“Art is my voice, and I will not be silent.”
Paul Zimmerman in conversation with Michael Angelo Gagliardi
Paul Zimmerman: How did you become interested in art?
Michael Angelo Gagliardi: Well when your named Michael Angelo every aunt, uncle, sister, and brother buys you crayons and watercolor sets. Truth is it was the most positive reinforcement I ever had in life. That is until adulthood at least. I can’t see myself as doing anything else. It’s so ingrained into my self-image that artist block is very painful to me. Even when I toured with Broadway shows, my steamer trunk carried oil sticks, pastels, charcoal and paper. I would tape gatorboard to the hotel walls and draw/paint into the night. I would find people from each city I traveled to and paint them. In each city, my art shifted slightly as I absorbed that cities energy. After the fall that ended my theatrical career, it was still making art. That kept me going, doing the physical therapy and exercises so I have some relief from the pain.
PZ: How would you describe yourself as an artist?
MAG: Before I left NYC at 27, I would have told you I was a post expressionist and that still is as good a label as any. No, screw that, I hate labels. I made a living and took care of my family as a scenic artist and stagehand. In scenic art you need to learn different styles so you can paint and sculp whatever the theatrical design calls for. I learned so much doing that from different paint styles to metal craft to casting techniques that it gave my personal art so many avenues to express itself. Which is why my art goes from forged steel to ceramic to multiple shaped canvases. I simply say I am a sculptor and a painter. My soul is as an artist.
PZ: Which artists are you most influenced by?
MAG: I’d have to start by saying that the artists teaching art at LIU CW Post College were my first direct influence. I studied painting with Robert Yasuda and got my love of shaped canvas from him. I studied sculpture with Jerry Zimmerman who first taught me how to work with steel. After that, I’d have to say Picasso, DaDa isim, Van Gogh and the NY School. Theatre also influenced me also. I still see all art as story telling and I think you can see that in my work. Each piece has a setting, character in conflict and each title is one sentence from the story. That is why I add … to each title. Each title is just a beginning.
PZ: Did your world exploration influence your art?
MAG: Becoming an explorer of the water and the underground caves in a very real way saved my art. My theatrical career and family life began pushing art to the side. Life got in the way. I had a few years in the 1990’s when my art was just not there. Learning to scuba dive then to cave dive brought art back to me. I began drawing underwater the things I’d see. Mostly fish at first the later shipwrecks and underground springs. Much like the explorers before photography I made drawing part of logbooks. This led to actual expeditions like being part of the NOAH team surveying the turret of the USS Monitor as the navy raised it. Then there were surveys of the shipwrecks in the Great Lakes as well as underwater caves in Mexico, Florida, and Missouri.
Cave Wall Abstraction, 2018, wood, 22” x 6” x 6″
PZ: How do you select your medium?
MAG: I visualize the artwork in my head. You see, I am a daydreamer. Like Walter Mitty, I tend to tune things out and daydream, not always about art but often. Sometimes I see something, maybe out of the corner of my eye, that others do not, and it triggers one of these day dreaming visions in my mind. This vision, for lack of a better word, tumbles around in my mind, maybe for a couple of years. As I dream of it, it changes and becomes something real, something tangible, something I can make. The medium is one of those things. I work it out in my head and like birth it comes to life in its own time.
PZ: Where do you find inspiration?
MAG: Everywhere, we live in a world of constant stimulation, perhaps too much, but nevertheless it is all around us. The true constant inspiration for me, above all the others, is fire and water. Water for me is spiritual, it brings life, it brings calm, it brings to me a sense of piece. When I am in the water diving, I go from a large clumsy handicapped man struggling to get around to a spiritual being who is flying. Sometimes I just close my eyes and float and feel the grace in the world. Solitary can be peaceful in the water, but on land it can turn to loneliness. That loneliness can turn to anger, that anger is fire. Fire like water is graceful, powerful, they both ebb and flow. Now I have always been one of those people who always feels lonely even in a crowd. That loneliness and anger (fire) at the world comes through in my art, but so does that saving grace (water).
PZ: How did your practice change over time?
MAG: I think a young artist strives to define his art, while an older artist finds that his art defines him. And that is ok. That is true, at least, for me. My art, in my beginning years, after college was what would be expected from a Brooklyn kid in his 20’s. I was influenced by the East Village scene, painting on stretched canvas with bright colors and broad-brush strokes. The sculpture was built out of urban materials like steel, concrete with bright lights in them. After the move to Chicago my art began to mature with more defined subject matter. Then the theatre work took over and my work began to become more and more little tableau vignettes. The story became more and more important with each work having a character within this scene with the titles becoming a line from the story. The work became more realistic, I think, just to show I could do it. After my accident and recovery, I have come full circle with my sculpture back to the urban materials, stone and steel and a solitary figure.
PZ: What are you working on now?
MAG: Pit firing ceramics. I live now out in the country and have a quite large fire pit. I want to learn how the first sculptors created their art. Stone and clay then eventually adding metal. There is something spiritual about the process. Creating the clay figure with earth and water, carefully sculpting forming the figure putting your soul into it. Then you give it up to the fire. You can control the fire, let it build up slow but at some point, you must give it up to the fire. You release it, let the spirit of the figure form on its own. Some come out beautiful with rich bright colors and deep soothing blacks and earth tones. Some crack, others explode! I take what comes out and add modern epoxies to them both filling the center, repairing some. Then using the epoxy as a glaze to both protect and increase the intensity of the finish. These figures then tell me their story and by adding steel, and stone and found objects the sculpture forms. My latest finished piece “Now Can You See My Pain…” is a good example of this.
PZ: How do you see the role of art in our society?
MAG: It is relative really for me it is a religion, it is how I worship. A religion of color, beauty even in the ugly because art gives it meaning. In that meaning lies the beauty. There are the art lovers, those you seek beautiful and it brings them joy. I will create all day long for these folks. Some just want to be entertained and there is nothing wrong with that. For others, it is an investment. I feel sorry for these folks because they miss the beautiful in form and meaning.
PZ: Does this pandemic impact your work and sensibility?
MAG: I have been incredibly lucky during this pandemic. I am now living in North Florida on a 10-acre farm where my wife raises horses. I got to build my dream studio and even had a dog walk out of the woods on the second day of the “stay at home order” and adopted me. Because we can leave the house and wonder around our property the stir crazy never really set in like it would if we were stuck in an apartment. What the pandemic did do was allow me to focus on my sculpture. Florida is warm during summer, so I work at night so social distancing is a little easier for me. I hard part was watching the news and seeing my hometown NYC getting hit. It both broke my heart and stirred pride in me seeing New Yorkers raise to the occasion. After the death of George Floyd, I was again watching the television and sent me to the studio to work on new pieces. If I could not go to the protest for BLM, then at least I can bear witness to their struggle. It is important at times like this to not sit on the fence. Art is my voice, and I will not be silent.