Water pistols. Animal crackers. Twinkies. Paper airplanes. Dollar bills, paddle ball toys and boxes of popcorn. Fun and games, but maybe not the stuff of fine art. Unless you’re Virginia artist Michael Fitts.
Fitts’s art not only elevates the unexpected, he does so using untraditional materials – scraps of sheet tin, copper and aluminum.
Old metal—with all its worn and surprising surfaces—began to interest Fitts in 1989 after he’d graduated in graphic design from Virginia Commonwealth University. “I was in Richmond, and it was my first time living in the city. I began collecting things I found on the street, little scraps of rusty metal for collage material. It was stuff laying in the road that was pulverized that I found interesting,” says Fitts. He glued his finds onto paper, drawing or painting around them to create small collages.
“I began looking for alternative surfaces to paint on—partly for the experimental aspect, but mostly because I didn’t have money to spend on canvas. Painting on found stuff, I was open and free to use it. A neighbor threw out a piece of old sheet tin. I retrieved it and have been painting on scrap tin, copper and aluminum ever since.” By then, Fitts had moved to Charlottesville where he became the graphic designer for Albemarle Magazine, and in 2005 would become Art Director for the University of Virginia Alumni Association. He only recently departed to pursue a full time painting career.
“What I found appealing from the start were the varieties of surface tones and textures that I was discovering in the metals,” says Fitts. “For me, surfaces are very important, more important than the subjects painted on them… a piece of metal that already had an interesting texture and background, different colors and surfaces, distressed paint or dents and scratches. The surface has randomness to it and I find that interesting.
“And collaboration with those elements of the past keeps the process evolving and interesting. I also enjoy the thought of retrieving materials from the trash heap and breathing new life into them through my paintings.” Painting in gesso and oil, Fitts chooses subjects that he labels “every day objects,” ubiquitous, familiar items, some identified with pop culture, all low budget and of a short life expectancy. “The unexpectedness of elevating the importance of ephemeral objects to the status of art is what I find most interesting,” he says. Such transitory items include crayons, dial telephones, clothespins, a much-played trumpet and inexpensive spoons.
“I try to stay away from anything that smacks of being expensive and valuable. If there’s a Cartier spoon out there, I wouldn’t want to paint that. The spoon that I paint most often is one that I found at the scrap yard. It looks kind of elegant but is cheap, a common object for regular people. I’m a blue collar kid.”
Now 52, Fitts grew up in Falls Church, Va., where his mother worked in Human Resources at Sears and his father was a pressman at the former Washington Star. His father died when Michael was 17 but not before he spotted talent in the youngest of his three sons. “As a kid, I was always drawing. My father told me, ‘You’ll be an artist one day.’ He pushed me along.”
In elementary school, Fitts entered numerous drawing contests. “I remember Readers’ Digest contests like ‘draw the pirate.’ I did that. Their representative wanted to recruit me to go to their school. I was 13 years old, and my mother said, “He’s not going anywhere.’”
While many of Fitts’s images reflect his childhood, a number seem to reveal an even earlier era with whimsy and affection. “My mother made dresses and I’d watch her at the sewing machine. She’d take paper, materials and pins and sew it all together into a piece of clothing. It kind of fascinated me. My mother died in 2001. I just happened to see one of these dress pattern envelopes and the illustrations on them. They reminded me of her, and I thought, ‘I want to paint a series of those pictures in memory of her.’”
Still, Fitts says he doesn’t intend a narrative in his paintings. “I’m not trying to tell a story,” he says. “I’m taking familiar, every day objects and looking at them in a way that makes them art.” A self-taught painter always interested in art, he credits the influence of Pop painters Andy Warhol, Jim Dine, Wayne Thiebaud, Chuck Close, and the conceptual, sculptural artist Tim Hawkinson. “I’m open to any objects that speak to me,” says Fitts, ever on the lookout for surprising imagery and materials. “I’m currently working on a painting of a little Band-Aid tin. I constantly visit junk shops hunting for subject matter as well as old tin that I can convert into metal panels.” When a favorite scrap yard recently closed, he inventively began painting on panels fabricated from old cookie sheets and bits of vintage, oval trash cans. Fitts paints his objects as bull’s eyes almost lost on the larger metal surface. They can appear isolated, dwarfed or floating in the mottled metal. “If I put the object in the dead center, all spaces are equal,” he says. “I want the focus on the object itself.”
Fitts showed his early work at Mudhouse Coffee in Charlottesville. His paintings have since been shown locally at the McGuffey Arts Center as well as galleries in Norfolk, Va., Chicago, Los Angeles, Bethesda, Maryland, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and the Affordable Art Fair in New York City. He is currently part of a group show at the Gold Gallery in Boston, and has work at Miller Gallery in Cincinnati, Ohio and 50 Contemporary Gallery in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. The Haley Fine Art Gallery in Sperryville, Virginia will feature Fitts’s paintings from May 31st through June.
Enjoy more of Michael Fitts’s work at his website mfitts-art.blogspot.com.
–Elizabeth Howard, Art EditorFollow us!
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