THE VISUAL VOICE
Abstract realism may be one of the most innately approachable art styles there is. Pure abstraction has a high entry fee; you had better be conversant in the principles and elements of art, be able to define the terms ‘modernism’ and ‘post-modernism’ and have Franz Kline and Wassily Kandinsky on speed dial. Realism can be similarly difficult, ironically enough. It’s easy to get lost in the details and lose sight of the message. Abstract realism bridges the gap between the recognizable and the conceptual by giving viewers something concrete to identify with, then introducing abstract elements that force the brain into a conceptual mode. The viewer immediately begins looking for relationships between the two.
Michael Savoie didn’t start out as an abstract realist. He didn’t start out as a painter at all. After graduating from Memorial High School in Port Arthur, Texas, he attended Lamar University off and on for a while, but had no passion for it. He wasn’t pursuing any creative studies and he was drifting, unsure of his direction.
An ad in the back of a magazine for the Academy of Art in San Francisco changed all that. He knew immediately where he wanted to be.
“I came up with this big speech to my mom about how I needed to move to Cali, thinking I had to convince her,” he recalls. “She let me finish then said, ‘Well it’s about time!’ She just wanted me to figure it out on my own.”
Savoie attended the Academy for a few years, but he still wasn’t a painter. He studied fashion. Yet his time there finally narrowed his focus and revealed the direction he had been looking for. He discovered his true love was painting, so he returned to Port Arthur and taught himself the basics. He completed his fine arts education at Burlington College in Vermont, where a deadline crisis inspired an evolution in style.
Invited to what he believed was to be a group gallery show, Savoie was shocked to discover that it was a solo show – his first. Originally intending to submit some old work to “fill space,” as he put it, Savoie was not willing to give so half-hearted an effort to a show with his name (and his alone) on it. He recalled how in high school his drama teacher, Henry Mayes, had helped him gain confidence in both himself and the value of hard work. “[Mayes] gave me a voice, quite literally,” says Savoie.
“Looking back on my days with Mr. Mayes, I knew it was showtime. Two weeks out from the show I was still searching for a voice, a style that was my own. I woke up one night and just went for it. The result was the first of my current style. In those two weeks I pumped out 14 paintings for a series entitled “Where’s California”. The style developed out of the need to satisfy both sides of my brain. I am very meticulous about my plans for a painting but need to feel free and loose while executing, hence the mix of abstraction and realism.”
Savoie has continued developing that style. The technical proficiency of his realism contrasts sharply with a gestural sweep of colors. Flat graphic elements move over and under sculptural forms, distorting space and further mixing the real with the abstract. Though he never finished his fashion schooling, he certainly did not abandon it. That background is evident in many of his works, which look like magazine photo shoots in the middle of swirling storms of color.
Preferring to draw his inspiration from photography, music and film, Savoie’s work has a pop art vibe to it. The figures are fashionable and modern. They shift form and exist as three dimensional creatures in a slightly psychedelic two dimensional space. They exude ambiguous tension.
The Port Arthur Economic Development Corporation has been updating and renovating their space since they relocated there in 2015. The decrepit state of the historic First National Bank building and the extensive damage to the original architecture and artwork within was covered in a previous issue of Off Ramp (Fall/Winter 2015). The EDC has been seeking a local artist for some time to display in the building and inspire local youth.
Michael Savoie was short listed for the job early on, and no surprise. Kids from cities like Port Arthur can be tempted to believe that a place with less than 60,000 people doesn’t have the cultural muscle to produce someone who can “make it in the big time.” Yet Savoie was one of those kids – a little lost, a little confused about where and what he wanted to do – who persevered and found his voice and his passion. What’s more, he turned fidelity to his dream into fulfillment. His art has appeared on Lee Daniels’ “Empire”, he took first runner up in the 5th Annual Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series, and he owns his own gallery.
As for the art he’s creating for the EDC? He’s keeping it under wraps for now. Construction on the building where his work will be shown won’t complete until October so an official reveal date is still up in the air. Sometime after October, though, maybe stop by the old First National Bank building in Port Arthur and you’re sure to see something good.