An Interview with Mario Minichiello
Birmingham, UK , Sept. 17, 2009--I first heard about Mario Minichiello from one of his ex-students, today an excellent young professional etcher and illustrator who considers Minichiello one of the great European art masters. Curious about this modern Renaissance maestro, I browsed around the Web a bit and discovered that he's also held in near reverence by my favourite political cartoonist—Steve Bell of The Guardian , the one who portrayed President George W. Bush as a dim-witted, knuckle-dragging ape, and dubbed the U.K. Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, “Old Dog's Balls.” This I considered a recommendation of the highest order. Finally I dared to send Minichiello an email, asking him to collaborate on an interview. His reply was prompt and positive.
Question: Mario, this interview will be read mainly by fine-art printmakers, art educators and students, museum curators, print collectors and other print lovers.With that in mind, please tell us how you entered the world of art. When did you first realize you were an artist? What happened then?
Answer: The day Miss Eden, the primary school teacher, sent me to the head master, Mr East, for drawing nipples on the picture I was drawing of the baby Jesus. I explained (in all innocence ) that I was sure that ‘God had them too.' I got the cane. But my classmates, who had shown no affection for me until that point, suddenly were moved to protest and a primary school debate followed. I got in more trouble but for a moment I touched the minds of a few children and some teachers. In the end my social status had not changed; I was still an alien, but most artists and designers are .
Q: Why drawing and etching? There's more money in painting, after all.
A: Painting is drawing with colour. Writing is drawing with words. Drawing is a form of observational science, a way of learning really to see the world. It's done in slow time and you can invest your ideas in making something that is brave and honest. If you are thinking of the market all the time you will produce stuff that disappoints you. David Hockney said making art was like being able to print money. Learning to really draw is like money in the bank; spend it well.
Q: Please tell us about “reportage drawing.” What is it? Where does it come from, where is it going? Where did you step into the picture?
A: All the great artists have drawn from life and many from life on the streets. Reportage has been extremely popular in the past, even after photography was invented because an artist could be far more selective and clear about what they were showing the viewer. Artists such as Hogarth, Nash, Spencer and Feliks Topolski helped inform the British about themselves.
They made their reputations when reportage was at its height during the great wars and, in Feliks Topolski's case, also during the Nazi trials. Today war artists still do their best to bring a sense of humanity to a difficult subject. We even get sent to courtrooms and events like the APEC world leaders' conference in Sydney where we are in danger of being talked to death!
Have a look at some of the online reportage sites. I know that there has been an excellent series run by the New York Times . You might even have a look at some of my work online and people like John Keane (first Gulf War) and Peter Howson.
I work in this area it because it's exciting and challenging and because I was commissioned to do so by the UK's leading media organisations.
Q: What was your perception of the “art scene” during your formative years? How do you see it today?
A: I have the Roman Catholic Church to thank for my early arts interest, and for embedding in me the love I have for some of the old masters. Churches were filled with expressive--and to a child, often frightening--images such as a saint with her eyes plucked out and placed in a dish, or a red bloody heart with thorns around it. These colourful Roman Catholic churches were a contrast to the art scene of my student years in the UK. This was slightly snobby and excluding the world. Things have changed for the better, with more collections- opportunities to show work and expanding markets.
The World Wide Web has helped make artists' work accessible and portable. I think that generally people are more daring and there is an appetite for ideas and for art that mass-media broadcasters have not understood.
Q: Does commerce condition art irremediably?
A: in my view there is a comparison to be made here with food. You can buy cheap fast food that's ‘slapped out' in a factory in overseas and reheated in your local chain store by a spotty teenager. But then there's home cooked food made with love and care, as well as the chef who has a reputation for wanting to give you the best experience in your ‘foodie' life. He plans and tests and invents and lives to cook, dreams about it at night, plans it when riding to work. That's me. I am that person, it's still commerce but on my terms. Take it or leave it.
Q: How do you feel about the way the media treats art and artists? Doesn't it seem to you that they always send their dumbest reporter to cover the art news? Shouldn't someone set up night classes to educate the media?
A: I have worked with the media as an artist for many years. It has gotten a lot worse. The BBC has traditionally saved the day here in the UK, but now there are those who would weaken and humble them. I do despair and at times things can seem hopeless. The truth is that there is always a market for ‘cheap' much of the media treats artists in the same way theVictorians treated a visit to the mad house. However some Artists are keen to play this role to gain some sort of fame. But when I was in Sydney the arts reporters were fantastic, intelligent, and brave. Good on ya down under!
Q: How did you get into teaching? What do you do to make your students so devoted to you? Does it have to do with what Steve Bell refers to as “... his enthusiasm for his students and the work they do...?”
A: I began to teach as a result of a foolish desire to speak to someone other than the courier who collected my artwork from my studio for the newspapers. I did think I could develop my own school like some latter-day old master. This was total madness I blush at the idea now. When I started teaching I discovered it was not about what I wanted to achieve it was all about the creative young people who put their trust in my school and in me. In the end it was about their individual needs and what I could give them. I guess I really did move from ‘being the picture to being the frame.' As a professor at one of the UK's top universities I have been able to think more deeply about my subject and its place in the wider world.
In terms of the connection I have had to my students, I have always sought to help them to be the best they can be. I feel they are part of a very big family whose achievements I enjoy and celebrate. I am touched that they speak so well of me. I really hope to be the man they describe, a better man than I really am. In the end their affection and faith is reciprocated. This is one of the major rewards of my life and I thank them for it.
Q: What differences do you see between art students today and the ones you studied with?
A: Students today have far more pressures, and distractions, so it's harder for them to focus. We were spoilt with grants, we only had a few real difficulties to over come. I admire the focus and dedication of my students, I think most young people get a bad press, which very few really deserve.
Q: What's the most important lesson an art student can learn?
A: Hard work, honest tenacity, good judgement and understanding how lucky they are to be on this journey.
Q: Wasn't photography supposed to make drawing obsolete? What happened?
A: I believe photography has helped drawing redefine its self beyond the confines of a mere skill and into a cognitive process and as part of the intellectual and expressive language of an artist.
Q: Can art make a difference?
A: Art makes a difference every minute of the day if, like me, you believe that we are born to be much more than mere economic units. Happiness may not be a human right but it needs to be a goal for us all. Art is the God of small things. The other day I went to see a friend in a hospital who is very ill. In the past the long hospital corridors were empty and grey. It was depressing. But thanks to Arts for Hospitals in the UK the hospital was filled with colour and images that were reminders of what it is to be alive and to be human. My friend needed this reminder, and the art that surrounded him was as good as the ‘happy pills' that they tried to give him.
In the same way the Campaign for Drawing has helped bring art and drawing back to the general public and the school classrooms all over the world. They have used high profile artists like Quentin, Blake, Peter Blake, Scarf and my own dear lady, Liz Anelli.
I know that my own work and that of Steve Bell has made people think, and sometimes ‘think twice' about what bombs do. Happily, we are able to do this without killing people.
Q: What artists did the most in that respect?
A: All of them! I was hungry to see all I could but Leonardo Da Vinci, Goya and Grosz influenced me most. Today Hockney, Feliks Topolski (whom I met as a student), Peter Howson, Liz Anelli, Quentin Blake and Steve Bell are all inspirational figures for young artists.
Q: As I understand it, your biggest exhibit, “The Art of Conflict,” at the EICH Gallery at the University of Lincoln, was virtually a retrospective. That was in the year 2000. But weren't you too young (39) for such a show then? How did that happen?
A: Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.
Q: The crits and comments on that show were over the moon. Were you surprised? Did you learn anything from them? Were they an inspiration for you to continue working? Was that a watershed for you? Were there changes in your work afterwards?
A: I was touched at some comments, amused by others. Marcel Duchamp was correct when he said that ‘no matter what an artist thinks he is doing, the viewer brings their experience to the work.' With that in mind you have to be thankful that those people who do not like your work don't bother to spend time making a comment.
Q: I noticed you recently published a lot of images of your work on Flickr . How do you feel about Internet as a medium for the diffusion of artists' work? How important is it? Can you conceive of work created expressly for Internet?
A: That's a really interested question. I can see that we will move to a point where work is made to be shown on the world wide web because it allows the artist to access a massive audience. The problem is they have to know of you and know how to find you. There are some interesting possibilities, which have yet to be resolved.
Q: I notice your signature block now says: “ Professor Mario Minichiello,
Head of School of Visual Communication, BIAD BCU, Birmingham B4 7DX.” Have you changed schools?
A: I left my good friends at Loughborough University in 2007. I remain in touch with the Vice Chancellors and I am extremely proud of my time working with such a wonderful University. I know that many of my graduates have tried to contact me there as they want to stay in touch and I will be finding ways of doing this through the VC's office at Loughthborough in due course. I am proud to now be part of one of the most exciting universities I have ever worked for, whose arts faculty ( BIAD, Birmingham Institute of Art and Design ) is one of the oldest in the UK. It even predates the Slade School . I am now professor in visual communication and I run the biggest and best-resourced school of visual communication in Europe. Working in this sector has always been rewarding and exciting but my new VC (Prof. David Tidmarsh) is determined to make a difference to everyone who comes to us to start their professional careers. It's great. Come and visit us!
Q: I recently read a comment from an artist who said, “The highest form of art is drinking beer with your friends.” Would you say he's got a point there?
A: Life is about those who love you and the time you spend with them, so the gentleman may have a point, as well as a pint!
Q: Is there anything you would like to add? We're all ears.
A: I hate to sound too professorial, but In my view we cannot lose sight of the fact that drawing, as an intellectual activity and vocational practice, has never lost its true purpose: to create an intellectual platform for visual artists and arts practices, and enable new interdisciplinary visual languages and ideas to form.
For academics and practitioners alike drawing can act as a place for critical engagement, examination and experimentation. Drawing allows us to slow time down, to think deeply about the ‘observational' and the ideas that connect us to the great contexts in the world.
Good luck to all your readers. If you are in the UK please come and see me at the university. If your on the Internet please visit my website, or see one of my talks on Itunes U or Itunes Scholar or download a paper or book. A new show is coming soon, which will be online as well as in a room.
Thank you for your time hope its not been too boring. Good luck with your work. Thank you for interviewing me.