EDWARD MICHELL – The Light Beneath

“I am inspired by the darkness. It goes hand in hand with the light. However dark the days may feel, there is joy hidden behind the blackness. This too shall pass and the sun will shine again. We will go on. It’s all in how we perceive it.”

These words of artist Edward Michell most certainly relate to so many of us. At one time or another we all face loss, sadness, and pain. It’s what we do with it that counts. 

World renowned, Calgary born artist, Edward Michell has been revealing the light amidst darkness for decades. His backdrop, challenging and thick like toffee. It contradicts the rules. It’s unprecedented. Edward Michell couldn’t be more pleased.

Edward Michell was always creative. From junior high, to high school, to part time evening classes at ACAD, he saw art everywhere. A scholarship to Ryerson College in Toronto led to fine art education in France. It was here where Edward could freely explore painting and design. Art education was less rigid here and the museums and wealth of history magnificent. After 2 years in France, armed with classical art and art history, Edward returned home to Canada. This is when things started to get really interesting. 

Edward has reached a renowned global audience for over 35 years. This includes celebrity collectors, billionaires, Fortune 500 companies, museums, politicians and long lists of corporate collectors from across Europe, Asia, North America and beyond. His solo shows frequently sell out. His wait lists are long and his drying times are even longer. His secret? Harnessing the contradiction between the light and the dark.

Edward Michell fuses an array of distinct, unique, natural materials that work together to create his transcendental abstract art pieces. The dark base is made from Bitumen, the tar from the oil sands of Alberta. He uses age-old techniques and locally sourced products to create his natural paints. Blue paint from blueberries, pinks from raspberries and beets, greens from the natural pigments extracted from grasses and leaves. Edward brings in the light with crushed gold, silver and diamonds. It all begins with the spreading of the bitumen across the canvas using large palette tools and sticks. After it dries, it is varnished, revealing what he describes as a ‘rainbow of darkness’. The primary colors are added, and the precious metals are sprinkled on top while it dries. This magical, multi-layered composition of natural textures can take up to 1½ years to dry.

Edward explains that natural paints have been around forever since the dawn of man. He remains inspired by cave paintings made with charcoal iron oxide, handmade paint and blood. In his very first series of paintings, he used ox blood, the same material that was historically used by cave men. Using this controversial, yet historically accurate material for painting became the catalyst for Edward’s most memorable show. 

He shared with me this story. It was his first series, it was 35 years ago and Edward was keenly aware that he was one of the youngest artists at the show. It was a huge legendary show in Seattle called the Pacific Rim Art Show. He took a few of his newly created paintings, the ones composed of the primitive oxide charcoal, natural colors and the ox blood. He set up his big booth in preparation for the weekend show, and waited for the VIP Charity evening to begin. Tuxedos, black ties, wealthy business owners, community leaders and Bill Gates were set to arrive. These were the people who would be looking for art here, art that they could donate to a non-profit hospital, children’s foundation or other worthy organization. Edward quickly realized his material list wasn’t going well with the audience. The ox blood was quickly becoming an issue. From proclaiming to see Satan within the pieces, to running out of the booth, to literally taking a piece off of the wall and subsequently destroying it right in front of him, you could say that sales weren’t going too well and this was only day one. On day two, once again, people initially adored and complimented the artwork, but as soon as they got close enough to the materials list, they abruptly and often rudely, left. Edward defended his choice of materials by pointing out that blood has historically been used in many famous paintings, such as those of Artist Van Gogh and Rembrandt. There were several paintings in the world famous Louvre in France and the Gallery in London. None of this seemed to matter and Edward was not selling a single painting. Thankfully for Edward, he had other plans. He had to. He needed to pay for his $4000 entrance fee to the show and for his hotel room, and he really didn’t want to hitch hike home to Canada. Though little money at the time, he was rich with imagination. 

Edward went to ‘cash corner’ in Seattle, handing out cardboard signs that read ‘Edward Michell – Serial Killer on Canvas.’ Other signs read ‘Shame Shame Shame – Killing Animals for Your Art.’ He made 10 signs and hired 10 people to protest his own show. He called the media, desperately explaining that there was a crazy Canadian man who paints with blood, and that a riot was ensuing at Seattle Centre over his paintings. The radio stations and TV stations quickly began covering the show, creating enough of a buzz that every single one of those paintings sold that day. This move took a lot of guts so to speak. But for the artist who’s often described as one who ‘paints with the guts of the land’, it fits. 

Edward has not used blood since. Nowadays, you can find Edward at one of his three full time open-air studios in Calgary, Dallas or Seattle. He has a number of corporate museum commissions that will be released in Texas. He says he’s very proud of these large-scale paintings, one 30‘ x 40‘, the other 15‘ x 45. Edward creates a dynamic new art collection series every year and a half. Each collection has a new style and look, still using age-old materials and natural elements from Canada. His new 2021 art series called the Joy series. Edward explains he paints for himself and for his own pleasure. His collection of new paintings is based around his perception of joy. It’s about finding joy in all parts of life, the dark times and good times. The new collection has incredibly bright colours themes and tones that are incredibly happy to look at. Multiple washes, the glazes in gold and silvers, and the natural paints overlapping the oil sands of Alberta, is truly a sense of optimism and happiness on canvas. Edward explains that some of the joy series is also very dark. He reminds us that ‘there is the Yin and the Yang, the night and the day, the joy and the sadness. They go hand-in-hand. They both must intertwine so that one benefits the other. Even in my dark paintings joy comes through, hidden behind the blackness of the tar sands oil, creeping out into our hearts to know that this too shall pass and the sun again will shine. We will go on with our lives, whatever a journey brings us, good or bad.”

At 62, Edward feels strong in both body and imagination. Like most people who go to work each day, he feels honoured that he considers his more play. Although there are times when he will paint for 20 hours straight, for the most part Edward keeps a standard schedule. While he’s met thousands of people a day at the biggest art shows in New York and LA, Edward Michell describes himself as a mostly shy person. ‘I am an extravert covering up a very introverted person’. He doesn’t smoke, he has never been drunk and Edward doesn’t drink coffee or tea. Ice cream is his self-described addiction and he is usually in bed by 10. He reminds us all that, “Art is everywhere in our lives, in the beauty of a canvas, the beauty of nature, the beautiful flower, the beauty of our friendship, a family member. Open your eyes and your heart and always look at the beautiful things. Surround yourself by unique and beautiful things that touch your soul. Life is very short and life is to be learned. Honour this world and the beauty of creation and all levels.” 

Edward Michell is currently on a tour called Big Art for Big Walls. All the pieces in his Joy series are huge, ranging between 6’ x 4’, 6’ x 8’ and 12’ x 8’. Whenever he has a new collection of paintings, the show always starts in Calgary. This year it begins at the Calgary stampede exhibition, then moves on to Edmonton, Kelowna, Vancouver, Seattle and finishes up in October in Los Angeles. 

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