all photos: Dakota Fine

Intrigued by the way artists make do in a city notorious for its lack of building stock that is both suitable and affordable, we’ve decided to go on a mission to investigate and document the work spaces of the city’s creative class.

Mike Weber had been out of the spotlight as a showing artist for a few years, dedicating his time to representing artists and art consultation through his eponymous Weber Fine Art. But after hanging a handful of pieces at the grand opening of Long View Gallery’s new location, Weber found himself back in his studio, preparing his first large body of work in years. Mike invited us into his beautiful townhouse in Shaw that doubles as his workspace and home to see how he balances work, play, and the creative process.

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In addition to being an artist, you run an art consultation business, how did that evolve?
I knew that my own personal work wasn’t for everybody. So I started linking artists I knew with collectors I knew. It developed into a bigger business once I realized how Washington was just craving contemporary art. At the time not a lot of people were selling art and not a lot of galleries were catering to modern work at all. So what was first casually introducing artists to collectors, turned into a full time job because I knew what the artist needed, and I was also starting to collect art work and knew what the collectors would be interested in. So it made the new collectors at ease. Collectors felt that they could trust me because I’m an artist and have the ability to look at the craftsmanship of a piece and understand if it’s a quality piece.
Before I knew it I had about maybe 30 to 40 artists. And I was reading an article in a magazine one time, she was an art consultant. And I realized we had really parallel lives and I said, ‘Oh wow. I guess that’s what I am.’ I didn’t know that job already existed, but that’s what I was already doing.

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Tell me how you career in the arts began.
I started at Southwest Missouri State University and I was a marketing major. I hated it because it was just like 25,000 other people were marketing majors in Southwest Missouri State. I got offered a full ride at the Art Institute in Dallas. They had 2 programs that I was really interested in, visual communication and computer animation. I graduated with a degree in visual communications then went right back in for computer animation. Right before I was about to graduate, George Lucas got a hold of my demo reel. His creative director Judy Rosenthal, invited me to come to Lucas Arts and offered me  a position.

Lucas Art!? Wasn’t that every animation student’s dream at the time?
Yeah it was, but I was really interested in broadcast, like television. Even though the prestige and the name and the people I would be working with the creativity wasn’t exactly where I wanted to be.

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So you thought you could be more creative in television?
Well, I wanted to see my work on TV. I didn’t want to work in games. I wasn’t a gaming person. Growing up I didn’t play a lot of games.  I grew up in Missouri playing with dirt bikes and other stuff. So I felt like the people I would be working with, I didn’t mesh with them. And so I ended up finding this company in Dallas and they were doing work in NY and LA like big cable work: HBO, Showtime, History Channel you name it. So I went in and I interviewed with them and they hired me on the spot. My first job was helping them with the commercial for the Movie Channel, promoting summer sci-fi movies. It was awesome working with film directors on a massive set outside. Eventually they moved me to New York.

I’m still blown away by the fact that you turned down a job at the Skywalker ranch’s nerd lab.
It wasn’t really a lab, but yeah, they had all these computers and I just knew they worked a lot. And I thought that this television production job in Dallas, probably had a bit more freedom associated with it. I started when I was 22 and I didn’t want to be a slave, a computer slave.

Do you have any aversion to computers?
I love computers, you know, even in broadcast I would be working with computers. My education was definitely technology driven. I started using a Mac when it first came out in 1984.

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When your company moved you to New York, was it the first time you really immersed yourself in the “art establishment”?
When I moved there I was really exposed to art work, I was really immersing myself in galleries and looking around. In Dallas I was focused on a TV career and that was about it. But in a New York, it was all about the exposure.

But I had always been drawing and painting and was really into cartooning, my mom is a realist painter, my dad is definitely more technical and mechanical. He can draft like home plans. He’s definitely more of a gear head than I am. So I was always involved in art.

So you’ve always been creating. As a kid was your art personal and private or did you show it in competitions or in public forums?
Yeah, no I always did well in these competitions and I knew there was something there, but I just didn’t know what to do with it. Because I didn’t know what careers existed. You know, art careers, everyone tries to persuade you not to go into art because you know it’s not a radiant thing. You should be in marketing or business.

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What kind of mediums were you playing around with?
I learned how to paint from my mother, but I didn’t know how to mix colors. So I actually learned how to paint and form colors on a computer, using math and numbers. And so I used to have to paint, its called rotoscoping, where you paint frame by frame for any kind of effect or building story board for TV broadcasts. So I already knew how 30% yellow and this percentage of cyan would make orange. So I actually went to the art store and in Soho and bought all these paints and started mixing and playing with these paints. And realized the math was exactly the same, because it was derived from an old school way of mixing paint.

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Whoa! It’s like the way you learned to mix color is commentary on the direction and growth of the arts discipline in terms of technology.
I’ve always combined the analog and digital world together because that’s what I was born into and all I know. So I always combined computer illustration and cut papers and very hands on type of materials with which you can rebuild and form.

Tell me more about your computer illustrations in your early work.
I would actually take photos of say if you had a crystal vase that had little facets in it and if you put it in the sun it would send out these refractions and reflections. And I would shoot close ups of that, but do multi-layers, blur it in the computer and then paint different hues over that in the computer. So you get these beautiful light sources,  darks, lights and later tie-dye. I would then add some hand written things to the product, then scan it, pull pieces out, and then scan it back in. Just playing with analog and digital tools. It’s a little obsessive compulsive.

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Now I see that you use these old photographs in your work, have they replaced the computer illustrations? Where do you find these stashes of private photos?
I get these suitcases of photos from estate sales and online. I live with them for a period of time before using the photos in my work. The more I look at them, I put them away and create piles and then start editing down. And I kind of start building relationships with the photos, not just the subject. I’m really interested in who the original photographer is. Because a lot of these people in the mid-19th century, many of them hadn’t seen a camera before. I think the first photo was taken around 1830. And you can see in their faces, especially when it’s a group of people having their photo taken, you can see the inquisitive looks on their face. They’re looking at this camera like it’s a box because they don’t know what the outcome of that equipment will provide.

So it’s less posed and self-aware
Yeah you really capture things that you won’t see today. If you take pictures of kids now, they know, they’ll ham it up for the camera. They know what will happen, they know they’ll have a tangible photograph that they can put on to MySpace or Facebook. So it’s really different. It’s like this really raw emotion that we just don’t ever see in photos anymore.

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Did you always feel this way towards photos?
Well yeah, my grandmother has, my mom’s side of the family, they have really tight documentation. We’re German and Germans just do that with genealogy. I’ve been retouching a lot of our old family photos for family members and restoring things and wanting to do something with it. I just never knew what. About 8 or 9 months ago, I started playing around with them again. I kind of combined everything I’ve learned over the past 10 years in this series I’m making now.

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As someone who has an emotional connection to their own family’s documentation, does it make you feel sad to know that no one cared about the images of these people, enough so that they would just sell the lot off to a stranger?
No, actually just the opposite because I know I have an opportunity, who ever that person was. I have the opportunity to reinvent their lives and start a new narrative to whatever I’m going to build. So they kind of live on and it might be in a different way, but if I add something to the piece, like a lot of text or just something that gives a different feeling, but still that person will still be continuing living. They probably never knew they would be turned into some type of modern, shiny art object.

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+ Mike Weber’s solo show, Identify, opens tonight at Long View Gallery at 6:30 pm (see more details)

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