Michael Scoggins’s name was one of the first I heard when I started my MFA.
As one of the school’s MFA artist alumni, Scoggins gave a clear picture of how living as an artist could possibly look. I dreamt of it, telling myself, “Yeah, if only I could keep making work after I graduate from here … right?”
I still wrestle with this pressure and idea to be actively making and living as an artist. It is really a day-to-day failure and conquest. And Scoggins’s works on paper—created on the iconic base of American school notebook paper—speak exactly to such commonplace matters as daydreaming and the private narratives it brings.
About a year ago, I asked if I could visit his studio when I was next in New York. He invited me in and was incredibly accessible and generous sharing his work and thoughts. So, I made my second visit to his studio in Bushwick during my month of Artadia residency. We ordered in a Japanese lunch, sat on his studio floor, and talked relentlessly about ideas on art making, placeness, accessibility of art, art as commodity, identity, and more.
Michael Scoggins currently has a solo exhibition, A Day in the Life, at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga’s Cress Gallery (October 15–December 6, 2013).
Interview edited for grammar.
Gyun Hur: Thank you for opening up your studio for me … Michael. I have followed your work in the past few years, and getting to see your work in person outside of a gallery context and converse with you about issues that concern your work was really stimulating. Your works have been consistently based on this idea of a child’s notebook, doodling. When I moved to the United States as a student, one of the immediate changes in my school life was a different visual in terms of notebook paper. I used it every day for homework, and eventually for personal notes you might pass to your friends during class or in a hallway. Could you tell me about that notebook as an underlying thread of your work? I see that it immediately makes your work accessible and inviting to all.
Michael Scoggins: You’re exactly right. One of the main reasons behind using the enlarged notebook format is to make the work accessible and inviting. I’m trying to have an immediate connection with the viewer by using something that is familiar. I’m also trying to reach out beyond your typical art-viewing audience. The portion of people [who] seek out and go look at art is a very small percentage of the population. I want to make a connection with everyone, and I believe this format allows that. There is still always the issue of accessibility to art, but I’m always striving to bridge the gap between the art world and the much larger world beyond it.
GH: So this idea of “accessibility” is something that we both talked a lot about during my visits to your studio. Your visuals, text, and references are of the ones that we as Americans are familiar with. The themes of childhood, family, political conditions, and superheroes are narratives that are very distinctive and deeply embedded in each individual’s life. How do you navigate this realm between your personal world and the public presentation of your work? I know that you have done some sculptural works in which your paper is getting folded, etc. It is nice, because that reminds me of folded notes that I used to hand out to my friends.
MS: I do tend to use imagery that is also familiar to a larger audience. Again, it’s about approachability. These are things I see and [that] influence my daily life. Sincerity in my work is vital to present the concepts. Make work about what you know and you’ll be okay. That’s been my mantra for many years now. Art should always be personal and others [should be able to] relate when they make connections from their own experiences. There is no separation between art and life. I know that sounds kooky, but it’s true.
GH: You grew up in the South, went to school in Savannah, Georgia, then moved to New York about a decade ago. How is your relationship to these two different cities? I think that our cultural and physical landscapes are getting flatter and immensely complex. No longer do we identify so much with one specific place within our narratives, however, that sense of belonging is important, I believe. I would love to hear your thoughts on this idea of place and identity.
MS: It’s funny because I feel like I’m still very connected to the South but New York is now my home. I’m a Southerner by birth, so there will always be that part of me that misses being there, and at the same time I love New York … but never quite feel like I completely belong even after all these years. I always get excited and a little emotional when I cross the Mason-Dixon [Line,] but I also feel the energy of New York … when I’m flying into LaGuardia and looking over the city. I know that I’m home. I belong to both, and that’s a good thing.
I know my practice has changed since living in New York. There is just so much stimulation that it seeps into ones subconscious and comes out in the work. Living in Savannah allowed me to mature as an artist and person. I needed that time, and it allowed me time to experiment and prepared me mentally for the move north. I don’t think I could be in New York today without that time in Georgia.