Thursday, October 15, 2015

Reflections on Mike Price on the occasion of his show in St. Paul, MN, October 2015 // by Christopher Cairns

I met Mike Price in New Orleans in 1968. Mike was a devilishly handsome and sexy young man, if one can be permitted to say this in this modern day and age. Margo and I had recently been married and we would run into Mike at various parties. He always had incredibly beautiful women with him, but never the same one - until one evening, another astonishing beauty was introduced to us, a certain Susan.  Well, this gal stuck around. Susan Davis then was everything that she is today. She and Mike would dance and dance – and sing and laugh. What a couple they were!
Mike and I became fast friends, bonded by our both having roots in the urban north - something that was not entirely understood in New Orleans.  We were both workers, but found time to spend together at various watering holes and oyster /shrimp bars. We would wander from my studio on Decatur St, near the old mint, to eat beans and rice at Busters. This would cost us 27 cents apiece, including a piece of bread and butter along with a glass of water. Seventy-nine cents would fetch the same, along with a piece of sausage. Other treks took us to Felix’s, where we would pound down shrimp and beer.
In those days, Mike was working on molded wax sheets and also on bronze heads. I heard stories from him of his time in the US Army, somewhere in Alabama, Huntsville, I believe, He spent two years modeling heads of Generals and other officers, wandering around the base in civilian clothes, the only soldier not in uniform. Mike was a clever young man. He didn’t like to salute. Mike had been a math major at Indiana, even getting his Masters, before going in the army. He took a sculpture course at Indiana with Frank Gallo, who was all the rage at the time. But the Army gave him his grounding in sculpture. So let’s not be too critical of the armed forces.
One day Mike - knowing I was from the east coast - asked me,  “Have you ever heard of Harvardford College?” (name changed to protect the innocent).  I said yes, that a high school friend, a certain Bobby “Thunder” Bird, had applied to Harvardford, but didn’t get in.  That was the extent of my knowledge of Harvardford, in spite of growing up within a half hour distance of this school.
Mike said that Harvardford was hiring a sculptor and that he had the inside track. Mike shared a Chicago gallery - the Vincent Price Gallery (no relation) - with a painter named Charles Stegeman. Stegeman had just been hired at Harvardford to start an art department. All this was news to me and of very little interest.
About a year deeper into our friendship, I got a notice advertising this sculpture job at Harvardford. I asked Mike, “Whatever happened to that inside track that you had to the job at Harvardford?” Mike said - without going into details - that it wasn’t going to work out for him. I asked him if it were okay with him if I applied for the job.  He said sure, with that big smile of his.
Through a series of improbabilities, I got the job at Harvardford College.
At exactly the same time, I was looking for other jobs, and an opportunity surfaced for me at another small liberal arts college in St. Paul, MN, a place called Hemline (name changed to protect the innocent). They had asked me to come for an interview. But I already, improbably, had a job. So I told Mike about this job, phoned up the chairman of the art department at Hemline and suggested that they substitute Mike Price for me. It happened fast, and Hemline hired Mike Price. I always felt this was my greatest academic achievement, and that I should put it on my vitae, at the top- if I still had one.
In this way, I got Mike’s job and he got mine. Such is the way of chance – or such was the way that chance used to be.
A number of years later I learned that Mike was not considered for the job at Harvardford because they deemed him to be a “loner”. This is the kiss of death in acanemia. This is a strange turnabout. The most isolated from reality, lonely and out of it group of individuals on the face of the planet determined that someone else is a “loner.” What a joke! What Mike Price was is this. He was thoughtful, precise, honest, smart, relaxed, reserved (at times) and gifted. Harvardford’s loss was Hemline’s gain.
With both of us leaving New Orleans in the summer of 1970, a long and deep friendship ensued.
This included long weekly phone calls for years. Mike had a great curiosity about many things, not the least people. He had the ability to sense special things about people. On several occasions he told me of para-psychological events that happened to him. Mike Price was a lightning rod - and the effects often generated ideas for his sculpture.
In time, Mike started to make long impossible drives in a rickety van packed with his sculpture from Minnesota for various east coast destinations. Invariably Mike would stay at my house in Harvardford, PA, having driven 20 hours straight through or having stopped for a few hours to sleep in the van. Often he had a student helper with him. The first thing that Mike would do upon arrival would be to take our dog Aurora Roxanne (Roxy), for a walk. Roxy loved Mike and would go nuts when she saw or smelled him. Everyone - dogs, chipmunks, women, men, and children - loved Mike Price. He was that kind of guy. Only one man, later in Mike’s life, took a dislike to him - but more about that later. Immediately, Mike and I would head to Dunkin Donuts, my off-campus office. Mike liked Dunkin Donuts as much as I, and Minnesota was seriously deficient in this regard.  If Dunkin Donuts existed there at all, it was in a lesser form and was eventually driven from town by the more sophisticated coffee roasters. But Dunkin Donuts was our speed. At Dunkin Donuts, we would talk and talk.  And laugh and laugh, as Mike had a terrific sense of humor.
In a matter of hours (he was always in a hurry) I was on the road with him and several of my students, driving his sculpture to NYC and the Krasner Gallery on Madison Avenue just north of 79th street. Together we would lug his bronzes to the second floor gallery and set up the work. Mike’s shows in NY always met with limited success, but he kept doing it as long as this gallery existed.
One delivery day, a student of mine was watching the van - sitting in the van - when several serious looking fellows in suits and bulging pockets came up to his window and told him not to get out of his van. They said it in such a fashion that the student did what he was told, more than a little alarmed as to what was going on. In about a half hour, Moshe Dayan emerged from a curio shop just under the gallery.  Moshe Dayan seems to have been a great collector of ancient artifacts.
About the same time, Mike started selling a lot of sculpture to Philip Berman, a collector who lived in Allentown, PA.  Berman was a big shot in a small town. His white Cadillac license was “Allentown #1”. He wore a cowboy hat and acted the part. Mike was always circumspect with Mr. Berman and urged me to be the same. But it was hard for me. I got along well with Mr. Berman, but we had our differences. These are told in a different place, a book that I have written of my academic experience, entitled “Poisoned by Mediocrity”. 
A number of Mike pieces are at the Phillip and Muriel Berman Museum at Ursinus. One of my bronzes, Synagogue, stands close to Mike’s pieces. My sculpture has assured me that it likes the proximity and so do I.  Mike’s fine Firefighter stands outside of the Allentown fire department, where there is a Dunkin Donuts nearby. Berman commissioned this sculpture. Berman was a big supporter of Mike Price.
Now fifteen years after his death in 2001, we are treated to a small show at the school where he taught for so many years.  Some of us are still alive; and we appreciate the opportunity to view the work. This show presents a fine array of Mike’s pieces - including examples of his best work - done over his entire artistic life.  The show leans heavily on pieces that remain in the family, including many larger pieces from the 1970s. These include life sized, standing or reclining figures, heads of children, portrait heads of friends and various small reliefs, often telling religious stories. The show includes an early wax-formed semi-abstraction. Mike would manipulate the wax sheets, “modeling” them, and then cast them in bronze.

A centerpiece is a hanging shroud, or drapery entitled Artist’s Cloak. This is a simple but powerful expression, speaking of both presence and absence. Many of his small-modeled reliefs employ the use of drapery, heightening or shadowing events. Mike was a master of the use of drapery, presenting shrouds and modeled cloth in a most stately, almost majestic fashion.  Years earlier, I had worked with another modern master of drapery, Peter Agostini.  Agostini’s use of drapery was equally powerful, yet more dynamic and explosive. Take your pick. There is room for more than one.

As with many good artists, as time went on, Mike’s sculpture became more complex. This complexity came from many different inputs or influences; not the least being Biblical or historical stories or figures. His spiritual thoughts also developed over these years and he spent time writing about his ideas and matching them to his sculpture and sculptural commissions. There are a number of small bronze plaques or reliefs. These are all masterworks, the entire lot of them, probably close to thirty. In this small format Price squeezes in all his sensitivity and attachment to the subject, with the most direct economy of means. These are in no way to be seen as sketches but instead as the clearest view into his own story-telling. Each establishes clarity regarding what sculpture means and what it can do at its most powerful. He took incredible care to match the color of these pieces to the subject at hand. I myself possess two of these pieces and they have engaged my attention for many years now. Without the slightest hesitancy in my mind, I see them as the works of a master.

Missing from this show - by distance and their very size - are the major commissions, which occupied Mike in the latter years of his life. If I were to indicate a shortcoming in this show, it would be the absence of photographs of these pieces. An early example is at the Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia, a bronze couple, John and Lydia Morris, standing on a slight rise overlooking a field of flowers. Here too one of my sculptures, Stanchion, stands within sight of Mike’s fine pieces.

A number of these commissioned pieces reside around St. Paul and Minneapolis.  A nice long bike ride would allow you to see pieces at Koch Common, St. Thomas, Hemline, Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, Olivet Congregational Church, Plymouth Congregational Church, and Rice Park.
The best of these commissions, in my modest opinion, is the Scott Fitzgerald bronze in Rice Park, commissioned by Garrison Keillor.  The sculpture stands at eye level in a casual, yet formal pose. It generates a contagion of feeling for this author and his personality. The mark of a powerful sculpture is that the viewer wants to go back repeatedly. This certainly holds true for me.

My son Nicholas spent the summer of 1997 casting this Fitzgerald piece with Mike. Thousands of dollars were spent on Nicholas’ education as Overland College (name changed to protect the innocent) but Nick’s real education took place that summer working with Mike Price. Nick even got to meet Garrison Keillor, which, fortunately, had no lasting effect upon him. Many other young artists and students can attest to the same “Mike Price imprint," as Mike was always open to such suggestions -and he needed the help, as his projects and dreams were always large.

In this current show we get a glimpse of the larger commission through an exquisitely modeled Fitzgerald head, a study for the life size portrait in Rice Park. Those who love sculpture can recognize the DNA of the full-sized large piece embedded in this fragment (head). Stated another way, this head has the quality of revealing in the small the authority and completeness of the larger entirety. This bronze head made an appearance at the end of the film “A Prairie Home Companion”. One looks in vain for the attribution of this piece.

Mike was a complete artist in a manner that is almost incomprehensible today. His hand was on his sculpture from inception to completion. He took pride in casting his own pieces, always as original bronzes. I tried to encourage him to make editions, but he always said no, preferring to limit the production through direct original casts. For a long time I had squirreled away a set of slides of Mike working and casting in his foundry in the early seventies. I finally assembled them several years ago and they can be viewed on a separate post on this blog of my daughter Alexis.
Like many great artists, Mike had many influences, going back through the ages. His influences stem from all times and all places. He saw himself as part of a sculpture guild, stretching back for centuries. As a consequence of this, he was not concerned about so-called originality. Mike had little interest in commercial success beyond gathering enough money to embark on the next project. Ultimately he worked for a song, but the making of sculpture and the complete expression of his ideas was what fueled this man. He valued artistic friendship beyond artistic fame.
I want to return to this curious accessibility or likeability of Mike Price’s personality.  As far as I could determine, Mike set aside or did not employ judgment towards others. Things that would freak me out did not bother him. We were very different people. As a reasonable person might do, I tried hard to be more like him. Just in knowing him, Mike made me be a better person. I am certain that there are many others who would express the same sentiment. I suppose our relationship employed an equal exchange the other way, although Mike is no longer here to ask.
Mike’s natural generosity and good humor was tested to the extreme at the end of his life and beyond. A certain personage – a Leo something - took to disturbing Mike’s equilibrium and peace of mind. This person owed his job to Mike but, for this character, this added up to nothing. Instead it elicited a curious and dedicated animosity. This person was a muddle of a fellow. I myself would not believe such things happen, except that this phenomenon happened to me also – not once, but twice.  Individuals to whom I provided a lifetime sinecure found this insufficient and did everything they could to “pay me back”. Academia has its own code of behavior, which lies outside of the norm. There is no explaining it, but it is an unfortunate reality.  Is there another explanation to this strangeness? No, there is not.  As they say today, it is what it is. Thank heavens this dark shadow has passed – through “retirement” - and we get to glimpse, if only for the shortest period of time, a quite spectacular show. Don’t miss it.
When Mike was diagnosed out of the blue with terminal cancer, his response was immediate. He went back to work on a commission, saying to me, “There is no way this is going to kill me.” And yet as the cancer went to his brain, he described the phenomenon of shooting lights and showers of flashes with a detached marvel the likes of which I had never seen, nor encountered since.  He was a fantastic observer to the end.
In arriving at the gallery slightly after four, the day after the opening I was amused to find it closed. The inscribed sign on the door said, gallery hours, Monday to Friday 10-4. This must be designed to inhibit students from observing the art, as many are not out of bed by this hour. And what about people who work? Or people who can only come on weekends? I know a bunch. Further instructions on the door indicate that people under 12 are not allowed without an adult. My suggestion is to raise the age to 20 years, just to be careful.  Art can be dangerous to young adults. Further instructions allow for no backpacks, another dangerous item in this day and age. Unused space on the door indicates that there is room to add other impediments to viewing the art. Perhaps a trigger warning about sculpture would be in order, as this antiquated art and its powerful effect is unknown to the college-aged? God only knows what might happen. But this is American education at its best – absurd strictures, limitations, and rules.


  1. Thank you so much for this article! I wasn't able to come to the show, but your writing just brought me right into the fold. I would love to meet you some day, or have I? (I'm Mike's younger sister, Judy Sigunick, living in upstate NY)

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  3. This is pretty cool! I didn't know Mike but my grandfather knew him and Mike created a bronze head of of 4 year old me. I don't remember much of it other than being terrified that I would not be able to breath while getting bronzed... Luckily this was not the case. I still have the sculpture and it is nice to learn about the man behind the creation.