joseph Beuys, Lawrence Weiner, Daniel Buren, so many people who were famous people who you thought of as out there somewhere, but here they were coming through this school because it was so well connected. I got really turned on by conceptual art, minimalism, and sculpture, all of which was way out of my radar before I got there. I was going to be a painter and I was in to kind of comic style of painting, but I didn’t have a real kind of direction. I thought I was being rebellious in some way, but all of my ideas about art were very conventional by comparison. When I got to NSCAD it was astonishing. Here were these guys doing totally insane stuff, and they were genuinely totally insane. People complain because they feel like artists are pulling the wool over their eyes. People are afraid of that, and I think people always have been. There’s legitimacy to the fear because there always have been sham artists, but these guys were not that. They were just plain crazy. They were thinking in ways that nobody else did, in ways that I had never heard. A lot of their work was performance, a lot of it was conceptual. They were friends of the staff, they’d stay for a week and we’d get to hang out with them. David Askevold came by, I got quite close to him. He’s dead now, but besides Michael Snow, he’s probably Canada’s most prominent conceptual video artist. A really interesting guy, and really nuts. He came for the whole summer to teach a course where I really got into conceptual art video.

Somewhere in the middle of that, I got this idea that I was going to make a painting out of concrete. It seemed like a real brainstorm of an idea to me at the time. There was this conflict between the two somehow, painters and sculptors. Meaningless conflict. But it was there. I got the idea to do these slabs that hung on the wall, and people liked them immediately. A lot of people saw them because people were coming through the school, and then I left. I graduated. and I was pretty lost. I moved to Calgary. I was making cowboy hats with my dad, it was a factory job. I didn’t really see a future in it, and neither did my father, and so I left and he sold it shortly after that. I came to Vancouver in 1991 and got this show at the grunt gallery. Robin Peck, a prominent Canadian art writer, wrote this great and humorous piece on my show. The slabs had developed into their most severe form, where it really was quite striking.  Peck’s piece was published in Parachute magazine, the Vancouver Sun reviewed my show. Important Vancouver curators noticed it.

After that show, however, I didn’t know what to do. People were telling me to tour with the show. I didn’t want to do that, I didn’t have the commitment to it. I worked lots of odd jobs after that, but I don’t think it ever really left the back of my mind. I had this job working with at risk youth, and it was the kind of job where the qualification was if you were willing to do it. I liked teenagers, they were fun. Even these kids who were scary and crazy had something that I liked. One day I noticed myself applying for a job teaching art with the Burnaby School District.

There must have been a point where I thought I wasn’t really an artist any more, probably in 2008. That didn’t sit well with me. I started realizing actually I am an artist and I do want to practice. I never let go of it, it was always a dream. In 2010, I committed to writing my dream down, and it was in the form of a studio space. I wrote out a description of what I was looking for in a studio, and I put it on Craigslist. A guy phoned me with an offer for a studio space on Main street, which I took. That was a real rebirth for me wanting to make art. And I did. I had a show there, and the grunt gallery put me in their online archives. I started to make some connections and inroads. Unfortunately, I had to let the place go. There I was without a studio again, and a space at the Gam Gallery came up. I had met the Gam Gallery crew somewhere down here, they had asked me to come play chess with them. They’re neat kids. I knew I couldn’t make my sculpture in this studio, it’s really only suitable for painting. But I thought “What the hell, I’ll keep my hand in being creative and see where it goes.”

It’s really nice to be part of the community down there, and I get a lot out of painting. I feel really good when I do it, and it’s reaffirming. When I started painting in this recent studio space at the Gam, I was very self conscious. What you have coming out of the art schools are dedicated and proficient artists who are good at something, whereas when I went to school, it wasn’t about that. We weren’t about being good at anything, we were exploring the fringes. So I was intimidated, everyone in this space really know how to paint or draw or whatever they were doing. But one of the great things about art is I like my art. I like it as much as anything I see, and that gives me a lot of satisfaction. It’s the mistakes that I make, the stuff that I can’t do, that’s the stuff that’s totally uniquely me. No one else could screw it up that way. If someone’s making mistakes and they’re leaving them their, they’re 100% unique. There’s something about not getting it perfect that I really enjoy.

Concrete slab prints hung on a wall by Michael Shumiatcher

Michael Shumiatcher. 3 Donuts, 1991. 
Concrete. 3’ x 6’ x 3/4”. Courtesy of the grunt gallery archive.

JT: How was the initial reception from your peers when you made your first slabs?

MS: When my peers saw my work, they loved it, and they were telling me I was going to be a millionaire, I was going to be famous. They thought of money when they saw my work. Even when I had this show in Vancouver, I got the same response. Alvin Balkind, who was the curator of the UBC gallery and a big Vancouver curator, came to my show. When he was leaving, he shouted at me “I hope you make a million bucks!” As far as I know, nobody who I went to NSCAD with is famous. There’s a few who are prominent Canadian artists who are practicing. but they have teaching jobs or are hand to mouth.

JT: What’s your take on that label, “Canadian artist”?

MS: We’ve always had a great art scene. Contrary to what Andy Warhol once said, Vancouver has always had a great art scene. Really vibrant. It’s the same with Toronto and Montreal, and it’s the same with Halifax. I know a number of Canadian artists that I am absolutely certain if they were Americans they would be very successful. But this is Canada. 

JT: What’s different?

MS: Our culture is different. We’re a little less entrepreneurial. Americans have a love affair with the maverick, the guy that goes against the grain. They really like that. Canadians are not so much like that: we think artists are a little bit weird, we don’t really trust them. We could do a lot better in furthering the arts of Canada. I don’t think we understand the value of cultural capital, and I think Americans do. All you have to do is point out a single cathedral in France and ask how much it is worth to realize how important the arts are. We don’t have that. We don’t believe that whatever we produce now is going to be our value later. I believe it is. 

JT: You were my teacher during that period in 2008 when you felt a call back to your practice. I remember you took a sabbatical from teaching, then came back and had sort of a mythical year where your class took a different direction. It’s still quite a memorable year for all of us involved. What was the catalyst for this shift?

MS: It’s fairly personal. I had a relationship breakup, and it really affected me adversely to the point where I felt that I was ineffective at work. I took three months off, and when I came back, I had the famous year of singing and poetry and stuff like that. That’s probably around when I started to think seriously about finding a space. It was still two years until I found one. I looked, and would get depressed because of the kinds of spaces people were offering to rent were not reasonable. I think that was the start of it, anyways.

JT: As a creative kid in high school, we wanted to be in Shumi’s classroom. It was a place of inspiration for a lot of us. For you, was there any inspiration in your classroom? Was that space similar to this ideal studio you were looking for?

MS: Yeah, I think it was, actually. I think that I had, especially at the point where things started to get interesting in there, I was running it a lot more like an art studio than a classroom.

JT: I remember you covered the whiteboard in the classroom with fabric. It wasn’t a classroom any more.

MS: Yeah, and I think I kind of only went part way with that that year. I don’t want to say I got lazy, that’s what I thought at the time, but I think I got kind of scared. There were definitely people in the school who did not like what was going on. The principal didn’t like it at all. She didn’t like the culture that was being created in that room, those were the words. I didn’t have the confidence at the time to push back. I had the parents of a student email me and tell me how happy they were that I’d provided a space for their son to actually connect with something in school. I didn’t try to protect that. instead I just kind of cowered from her. The principal ended up actually dismantling my program in the following years. I contributed to that, because I wasn’t able to see where I was going with what I was doing. I know there’s potential in it though.

Actually, I’m poised tomorrow to start a new class in the same vein. I had my photography class this semester all planned out normally, and I’ve just scrapped it. I think I’m going to try and take that idea a little bit farther. Where it’s not a classroom anymore, it’s a community. Something bigger is happening.

JT: Did your boarding school experience drive you to this teaching method?

MS: Yeah, probably. Even before that. My elementary school was also a hippie school. Most schools were different back then, quite authoritarian. They’re still too institutional for what we need in society, but back then they were even more backwards. I went to an alternative private school started by university professors. It was pretty out there.

JT: You had this Craigslist manifesto for a space in 2010, is there a similarity between what you look for in a studio space and a classroom?

MS: Ideally, yes. That is exactly what I was trying to create in the classroom. It’s not easy. I’m trying to figure out how to do it in my art room, there’s 30 kids in there and it’s not quite big enough. It’s hard to figure out.

I want to create a future for these kids that is nothing like whatever they’ve experienced in the past. I want to empower them to create that, to see the possibilities. I don’t want to focus on their deficiencies, I’m not into that. I want to focus on their gifts what they’re good at. The room that I’m in is a lab, so I’m actually thinking about starting every class in the student commons, to get them out of the lab. Starting tomorrow, and I don’t really know what yet. but it’s exciting. Bringing in the community is important. I’m doing a lot of that, bringing in three artists to do this book project on native plants with the kids. A native artist is coming in, he’s doing monumental paintings on canvas with us based on coast salish house poles. We’re going to wrap them around pillars in the student commons.

The thing about all these changes is they don’t have a cost. Any of the changes that I see happening cost zero. Getting rid of the bells, stuff like that. I would love to try this scheduling method where kids take four classes at a time. Classes take the whole morning and the whole afternoon. and to me, that’s freedom. That’s freedom from distraction, because by the time my kids start getting into a painting, the bell goes and they have to go and do math.

In teaching there are two camps. There are those that want the kids sitting in their rows quietly, listening to them, not in the hallways, and then there are others who are saying we need this place to be more of a community. More of what’s happening in our classes needs to be happening outside of the classroom. Lately a more open idea has been coming from the institutions and coming from the ministry. It’s getting harder for people to deny the value of a more creative possibility. That’s exciting, and I’m going to run with it. If I get an opportunity to explore some of these new ideas at a district or administrative level, I’m all over that.

JT: It sounds like your practice as an artist and your teaching have merged.

MS: It’s true they have, and I’m really happy about that. I don’t know how conscious that was. It’s happening, and that’s exciting. It’s a bit of a miracle, too. I certainly didn’t see any possibility of this when I started teaching. It’s so institutional, everyone’s calling you Mr. Shumiatcher. It’s a totally different world, and it’s entirely repressive on everyone involved. The teachers repress the kids, the admin repress the teachers, teachers repress each other, even kids repress teachers. It all goes every which way. It really is about the spaces we create. You do a little thing like cover up the whiteboard, and things change.

It seemed so far from that for so many years, and getting used to being in that institution was so awkward for me. Yet here I am. I feel like a weed growing up in the concrete. It’s starting to work for me, I am putting the two together and something is happening. It’s awesome.

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