Catching up with Michael K. Paxton

We recently coordinated a screening of Peter Hartel’s film Work at Hand at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center. Chicago artist Michael K. Paxton came into Virginia for the occasion, and we had the opportunity to talk to Michael about the visit and his upcoming projects. His work and story inspired us on many levels. Work at Hand illuminates a side of the early days of the Athens GA music and art scene that is mostly unknown to the public along with the story of Paxton’s development as an artist despite many obstacles. There is an authenticity to his art and story that we feel is worth further study.

The Peninsula Fine Arts Center, April 25, 2019

Large Red Drawing , 2017  Ink on Drafting Film  36 × 60 × 1 in

Large Red Drawing, 2017

Ink on Drafting Film

36 × 60 × 1 in

JLM: Comment on your impressions of the museum and the interactions with their staff and others at the screening.

It is always both a privilege and an honor anytime I get to screen the film Work at Hand and in turn answer questions about how my practice, my thinking behind the work and why my legacy of being a sixth generation West Virginian is so significant to me. Along the way, I not only meet and talk with a whole range of folks who attend the screenings and are filled with questions but also get to interact with engaged museum people like, Executive Director Courtney Gardner and Curator Diana Blanchard Gross.

Diana Blanchard Gross and Michael K. Paxton

Diana Blanchard Gross and Michael K. Paxton

JLM: Can you comment a bit lot more about Athens GA influenced your life and practice?

Rat + Duck Playhouse, Athens GA

Rat + Duck Playhouse, Athens GA

I knew very little about Athens when I moved there to begin my study for an MFA in Drawing and Painting. I had been working in the factory for J.H. Fletcher and Co. making roof-bolters for coal mines during the day and painting at night, with this work I talked my way into a Fellowship, where I was to find Elaine DeKooning as the Dodd Chair.  My first class was with the now famous Robert Croker, where I also met Watt King, who had also just moved to study like me. These two meetings changed my life and Athens forever. Through Croker, I was at the epicenter of creativity explosion that would make “Athens.” Croker’s class saw the birth of Pylon, caused a massive upheaval with the infamous exhibition MFA ZAK that tore a hole in the art departments way of doing and seeing, and got me entrenched in my unique and aggressive performances and Watts light show, that lead to my first gig in Chicago and the birth of Rat + Duck Playhouse with co-founders Watt and my wife Jeanne Nemcek. At the Playhouse, many of the bands of fame rented from us, and we used that rent money to create multiple experimental one-act plays and grow to a group to 13 well-known Athens artists. From the years of 1977, when I arrived until late 1983 when we moved to Chicago, giants walked the streets of Athens.

Video excerpt from “Pre-Formed Notes” shot by Art Rosenbaum 1979





Lump of Coal , 2011  Ink on Drafting Film  24 × 36 in

Lump of Coal, 2011

Ink on Drafting Film

24 × 36 in

JLM: This film is inspiring to me because of your tenacity against obstacles including your upbringing in West Virginia and your bout with stage 4 cancer.

Can you comment further ?

Before Director/Producer Peter Hartel started to develop the documentary film that would become Work at Hand, I had in artist talks and interviews rarely touched on my battle with Stage 4 cancer. Most if not all my work since 1993 has had as its backbone my concern and firsthand knowledge of what it means to be a sixth generation West Virginian from the coalfields of deepest Appalachia. Although that has been the foundation of my work, I had talked about in piece meal fashion with a detail here, a story there. But with his vision and friendship, along with the expert work of Editor/Co-Producer Libi Hake, I have through the process of digging up old photos, watching the sections of my life come together as whole, and watched the film many, many times at screenings, now see more clearly how all the work, cancer, travels and struggles have made me and my work what is it is today. For an artist with a 45-year career, it has been an eye opener to say the least.

Work at Hand ,  screenshot

Work at Hand , screenshot

Trailer for Work at Hand

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JLM: Can you comment on why the film is a valuable resource for students?  

MK: The short answer is Work at Hand shows in a very clear light what it takes to be Professional Fine Artist, both the joys and sorrows. It also would be of high interest to student in the arts to show the convoluted way work and careers developed over decades. As an educator myself showing is better than telling every time, and this film may give students freedom and/or second thoughts on what the life of an artist is like. Most importantly I think students and instructors would gain much from seeing how I embrace the chance to be open and honest about what I do and how I do it, and also see it’s now where you start, and not how you finish up, but how you live that is the cornerstone of a multiple decades long career dedicated to the act of drawing and painting.

JLM: Comment on some resent milestone and upcoming projects

Pillar of Dust #6 , 2018  Chalk, charcoal, gesso and acrylic on canvas  96 × 72 in

Pillar of Dust #6, 2018

Chalk, charcoal, gesso and acrylic on canvas

96 × 72 in

MK: The first up is my one-person museum exhibition Raw Reckoning that opens June 7th at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art here in Chicago, it will run to August 4th. There will be an extensive catalog produced by the museum with an essay by Curator Adrienne Kochman, PhD

Upcoming for 2019 includes a couple of images of my recent paintings in a traveling group exhibition Appalachian Futures organized by Curator Sally Deskins and the West Virginia University Library where it will first be presented and then is planned to travel around the state.

Michael K. Paxton

Michael K. Paxton

In 2020 I will have a one-person exhibition at the Evanston Art Center, Evanston, IL

This year I will have completer 14 years of teaching in both the Art and At History and Design Departments of Columbia College Chicago.

Work at Hand film will travel to both WVU and Marshall Universities in the Fall of 2019, but no firm dates are set yet.

Recent past highlights are a screening of the film Work at Hand at Raleigh Studios in LA and also my Artist Talk and Screening of the film at the Peninsula Fine Art Center in Newport News, VA. I also was a Visiting Artist and screened the film at the American Academy of Art, Chicago.   

Pillars of Dust , opening reception, Chicago, 2018

Pillars of Dust, opening reception, Chicago, 2018