by Leah Draffen
YOU MAY FEEL an instant sense of nostalgia when looking at one of Michael Guidry’s painted marsh creatures. Sweaty mornings on a flat boat as the sun appeared upon the horizon or soggy boots with net in hand as you peer into muddy water. No matter your age, we all have had those South Louisiana experiences. Michael explores those memories with oils on canvas.
“I first started painting Louisiana subject matter based on trips I used to take out to our fishing camp in Lafourche Parish,” he reflects. “I would go out not even thinking about looking for subject matter, but then I couldn’t help but try to relive those things when I got back to my studio.” Michael began collecting items like clumps of marsh grass, and assorted flora and fauna, including birds brought in by his duck-hunting friends.
Posed with some directional lighting, Michael’s clump of marsh grass opened the door for his first solo show, Out of the Marsh. After professionally photographing the series, he eventually submitted the images to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival for consideration. “I got a letter that I was accepted as a Louisiana Nature Painter. Obliged to show what I got juried in with, I had to revisit it.” From banana stalks to alligators and gallinules above, Michael found that his subject matter was endless.
About the source of his subjects, he says, “It’s usually something from my childhood. Something that shaped my environment, but you never really think of it as a single item until it’s taken out of context. That’s how I started with banana stalks. So, instead of painting the plant, I would remove it, isolate it and hang it up in the studio.”
Using traditional materials, Michael’s style offers added familiarity often unseen in contemporary art. After attending LSU, Michael went to the New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts (NOAFA). With a desire to learn to work with an academic approach, he studied how to portray life using traditional techniques. “Now, I use all those same techniques, starting points and materials but with a contemporary, new life. Because you recognize the materials, you may feel like you know something, which makes it easier to look at.”
Michael began his adoration of and study of art as a child. “I was in third grade when I discovered cubism,” he says. “I felt like it was accessible. I never really understood anything until I read about that.” Yet, Michael spent his childhood and teen years thinking you had to be born with artistic talent. “I was clearly infatuated with art but never thought it was a skill I could acquire. It truly was a revelatory experience for me when I started studying sculpture and painting in college. It was then that I was exposed to the practice of art.”
And practice Michael did. After graduating with a degree in journalism he moved to New York for some time before returning to LSU to study sculpture. He then spent four years at NOAFA. Years later, Michael continues to practice and learn, especially from a 4-year-old who frequents his studio. “Fatherhood has changed everything for me and I had no clue that she would affect me in my work so much. She puts paint on canvas with total confidence,” he smiles.
“I have found myself seeing everything from a child’s eye again. When I was little my parents had this small cubist still life print by Picasso. I find myself drawn back to that painting, particularly the colors of the piece. Rediscovering it, I have reincorporated it into my work. Because of her, I have been brought back to that time in my life.”
When Michael doesn’t have a tiny helper in his studio, he approaches his work by stretching his own canvases (a skill he revived during the pandemic) and staining the canvas one color. “Sometimes I let the stain dry, sometimes I don’t, depending on what kind of effect I’m trying to create. So, without even thinking about the subject, I’m already sort of into it. Usually, when I put down a color, the next color I put down is a reaction to that color. It becomes a call and response on canvas—a life of its own.”
After spending much of last year working on commissioned pieces, Michael is now getting to explore new ideas that have been floating in his mind. And, he has continued gathering experiences at the fishing camp. “Most of our recent trips have been remediating storm damage, but we are still in the middle of the Louisiana Salt Marsh so we can’t help but have nature come to us sometimes. For instance, a purple martin family built a nest on our little porch area. It was a magical experience watching the acrobatics of the mama as she collected insects to feed the babies.”
Michael enjoys those moments in nature, but also truly enjoys capturing them in paint. “When studying at the Academy, I used to wait tables. I remember when I was able to get the night off, it was the feeling of knowing I was going to be able to stay home and paint. I still get that feeling. Now, my studio is behind my house so I can just go in at any point. I love walking in and smelling the oil paint.
“When I was young my parents would load us in the car and we would find out we were going to Pontchartrain Beach. I would get so excited. Even if I have just 20 minutes to work, I get that same feeling. I call it that ‘Pontchartrain Beach feeling.’”
View Michael’s latest works during White Linen Night at Degas Gallery on August 7, from 6-8pm. Michael will be showing at the second weekend of New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival at Contemporary Crafts, October 15, 16, and 17. To learn more, visit mguidrystudio.com.