In a state of experimentation

Studio visit with michael casselli

by Eva Buttacavoli

Photo: Kurt Miyazaki and Michael Casselli, Appetite: An American Pastime

I first met Yellow Springs artist Michael Casselli as a resident artist as part of 2009’s Blue Sky Project. He had relocated to Yellow Springs from New York in 2008 to fight the closure of his alma matter, Antioch College, while simultaneously establishing Manic Design Studios, a site of hybrid experimentation and social activism.

Casselli was born in Mentor, Ohio and grew up all over the east side of Cleveland. One thing he always remembers as a kid was from first grade: he got in trouble for coloring with the side of the crayon instead of the tip, he thought the side worked much better for drawing fish scales but was reprimanded for using an alternative technique. That, plus, as he says “I also had an unhealthy access to gunpowder and explosives, as my grandfather was a gunsmith. So much dangerous stuff to play with definitely had a defining role in how I would later think about my work.”

I talked to Casselli one crisp fall afternoon at Antioch’s Herndon Gallery, where he recently co-curated A Thousand Invisible Threads/Mapping the Rhizome with Jennifer Wenker which featured eight artists (himself included) from all over the country.

Tell me about your early art training and influences.

Michael Casselli: My exposure to the art world was accidental and somewhat mysterious—wrapped up in the bad behavior of cutting class to go see things and the group of people I started to hang out with. I was a member of the Youth International Party (Yippies) at my high school, pranking political structures and producing media that attacked the power structures there. The prankster nature of the Yippies started me on my indulgence in political action with a sense of humor. Once I started at Antioch, my worldview and art-making flourished. I was fortunate to have a wildly dynamic group of professors and meet a group of artists I still work with today. In a state of abject poverty, we took chances and experimented with worlds that seemed endless in possibility. I designed, I performed, I directed, I built and interacted with a vibrant community that allowed me to focus on my production and my craft. Antioch is where I had my eyes opened, my fears realized, and my senses overwhelmed. I designed my own B.S. in Visual Arts and Performance Theory and then went on to earn an MFA in Sculpture at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).

What is your workspace like?

MC: I have space in a building on campus at Antioch. This was where I first discovered the space around things. I started as a 2D artist, painting and struggling with the restrictions of a flat planar space. But once I took my work of the wall, my mind exploded. I make my space as flexible as I can to enjoy the emptiness of the center. Activity happens, and sometimes it is as simple as moving a mirror or playing a note, or just looking at the space I do not have because of the objects that take up my vista.

What are your favorite materials to work with?

MC: I can’t say I have any specific material I would consider my “favorite.” My interests have more to do with qualities of material. I have recently been drawn to the notion of periphery, things that exist at the edge of awareness. This leads me to consider qualities that can play into this. Ephemerality and temporal existence intrigue me so I look for ways in which I can instigate this relationship with the viewer. Video and projection offer up the ability to transpose the moving image to places that are unexpected and fleeting. I also am interested in sound and its placement within the same sort of context—the fleeting, the moment that can’t be repeated, the unexpected encounter—these are the qualities of my work that I have yet to fully examine or fully understand.

Like many artists of our generation, you work in a wide variety of media. Is traditional painting dead? 

MC: The declaration of demise with regards to any particular media is short sighted in my opinion. What is the intention of declaring one or more media to be dead? Has the limit been reached as to how the field can expand and break new ground? Is that important to me? Not so much. I probably sound a bit old fashioned but I attempt to look at work as it comes to me, not considering the place it holds in a historical context. In my experience, I try to think about the language of each potential artwork, examine how well it frames itself and what is contained in the sum of the work. I do think it is important to break down the barriers as they apply to individual concentrations and it is in the combination across disciplines that I see potential for continued relevance.

What are you working on next? 

MC: I am in a state of experimentation with a project that examines my relationship to the act of drawing and the gestures associated with it. I am attempting to expand the awareness of pre-determined line in the landscape and accentuating it through the use of markers that identify this line. I am still figuring out the physical properties of the materials I will use. At this point it will involve contained flight, fire and Chinese lanterns. We will see what comes of it.

Eva Buttacavoli is the Executive Director of the Dayton Visual Arts Center. You can reach her at EvaButtacavoli@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Eva Buttacavoli

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