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Lightness of being

Minutiae and dreams in Michael Haykin's vision of the West

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In 1994, artist Michael Haykin was living the Key West dream when he saw an advertisement in the South Florida Cultural Consortium newsletter that excited him.

"I would always look through the newsletter and nothing ever struck me," he says. "This time, I noticed a really small ad that said 'Montana Artists Refuge' with just a phone number. That was all the information. But to me it sounded interesting because Montana, a place where I'd never been, seemed exotic compared to the tropics. I called the number."

The advertisement had come at just the right time. Haykin had a major bout of rock fever. For the last 10 years living on the island he'd been painting light from every angle he could think of. He painted the light on old Bahamian conch houses, on sand roads and on the small boats tied to the seawall. He painted sea shallows, mangrove backwaters and tidal creeks.

"I painted Key West at night under streetlight, in moonlight," he says. "Over time I began to shift into paintings of what lives on the water and under the water. I painted the more essential qualities of light and water: refraction, reflection, turbidity, its distortive quality, transparency, its opacity. Eventually I was painting multi-panel paintings of clear shallow water over featureless white sand."

Haykin's thoroughness is almost mathematical in the way he systematically covers the dimensions of one subject matter. Light, at least in Key West, had run its course.

"I figured at that point it was time to turn my attention to the next challenge," he says.

The Montana Artists Refuge was founded in the old mining town of Basin, just north of Butte, in the 1970s. It was a chance for artists to escape and make new work in an isolated but majestic place. Haykin applied for the residency and was accepted for the 1995 season. He left the overly familiar Key West landscape for a totally foreign one: rusted smelters, crumbling brick buildings and old railroad tracks against the backdrop of snowcapped peaks and forest.

"It's a little depressing looking, but in beautiful country," Haykin says. "It was a bit of culture shock—well, it was a lot of culture shock. I wandered around and realized within a couple of weeks of being here, I really liked the look of the landscape—so big and mountainous. I wanted to be not only conversant with landscape on a visual level, I wanted to be fluent."

Haykin set a goal to paint all day, every day for the entire period of the four-month residency, mostly small 12-by-12 or 12-by-14 pieces. He applied for and was accepted to the residency again in both 1997 and 1998, painting the things he saw over and over, from as many perspectives as he could find. By the time he was done with his three stints in Basin, Haykin had painted the location over a thousand times.

Michael Haykin’s paintings of life in Rawhide Canyon include, from left, “Red-winged Blackbird,” “Snow” and “Sunlight.”
  • Michael Haykin’s paintings of life in Rawhide Canyon include, from left, “Red-winged Blackbird,” “Snow” and “Sunlight.”

"I really felt like I understood the anatomy of the landscape—the muscle and the bone of it," he says. "And at that point I had fallen in love with Montana, so my partner and I decided we would find our own place here and that's how we ended up in Rawhide Canyon."

Rawhide Canyon is nestled in the mountains near Boulder about 10 minutes east of Basin. Haykin and his partner live in a small cabin and Haykin paints in a studio they built nearby. He's continued the work of exhaustively exploring every nook and cranny of the land where the sun—or moon—shines. They also spend time in Tucson, where he paints a different kind of light. Over the years, he's shown his work around the country and in Montana, most notably at the Holter Museum and the Yellowstone Club.

His most recent paintings, a series that explores the way winter thaws into spring, goes on display this week at the Radius Gallery for a group show that also includes artists Dana Boussard and Dale Livezey. The artists' works all explore light and home and take on the idea of understanding the West's terrain through subtle details.

"I was thinking about that protracted period of time when winter in Montana turns into spring and what happens to the old snow that seems to take so long to melt away," Haykin says. "But I also wanted to infuse that with a waking dream quality on a personal level, like that thing that happens to all of us when that last dream you have intersects with your waking reality."

The result is blue hues of winter and hints of matted green and gold foliage poking out, messy but alive. Haykin often works from photographs. He points his camera at the sun or at a glare on the water and shoots. For the painting, he recreates the gauzy effect over whole sections of his piece as if objects are just out of focus. It's a technique he's mastered over the years and it gives all his work a dreamy feeling.

Haykin brings in other surprising elements. He grew up in Germany and Japan in a military family. He was fascinated, in particular, with how Japanese artists focused on small natural objects, like bugs, with a passion not so prevalent in American fine art. His focus on the little things—the way light shines on water or snow thaws under a tree—keeps his work from feeling like typical landscape art of the West. A friend of Haykin's once observed of his work that it took thousands of paintings of the large view for the artist to make one large painting of the small view.

Haykin's walks through Rawhide Canyon are slow because he stops and looks at rocks and individual trees and insects. When he paints something—an ant, for instance—he also reads everything he can on it. It's obsessive, he admits, but it's how art works best for him.

"The minutiae of the world gets overlooked, not only visually but intellectually," he says. "What I learn is astounding to me on the nearly molecular level. I still have so much to learn and the way I learn it best is to paint it often."

New Works: Haykin Boussard Livezey opens at the Radius Gallery with a reception Fri., June 17, from 5 to 7 PM.

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