Sofas twisted into knots, picnic tables dipping and melting into oblivion and a house you can collapse with your feet: Michael Beitz's mind sounds like a fairytale land we would've been psyched to get lost in as children. Lucky for us, he turns all these wild ideas into real sculptures, crafting pieces that straddle his training in furniture design and the art of pottery. There should be no need to dip into his thoughts when his art largely speaks for itself. But hey, we figured we'd get the back story from him anyway, and delve into the ever-changing landscape of his creative process.
First off, we'd like to know more about what motivated your foray into sculpture. What's your creative background like?
When I was young, in my early teens, I found some clay deposits in a small river next to my house. I found out how to fire the small clay forms I had made and this was probably the beginning of my fascination with processes related to sculpture. Later, I received a BFA from Alfred University where I focused mainly on sculpture. I was then offered a position working for the furniture artist Wendell Castle, where I received another education in furniture-making and design. I continued to make my sculptural work while working for various furniture designers throughout the United States. Not until recently have I started to incorporate my experience with furniture design and fabrication with my interest in sculpture.
Where do you draw inspiration from for your slightly mind-bending 3D work?
I am constantly finding myself staring at mundane objects or off into space. I just cannot believe how focused people can be for such long periods of time. We don’t even have time to stop and look at the objects we rely on for almost every aspect of our designed lives. I want to look at everything, every railing, step, door knob, and hinge. I am fascinated with objects and the consistency of their form and function. After making hundreds of rectangular and circular dining tables as a furniture maker, I started to see these objects as expressions of social functions that could be altered to describe certain anxieties or tensions which occur on or around such objects.
What are your favourite elements of form and structure to play with?
I am obviously drawn to domestic forms and structures due to my experience as a furniture maker, but I am also very interested in turn of the century technology and toy design. I am drawn to simple mechanics and natural materials. Conceptually, I like to make forms that can be considered fun, but also contain elements of seriousness or anxiety.
Tell us more about your interactive pieces, like the New Mexico and Buffalo Folding Houses: how did you go about making mobile structures?
The Folding Houses were made in collaboration with artist Matthew Viner Monroe, whom I met while working for the NYC design company BDDW. We were interested in the project for various reasons related to identity, community, economy, and domestic structures themselves, which we see as living structures. We didn’t make any models, but just started building the piece in a desert field in New Mexico. This was the first one and was made with wood, bicycles, a cement mixer and counterweights. It was a very beautiful object to spend time with.
The second one we built was in Buffalo, NY, a city struggling with population and industry loss, causing the city to have thousands of abandoned houses. While I lived there, the city started a plan to demolish five hundred houses per year for five years, called the “five in five plan”. We made this Folding House in a lot between an abandoned house and an abandoned building. We also placed the chair and pedal mechanism inside the house instead of in front of it, as we did with the New Mexico Folding House. When the participant engaged the pedals, it would move the structure from side to side, bumping into the abandoned structures. Our intention was to make a playful interactive structure to instigate conversation about the life of the city and the flexibility of possibilities for these doomed structures.
We also love the quirks you put into conventional furniture. What first inspired pieces like the Knot (above), and Dining Table (top image)?
Most everything I make is reflective of the events in my life. Knot was made at the same time as I was working on Folding House in Buffalo, NY, so, of course I was thinking about the economic hardships of the people living there. I was also trying to resolve some of my frustrations as a furniture maker in the midst of a tense romantic relationship. For me, Knot is a very serious object, but I wanted to make it appear as something fun. Dining Table is very similar, describing the awkward spaces between people that are often associated with objects. We discuss our romantic relationships in terms of beds or tables or closets. Since I often feel out of place and socially awkward, it is natural for me to escape from the present moment into the world of vision, where I insert my attention into the objects around me.
What's your working space like? Have you got a studio set-up in NY state or converted your personal space into a work-corner? How important do you think your surroundings are for your creative process?
I haven’t had a studio for several years, but have managed to work in temporary studios at artist residencies. I plan to stay at my current location for a while and am looking to find a permanent studio. I can work anywhere and I like the challenge of working in new locations. Since my work is large and requires a lot of space, it is naturally easier for me to work outside of large cities.
Finally, what's your local art scene like? Do you feel it's important to be embedded in it, or do you tend to work alone?
It depends where I am, but I tend to isolate myself. Sometimes, when I feel very distant, I’ll make a project that directly involves the community I am in. I am currently living in a rural location and have only been here for a few weeks, but there seems to be very little to no visible art scene.