Q&A with Michael Garman
Sculptor Michael Garman took some time out to answer our questions about the intertwinement of his life story, his art, and his museum and gallery.
Q: Based on the information on your website, it seems like you have truly been carving out your career since you were a child. At what point did you realize that sculpting is what you wanted to do for a living?
Michael Garman (MG): I had no plan at all. My dad was an artist, a pilot and a bit of a poet. He gave us his art books and encouraged my brother and me to make our own toys. I would create little pipe cleaner men. Then, as a teenager I learned photography and just loved it. After high school I hitchhiked out to California where I met a well-known fashion photographer. My friendship with Tommy Mitchell sparked an interest in photography that inspired me to take these long vagabond travels into Mexico where I’d photograph people in the rural villages, in cafes and such. In 1959, I began a hitchhiking journey from Texas all the way to Chile. I took pictures throughout this journey until I arrived in Santiago in 1961. One day, I was in one of the city parks and I spotted some very pretty young ladies. I followed them into the School of Fine Arts and wound up in the back of an art class where I started playing with the clay. The school didn’t seem to mind. I never took any classes at all, but the school let me use their clay and they even fired my little characters.
Immediately I took these rough little sculptures door to door, selling them for a dollar or two. It was never an idea of a career, but more about needing some money to eat or to drink. I didn’t consider my pieces high art, but they awoke something in me. Prior to arriving in Santiago, I must have taken over a thousand photographs on that journey. But once I started sculpting, my camera just wasn’t enough anymore. Everything poured into the characters I was making.
When I got home I continued sculpting and selling my work door to door and to small gift shops. The idea of a business began when I met a sculpture pirate named Gene Schutza. He was a counterfeiter so to speak. He’d buy sculptures and make cheap knock-offs of them. But he was an interesting character, and we developed a great friendship. He showed me how to make reproductions. When I mentioned that I wanted to reproduce my own pieces, he thought I was out of my mind. At that time, no real artist would even think about reproduction. But I wasn’t interested in being a “real artist.” I just wanted to sculpt and I wanted to collect my own work. It was selfish I suppose. But in the end, it was also good business. Reproducing my pieces made me a better sculptor.
Q: What convinced you to cease your nomadic wanderings and to settle down in Colorado Springs in the early 1970s?
MG: I was married by the time I visited Colorado Springs in 1971. My wife was pregnant with our first child. We were actually on our way to Dallas with the plan to open a gallery down there. But we stopped in Colorado Springs to visit some of her family, and I just loved it from day one. We took a drive one afternoon, saw woman pounding a for rent sign into the lawn near Memorial Hospital. I pulled the car over, told the lady we’d take it, and I never looked back.
Q: What medium(s) do you used to create your sculptures?
MG: I mostly sculpt with sculptors’ wax nowadays. I love clay, and have preferred it for years. But sculptors wax not only allows me to create more finite detail, it also allows me to walk away from a piece and come back weeks or even months later. Once a sculpture is done, I work with my reproduction team to create a mold. The finished sculptures are made using Hydrocal, a gypsum cement which I prefer over resins because of the substantial weight it gives my sculptures. They’re solid pieces, not hollow ceramics. And I like the organic feel of stone they have.
Q: How much time do you typically invest into each figure?
MG: That varies wildly. Prairie Rose, the cowgirl that I finished last year, has been my muse in my studio in one form or another for over 10 years. I could never get her just right. I got used to her being unfinished — a work in progress; most of us are. In many ways, she represents all the loves of my life rolled into one, so her story never seemed complete to me. But when my health started to decline over the last couple of years, the idea of leaving her unfinished began to haunt me. It made it my goal to get her done before my 80th birthday. Other pieces, like Taking the Rough Off, speak to me nonstop and I can finish them in a matter of weeks, sometimes just days. Every sculpture tells a different story.
Q: What is Magic Town, and why should visitors add it to their to-do list?
MG: Magic Town is my life in 3D. It’s a gritty version of Americana that encompasses parts of the eight decades of my life. I created the first few cityscapes as a home for my sculptures, so I could tell more of their stories. And then it just kept growing. After 40 years, it’s still not finished. For visitors, I like to say it’s a 3,000 square-foot miniature city that makes the ugly beautiful (to quote a 9-year-old I met a couple of years ago). I have always found alleyways and abandoned buildings to be fascinating, and I have found that most people agree. Leave a door cracked open, and I dare you not to want to look inside. That’s what you get to do in Magic Town — peek in every window and down every alley; discover the secret lives of my characters.
Q: Can you elaborate on the scavenger hunt held at your gallery?
MG: My staff came up with the scavenger hunt a few years ago. Sometimes families would come out of Magic Town in just 15 or 20 minutes. But there is no way that anyone could really see the exhibit so fast, so they developed some simple questions to get people to slow down. We live in such a fast paced world; if you can’t tell a story in 100 words or less, people lose interest. But Magic Town is not a 100-word story; it’s a voyeurs’ experience. If you aren’t peeking in the windows, you aren’t seeing the exhibit.
Q: Are there any special projects or events in the books for the museum and gallery?
MG: I’ve been working in Magic Town for the past few months to improve the lighting and effects in there. As usual, I have a few sculptures in my studio yelling at me to get their stories told. I will be hosting an Autograph Day for my 81st Birthday in May. This lets old friends stop by to say hello, customers and fans can bring their sculptures from home to get them signed, or folks can add to their collection during our Spring Sale.
Find out more about Michael Garman and his art at the Michael Garman Museum and Gallery (2418 W. Colorado Ave., Colorado Springs), on the web (michaelgarman.com), on Facebook (@MichaelGarmanMuseum), and on Instagram (@garmanstorytellersculptor).
Photos courtesy of: Michael Garman Museum and Gallery