Down the Rabbit Hole with Michael McConnell
In his newest series of work called Living Together Separately, artist Michael McConnell explores balancing the life of an observant artist while maintaining a community that fuels and inspires his work. After having his astrological chart read, he was informed that it would serve his creativity best to live alone. Michael and his partner of 19 years have done just that. But lately, Michael has thought of the ideal living situation, a la Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, where both could have separate living spaces on the same property. It's the theme that has inspired the pieces for the show opening in the Rare Device gallery on September 22nd.
Michael kindly answered some of our other questions about his start as an artist in San Francisco, translating a concept into a finished work of art, and bunny rabbits.
You mentioned you got your BFA at Columbus College of Art and Design. What did you study there and what brought you to San Francisco afterwards?
When I was at CCAD, I focused on painting and lithography. CCAD was known for having a very rigorous foundation studies program, really focusing on the fundamentals of art making. It was rather intense, I think about a third of my class dropped out after the first semester. During the first few years there I really got into figure painting, and was interested in how colors reflected off the skin, to the point that I would annoy my family while watching movies, interrupting to point it out.
Later on I discovered lithography, and instantly fell in love with how smooth the drawing surface was, the grease pencil would just slide across the stone. It was my printmaking professor who pushed me to start exploring other subject matter, and that began my obsession with rabbits. This obsession is actually how my handle, poopingrabbit, came about. I was working on a series of pooping rabbits, and my best friend at the time set up my email address with that name, and it just stuck.
After I graduated, I came out to visit a friend who had moved to San Francisco from Columbus. I took the Greyhound cross country and visited her for three weeks. It was during Pride, the city was so energetic and alive that I just fell instantly at home. My friend was living in an artist warehouse in the east bay at the time, and it just so happened that one of their roommates was moving out at the end of summer. So I’d have a room and a studio. During the course of my visit I also lined up a job at a Peet’s in Berkeley, so everything just started to align. I went back to Columbus for a month, saved as much money as I could, and packed up a U-haul and drove out West.
Can you tell us a little bit more about the animal art that you’re known for? Have you always incorporated them in your work? What do they represent to you?
Animals have been an important component of my work since college and have remained throughout the years. I've done large amounts of research on animal iconography, and I love learning about what animals have represented throughout art history and different cultures. In school, I was particularly obsessed with “Alice in Wonderland”, which led me down a proverbial rabbit hole to discovering all the meanings about rabbits. I connected to them immediately and loved their dual nature. Rabbits are also the animals of Venus and the moon. They started appearing in my work and became sort of a personal symbol.
In early my work, animals were often found interacting with children, representing their innate innocence. They often played with ropes (threads/narrative/lineage/ connection) and were accompanied by tree stumps (history/home) in stark settings. Soon after, I started painting the children with animal heads, which represented the masks we wear or how we are perceived by others. I referenced specific personality traits that are often associated with or applied to those animals by certain cultures. Then I realized that the human figure wasn't needed, and the animals could represent those attributes themself. I frequently use the same animals in my work, some of them representing people in my life, like my partner is often represented as a wolf and our son as a coyote or bear. So at times the animals are also representing a more personal narrative as well.
You are an established artist that has found your unique artistic voice. Can you tell us a bit more about how your art practice has evolved through the years?
When I first moved to the Bay Area I was fresh out of school, living in a warehouse with other artists, and trying to navigate the San Francisco art scene. Back then you still made slides of your work, and had to figure out a way to get them in front of the eyes of galleries and curators. I mailed a bunch of slide packets out, and got a response back from Ruth Braunstein of Braunstein/ Quay Gallery that she was interested in seeing my studio. After viewing my work, she offered me a show as part of the Introductions of her gallery. It went really well, and I was fortunate to be in her stable of artists until 2012. During that time, I had 5 shows. Looking back on them, I can see how thematically they evolved as I was evolving as an artist. Early work tended to deal with my family, growing up closeted, and navigating the idea of the nuclear family. I began making work exposing layers that I needed to shed, and as I became a more confident and secure person, my work reflected this maturity.
Having scheduled shows was good for me because, as a Taurus, I'm very process oriented. It gave me something to work towards. After the closure of the gallery, I focused on showing with galleries outside of San Francisco, and selling work directly from my studio.
Right before the Pandemic started, I had just finished a large scale commission for the new Marin Health Hospital. It consisted of 55 paintings that would span a hallway and depict the wildlife of the area, from the ocean to the headlands. Connecting the animals were abstract color fields that played off each other. It helped connect the pieces through color and shape. It was because of this project that I began embracing the idea of these abstracted environments as a setting for the animals in my work. Prior to this my work often had stark backgrounds and isolated figures. What I learned from this as an artist is that I am constantly evolving my artistic voice, and that sometimes you need to be pushed outside of your comfort zone and trust the process.
For the show, Living Together Separately, you had mentioned that you had many pieces already made in the early stages. Could you tell us about the process for these pieces and how did you decide what made the cut for the show?
Before the show was scheduled I had already begun exploring this series with the split house motif. When I'm painting I will mix colors and if I have left over paint instead of scrapping it, I will apply it to a blank canvas. This allows me to experiment with certain color combinations for future work. Painting more abstractly is a bit of a transition for me, I was accumulating all these half-started compositions of color combinations and began figuring out how to complete them. Once the show was on the calendar, I used it as an opportunity to really begin looking at each work in progress, and seeing how it needed to be edited or worked on to fit into the concept of the show. There still is probably some editing to do, so I will hang the pieces up in my studio, and see which ones seem to speak to each other. I am sure my partner will also be giving me feedback on things as I rely on him to be an honest critic.
What is your approach when translating the concept you have into a painting? What elements are important for you to include? Are shapes and color essential in the planning?
My mind tends to always be “on”, constantly taking things in and processing, so I think that’s why as an extreme introvert, I require a lot of alone time to sift through all my thoughts. Sometimes that is by scribbling down notes or doodles in a sketchbook, or by just intuitively laying down colors onto a panel. Sometimes just experimenting or not thinking is best for me. Then once I have a few pieces in progress, I start working out how they relate together, and what kind of narrative I want to create. I’ll start building up layers of paint, and begin looking at what kind of environment or emotion it’s creating and build from there. I’ll study how the colors are related to one another, pick which colors I want to keep, and refine them into more deliberate shapes.
You are very much a part of the community in the San Francisco Mission district. How does living there inspire or influence your art?
I’ve lived in the Mission for 21 years, and I am particularly fond of my neighborhood because of the diversity and community that is present. Fayes, the coffee shop I co-own is located here, and has been a network hub for me. Over the 24 years I've worked there, I've met so many interesting people and have collaborated with a few neighbors. I also curate the gallery at Fayes, so it gives me an opportunity to show the work of fellow artists that inspire me.
The Mission District provides much for me in my daily routines, and besides heading to my studio at 1890 Bryant, I often do not have to travel outside a four block radius. Coffee, tacos, and dancing are just blocks away. And when I go to Oakland to see my partner, Bart is within that radius, making the East Bay just an extension of my little pocket of the Mission.
As you mentioned, you also are co-owner of a local small business, Fayes. How do you balance that with having studio time to create work?
Yeah, I’ve worked at Fayes for 24 years, and have co-owned it since 2002. I admit that owning a business and having an art practice can sometimes be a difficult balancing act, but having had two good business partners over the 21 years has definitely made it easier. And in most recent years, I’ve been better at setting boundaries about respecting my studio time.
I am a very routine person, and I incorporate both businesses into my weekly and daily schedules. Some days I work at the shop, and other days are reserved for the studio. I do my best to at least get three full studio days in during a week. On those studio days I usually stop in, grab a coffee on my way, check in with employees, and make sure that there’s nothing that needs to be attended to. Once I’m at the studio I try to mentally check out from the shop, but if needed, I will just have to mentally or sometimes physically shift back into boss mode. Fortunately, I am a multi tasker, and can easily switch back and forth between them.
What are some of the pros and cons of living away from your partner? What has been the key to making the living situation work for you both?
Both my partner and I have strong personalities. We each run our own business, and require a lot of alone time to process things. I think living separate from each other allows us to retain our individual identities. There's an unspoken understanding that we share, and it allows us not to feel guilty for being submerged into our art practices. Granted, we still communicate with each other every day through texting, checking in on how our days are going or simply seeing who was able to get Wordle in the fewest guesses. We will joke about how we are always happy to see each other. We are both creatures of habit, and have weekly date nights to make sure that we carve out time for each other. For some, having a schedule may be problematic, but seeing as we also co-parent a child, the routine simplifies things and provides some regularity for our busy lives. We also get the benefit of having space on both sides of the bridge. We can stay at my apartment in the Mission, and utilize all the city has to offer, or spend time in Oakland. It’s like the country mouse and city mouse lifestyle. The balance really works for us as does good communication, once I learned that I couldn’t just unload my entire day on him as soon as he picked me up from Bart that is.
When I had my astrological chart done, the reader told me that she wasn't sure if he was my forever person, but it was instrumental for me to have met him. I don't think that our situation has any more cons then any other relationship, and we navigate those with good communication, and listening to one another.
Living Together Separately is in the RD Gallery and on our website from September 22 till November 12.