Michael Sarich - A portrait of the Joan Mitchell Award winning artist
by: Christian Bertolaccini
In the artists’ studio, all the lively sounds of creation whirred together in a sort of symphony. Painters stood and knelt and bent to reach their work, their brushes tender and precise along the lines; sinks rang the rinsing of paint into rainbows in their basins. The scent of sawdust hung lightly in the air, preceded by the mechanical sound of the power saw cutting into the wood. Across worktables stained in years of paint splatters—looking more like something fetched from Jackson Pollock—portfolios and papers were spread out in a whirlwind.
Michael Sarich sat behind one of these painted tables (what he calls “the best pieces in the studio”), dressed in black from head to toe, watching each of his students set to their tasks. A serenity, a calmness, seemed to come from him; in silence he looked on as his students labored at their art.
“I love to see students find their voice,” Sarich said. “It’s a complicated process. It really gets me excited to see them come into their own, with their own styles and storylines.”
Sarich find’s that aspect of his job to be the most rewarding.
He looked out at the studio of student artists working. “It makes you feel like they’ve found their way. So I’m proud of them. Because I put their hands on the wheel and they can turn the car any way that they want.”
Sarich grew up in Chicago, where he lived with his parents and seven siblings in a two-bedroom apartment until he left at the age of seventeen. He was the second-to-the oldest, and remembers the struggles of living in such little space.
“It was cramped,” he said. “It was an 800 square-foot bungalow. It was two bedrooms. Mom and Dad slept in one bedroom; seven of us slept in the other.
But in these confined conditions, Sarich discovered art—and his talent for creating it.
“Growing up I was always drawing. It was the only time that I could spend alone, without my brothers or sisters nagging at me. Because we lived in such a small house, with so many people, it was really hard to have anything of your own.
“I learned at a very young age that art was mine. Nobody could take that away from you. “
Sarich quickly realized what he wanted to do with his life. In his Catholic grade school, Sarich took art classes on Sundays. “I went to that and I got hooked,” he said.
“When I got to high school I got recognition for art,” Sarich said. “My teachers were great. I had three art teachers, and they were all working artists. They introduced me to the art world.” In high school, after encouragement from his teachers, Sarich started going to downtown Chicago, visiting galleries and attending art openings.
Sarich received his Bachelor of Arts from Northern Illinois University. He then earned his Masters of Fine Arts from the University of Oklahoma.
“Going to OK was a shock,” Sarich said. “The faculty was really well-known around the country, and they had an excellent visiting artists program.” Sarich was surprised to see that artists from New York were coming to his school all the time. “We really had a lot of money for visiting artists, so we were exposed to a lot of artists.”
Graduate school gave Sarich the time to dedicate to his work; he was able “to see where my work would take me.”
In addition to his domestic degrees, Sarich also attended the College of Salzburg in Austria, where studied printmaking and drawing. Most significant for Sarich, however, was learning painting in Salzburg.
“It was wonderful. Salzburg was beautiful,” he said. Sarich noted that his studio was located in the horse stables from The Sound of Music.
“It was a great learning experience for me; I really buckled down and started doing my work.”
“I got involved with painting in Austria. I didn’t start out in painting; I started out in drawing and printmaking. And that’s my true love, drawing. Telling stories. Because I think that’s what art is all about: telling a story, whether it be formally or narratively.”
Sarich also lived in Dusseldorf, Germany—at a time when arts and support for them was flourishing. “It’s different there. Living in a city of two million people, in the middle of the art district, is very exciting,” he said. “And the Germans know how to throw dinner parties.”
Today he still keeps close friendships with artists in Europe; not least of all because of the greater support and appreciation Sarich feels that Europeans have for art.
“It’s a different attitude. Being a teacher in this country, you’re looked at as a secondary artist. Whereas in Germany, in Dusseldorf, if you’re a teacher there, you’re held up in high esteem by the public. Here, the art scene looks at you like a second-class citizen. “
“In this country,” Sarich said, “it’s something still outside of the mainstream. It’s not considered by everybody; it seems to be a limited audience in this country.”
Fifteen years ago, Sarich was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a disorder of the central nervous system resulting in difficulties of motor skills. The uncertainties of the developing condition, combined with it making once-familiar tasks difficult, are challenging. For an artist, the implications of such a diagnosis are clear and concerning.
But Sarich hasn’t seen it that way, and doesn’t now.
“It challenges me, if anything,” Sarich said. “It has made me more dedicated. A friend of mine is a songwriter in Nashville. He said ‘wasting time is my greatest crime.’ And I believe that.”
“Now I try to stay real focused. Because now, I only have so many hours a day I can work. The medicine start’s wearing off.”
“It’s allowed me a six-hour window a day. So I draw at home and paint here. I paint with the students,” he said, looking out at some half dozen students laboring at easels and canvases.
While the challenges of creating art under those conditions have formed a new strand of connection between Sarich and his work, he feels that the relationship remains fundamentally unchanged. “I’m connected to all of my pieces, on one level or another. The storyline becomes important to me; elements of the piece become more important to me. Moving compositions around is really important. I just try to keep that going.”
In 2007, Sarich won the Joan Mitchell award, a prestigious national award which cannot be entered but only recommended.
“That floored me,” Sarich said. He only found out when he was called about it and told that he won.
“It was probably the most exciting day of my life. It’s such a competitive award.”
“I’m not sure who recommended me,” he said. “I think it might have been Anne Wolfe at the museum. But she doesn’t remember either.”
“You look at the list of winners and its Brooklyn, Brooklyn, New York, New York, Brooklyn, the Verdi Nevada. They had to throw somebody outside of new York a bone, and I was the one who caught it.”
Sarich has been teaching at UNR since 1989. In that time, he’s seen tremendous changes.
“Just visually, buildings have been going up left and right. Even now. They’re just building like crazy. Crowding the landscape.” Additionally, Sarich said that he has noticed a change in students as well. “I find the students more conservative today than they were before.”
“They worry too much about making an ugly work. But that’s part of the process. Showing yourself. Something that connects them to the work. To get a theme and beat it to death, and investigating one idea can be five years of work.”
Sarich notes that he’s been pursuing his current themes—juxtapositions of iconography from the holy (in the form of the Virgin de Guadelupe) to the commercial (Mickey Mouse and Pinocchio)—for fifteen years.
“It’s a hate-love relationship, putting Mickey Mouse in the same piece as the Virgin of Guadalupe for the same reason. It’s when the things become overly-commercialized that they lose their identity.”
Other influences run common throughout his work. Years ago, Sarich would work on a fishing boat every summer. “We’d have our last day of classes on Friday, and I’d be on a boat the next day.”
“I loved it when I was out there. Then I learned to hate it. But then I’d do it again the next year.”
Beyond the constant cycles of creation in the art world (making art, setting up shows, filling galleries), Sarich doesn’t plan out his next moves.
“I don’t know what I’ll be doing in two years. I let my work tell me where to go. It moves. In different directions, by itself. I like to immerse myself in my work, where the work takes over and directs itself; I don’t direct it anymore.
“I try to get out of the way,” he said. “Artists would be a lot better off if they got out of their own way.” This is still evident in his art, even in his most recent creation which showcases a trout before iconography in a piece reminiscent of McCarthy’s brook trout.
Sarich hopes to engage in a dialogue with viewers through his art, beyond all else.
“I hope my work asks questions of the viewer. Because if you ask questions, that starts an immediate dialogue. So there’s a relationship there. They’re investigating and asking ‘why is this here?’ Which makes them explore it a little bit deeper. They take on different meanings; read the layers of information. I think that’s one way of communication through art: keep it a little open-ended and let the viewer bring himself or herself to the work. “
“If you answer one question, you get two more, you get four more, and it goes on for infinity,” Sarich said.
“You never have the answer. Just more questions.”