Artist Interview: Michael Alm

by Kim Larson

Michael Alm is a mixed media sculptor who specializes in synthetic taxidermy. His lifelike and intricate sculptures present the audience with unique creatures that raise questions about the relevance of natural history in modern times. Alm describes his work as "fun, but full of death, decay, preservation, and wildness!". We had a chance to talk with Michael about his sculptural works for Feral Creatures group exhibition curated by Stephanie Chefas, now on view at the gallery.

(Photo by Carrillo)

ME: What was your initial reaction to the theme of "Feral Creatures" and from where did you draw inspiration for this show?

MA: The theme 'Feral Creatures' resonated with me immediately as my present work deals with wildness, native nature, and the dynamics of animal movement. The piece, 'Jackrabbit (Lepus californicus),' is focused both on the way the particular animal moves as well as it's archetype as prey. When creating this sculpture, I thought about the way a jackrabbit looks when it escapes a predator. It is a delicate animal but capable of explosive speed and agility. Most feral creatures have a combination of beauty and speed, fragility and explosiveness. These features fascinate me and will without a doubt continue to be a presence in my work.

ME: Do you have any wild animal stories?

MA: Yes, in fact I have many. To preface, I have a limitless love for nature, but nature has not always reciprocated. I was a city kid but my family always encouraged outdoor adventuring. This resulted in a variety of extreme nature experiences including an encounter with a mother bear and her cubs in the Tetons, a mild attack by an iguana, and a near deadly moose confrontation at a river crossing. I have had a lemur latch onto my face, and a bull elephant charge my truck. 

Despite all these scary moments, there have been many spectacular ones as well. I have a vivid memory of stumbling through a clearing to find a giant herd of elk. The elk, reacting to our presence, tensed and were silent. There was an extended pause, and then with one movement every elk in the herd bolted for the dense woods. The ground resonated with the pounding of their hooves. I damn near cried, it was so beautiful and frightening. 

ME: What is your art process?

MA: I research intensely, drawing from antiquated texts, natural history collections, and anatomy studies. I spend a lot of time in the back rooms of the Burke Museum (my local Natural History Museum) sifting through bones and hides. I am fascinated with the anatomy and function of biological systems and the translation of that function to aesthetic forms. My materials also drive my process. For example, I primarily use wood in my sculptures because it has an actual biological history and it is infinitely malleable. My process involves  a combination of techniques that I am still exploring and developing, things like wet bending strips of wood and laminating them to custom armatures.  One of the reasons I enjoy working with wood is that it carries a degree of warmth and life that can bring the spark of actual life to an animal figure. I don't think that a 'dead' material, like metal or plaster could convey an animal's movement and essence in the same way. 

ME: What’s your daily life like? What are some things you do when you’re not painting / making art?

MA:There's no doubt that a large amount of my time is consumed by art. I am constantly going to openings in Seattle. There are so many amazing, creative people in this town, that I rarely lack the motivation to get out of the house and see some one's work. As I enjoy making things; I think it's best to keep eyes open to what others are doing. 

I truly believe that it's important to maintain balance in life. While I work hard and have periods of time that are consumed by the process of creating art, I also take time to explore the physical world. I'm an avid sailor, mountaineer, and cyclist, I like to build and restore functional objects, and I'm learning the banjo right now. 

 

ME: What artists most inspire you (alive or dead)?

MA: My inspiration comes from a variety of sources but less from other artists than from nature itself and natural history collections. I also am very interested in naturalists and historical figures such as the early 20th century natural historian William Temple Hornaday, who is credited with saving both the Alaskan Fur Seal and the American Bison from extinction. Another important figure for me is Carl Akeley, an almost mythic figure in the history of natural preservation. Akeley was a sculptor, taxidermist, and historian who revolutionized the documentation and preservation of animal physiology. The historic accounts of characters such as Akeley, and their pursuit of ideal animal forms has inspired me personally and in my craft. I aspire to capture the essence of the creatures I sculpt, much as the early naturalists sought to document and preserve ideal animal forms.

 


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