Why did you become a Teaching Artist?
Becoming a Teaching Artist has allowed me to earn a living doing something I love and to be creative with people of all ages and different backgrounds—much like my upbringing in New York. Teaching block printing and sharing a new experience with students reminds me of the joy I had when I first started.
The first block I ever carved was a wood block. I used Japanese Wood Blocks as a reference, and I made a squid, skull, and rooster’s head in tight composition. I remember my forearms being sore from carving for the first time and trying to figure out how much pressure to apply to get even lines. As time went on, I got more comfortable, but those first few times were tough! Sometimes I’ll see the students “teeter-totter” their hands as they carve and it reminds me of how I first struggled with the pressure. It’s nice to see them progress over the few sessions I get with them so they’re a little more smooth.
Can you say more about how your upbringing in New York influences your art and teaching?
Born and raised in New York, I was always surrounded by different cultures and forms of entertainment. Although I am born of Italian heritage, a lot of my art is inspired by Japanese art and modern-day pop culture. In New York, I was able to learn from people that came from different countries and were taught different techniques using different disciplines, which has been very beneficial.
Growing up I had a diverse range of teachers with different sets of skills. This enabled me to take the best practices from all people around me and come up with my own way of making things and teaching block printing. It also made me learn patience, and that everyone will learn at different speeds. Everyone is always moving at 100 MPH in New York. It’s nice to slow it down and take time with the students to ensure that they are understanding.
What do you enjoy most about your art?
I like to base my work on subjects that I grew up with and put my own spin on things that people may or may not recognize. I take pride in my art being unique and recognizable unlike work in modern day advertisements that all look very similar. I took the subway everyday in New York, and the advertisements in the cars looked like glorified stick figures. Art in marketing today is simplified, I think, because they want people to see themselves in the image of whatever they are trying to promote. My art is more unique. It makes people smile or giggle when they first see it, maybe because it’s good characterization, or it’s somewhat off and that makes the image funny. My work is a little more “out there.” It will usually distort some characteristics, although not always intentional, and that ends up making it my own, something that stands out in a crowd.
How do students get to see your art in your workshops? Does it surprise them? How do they react/respond?
I bring in two specific pieces with me for linoleum block printing. I have a four-color Native American portrait with a headdress that was carved in the Japanese Wood Block discipline and a Macho Man linoleum block which was carved in a modern technique. When my students see the Macho Man print, they usually laugh, but when they see the Native American, they seem to take it more seriously and are somewhat shocked. They don’t immediately realize that I created it with just one block and that usually surprises them. I think it also surprises them that the two prints are so different, but I created both of them.
What is your favorite thing about being a Teaching Artist?
My favorite thing about being a Teaching Artist is growing, personally, as an artist because you never truly know how to do something until you are capable of teaching it. I also enjoy teaching people of all ages and all different backgrounds because it challenges me to find common ground and make the art work no matter what.
Block printing is hard and takes time and patience. When I have short classes or just one session, I have to think on my feet and help students re-imagine the project they want to create so that it is manageable. I might tell them to carve less and create designs that are heavily focused on the line-work, so they don’t have to carve away large areas from the block. Every class is different, and I find myself re-imagining projects all the time.
I’ve heard students say they are going to change their images halfway through because it is too difficult. I can’t say I haven’t taken a few shortcuts myself at times, but I try to help students see their goal differently, rather than completely abandon their vision.
Seeing younger kids understand block printing and execute it successfully brings me joy—that same joy I had when I first experienced the art form myself.
Michael Mirabile is an illustrator and printmaker who specializes in silkscreen and block printing techniques. He is a graduate of the School of Visual Arts in New York City.