Michael Siporin Levine, 2011 UConn BFA, sat down in Storrs Center’s Barnes & Noble in awe of how much has changed on campus in a few short years. After earning his BFA in printmaking at UConn, he continued on to graduate school at the University of Georgia and earned his MFA in 2014. After a few years of teaching, he was finally back in the area and figuring out what to do next. After graduating from UConn, he remained in touch with beloved teachers that inspired him to pursue his artistic passions today. By blending personal experiences, history, and invention, he creates images with open-ended narratives. His initial ideas are never set in stone, allowing room for change and chance to transform his original ideas. Levine is able to emulate his creative process within his finished product, embracing observation wholeheartedly into his work and his life.
With any creative process, you want to feel like you’re challenged and also that it’s fun for you to do and that it encourages you to keep on experimenting with it.
Q: What influenced you to pursue art?
A: When I was a little kid, I would make comics, sketchbooks, and did a lot of creative activities. I used to draw all the time and I took art classes in high school. My mom is an art professor at Central Connecticut State University, and there was a summer that I audited a printmaking class to build my portfolio before applying to colleges. I would always ask her questions while I was drawing and occasionally would attend some classes she was teaching. That was a major factor in me knowing that I wanted to pursue art. I think a lot of people don’t consider art as a feasible as a career – but just because I saw that my mom was doing it, it made me feel like it was something I could do too.
Q: What made you decide to specialize in print making?
A: I always liked to draw a lot, so I knew I was going to go into the art department at UConn. When I came here, I didn’t know I was going to do printmaking necessarily, but I took a class at the end of my sophomore year. I liked the teachers, and the print shop was in this old, cool, creepy building. It had a good energy, it was fun to be there, and there was always people working there late. I’m still really close with my professors, Gus Mazzocca and Laurie Sloan. After earning a BFA in printmaking at UConn, I went to University of Georgia in Athens for a three year program. I got my MFA in printmaking, and after that I got a one year job teaching printmaking at a Georgia College & State University.
Q: You’ve incorporated performance art into your work. What is that like?
A: I like the idea of performing and adding a little bit of comedy in there. There’s a lot of exhilaration and putting on a show. I feel like with performances, there’s a vulnerability and a rawness. You don’t really know what’s going to happen, and it plays a role in the idea of chance. There’s something very personal about doing a performance. You can practice and such, but generally I like to keep things kind of loose. There’s a lot of leeway with performance art, there’s a freedom in that.
That’s a big thing I learned from printmaking – embracing chance and accidents and have that inform some of your other ideas.
Q: Could you describe your creative process?
A: A lot of times, I’ll have an initial idea and use the process to change it as I work. That’s why I like printmaking because you can have an idea, but when you ink something up – things can happen that you can’t really account for. That’s a big thing I learned from printmaking – embracing chance and accidents and have that inform some of your other ideas. That’s why it’s hard for me to talk about the process of Weird Apartment a little bit because things changed as I was working on them. I would learn different things and new ideas would occur. I always try to bring in that chance element into whatever I’m doing. That’s why I like to say my work is semi-autobiographical because I may be thinking about one thing, but as I’m erasing and re-drawing it, I’ll see other stuff and invent a story based off of that. In order for me to feel engaged with something, it has to either be something new for me or something I’m figuring out. A lot of times I’ll pick a process I’m unfamiliar with and experiment with it. Picking a fun process and figuring out ways to be engaged with that process is really important. With any creative process, you want to feel like you’re challenged and also that it’s fun for you to do and that it encourages you to keep on experimenting it. When something starts to feel stagnant, maybe you should switch something up.
The concept is a person wandering into a space- a home or weird apartment, and they can’t turn on the light so they get lost.
Q: Can you explain your creative process for Weird Apartment? How did you work through the concept?
A: I worked on [Weird Apartment] from September to November of 2016. I made prints first and accompanied it with a video. I was in Illinois at a small college teaching one class, and we were given the opportunity to use the rest of the time to work on our own stuff. First, I created these prints and used them as a storyboard, as I was thinking about what I wanted to do for the video. They’re relief prints – so I cut pieces of plastic, inked them up, and then put them through the press. I only had a couple months to create a lot of work, so I tried to keep everything pretty minimal. That’s why I liked this process because it was just about thinking about big forms and shapes, and I wanted to keep everything black and white. I like there to be abstract moments but, I always want here to be some narrative and imagery. I made the prints and after that I was messing around with video. For the video, I used early animation techniques. I did drawings on transparent film and put it on an overhead projector and played with it. The concept is a person wandering into a space- a home or weird apartment, and they can’t turn on the light so they get lost. Eventually, they find a chord that leads them to a projector that they start singing karaoke on. As I was making it, it turned into me showing the process of making it as well. You see the person animating it and then that person becomes part of the animation. It’s a mix of telling the narrative and showing the process.
Q: What was your inspiration for Weird Apartment?
A: When I was in Georgia I was temporarily living in a pretty strange place. I thought it would an interesting theme to use because I try to keep all my work semi-autobiographical. I like to use my own experiences as a way to loosely base imagery, prints, and projects off of. When I went to Illinois, I decided I would make all these prints based off of the idea of a weird apartment. The imagery is based off of things you do when you’re by yourself in a strange place, including different mundane chores. There are also references to the ornate antiques in the house I lived in Galesburg, IL. There were all these antiques all around, and every room was supposed to feel like it was from the 1800’s, when the house was built.
Q: Have you ever created a particularly emotional piece?
A: I had just gotten out of a long term relationship so that theme is woven into my Weird Apartment piece. The sad karaoke was inspired by a lot of country music I was listening to at that time. I was thinking about these sad, lonely, men but also making fun of that. I work directly off of the things around me and what I’m feeling, so if I’m feeling sad about something, I’ll investigate that. I never work in a very super direct way, so there’s a lot that goes into each piece. I like working based off of things that everyone can relate to.
Q: What are your upcoming plans in terms of career goals?
A: Right now, I’m looking for different kinds of experiences rather than a full time job. I’m looking to head to New York City. I haven’t had a ton of time out of school, so I feel like getting some other experiences that aren’t related to academics would be nice. In the end, if I want to teach, having some of these other experiences would make me a better teacher.
Q: Do you have any advice for SFA students?
A: Putting a lot of time into your art is very important. Put a lot of hours into your work. My advice would to be figure out what engages you. If you’re not feeling that, figure out ways you can start to feel inspired again because spending a lot of time on what you’re working on is important. You want to figure out ways to feel engaged in your studio practice and feel excited about going into the studio.