When Michael Schliefke arrived in Austin in 2002, the art scene was, he says, "a wild frontier" with artists turning various spaces on the Eastside into studios and galleries, mounting exhibitions in coffee shops, and staging DIY house shows throughout East and South Austin that "combined the art, music, and social scenes into a real energetic vibe that seemed to recall the spirit of the 'Old Austin'" talked about by natives. On the eve of the Iraq War, Schliefke mounted his first show in town at Mojo's Daily Grind: "Appetite for Destruction," featuring satirical paintings about George W. Bush and friends.
A dozen years later, the self-employed painter is opening his final show in Austin. "The Last Waltz" displays his recent work, and after it comes down on June 13, he'll pack up for Kansas City, Mo., where he'll paint while his girlfriend pursues a graduate degree. As his time here draws to a close, this busy artist and exhibit organizer – creating the Really White Vigilante graphic novels about Eastside gentrification, putting up group shows such as the unicorn art show "Will There Ever Be a Rainbow?" and "Radical Nautical," and working for Blue Genie Art Industries – shared his thoughts about the changes in Austin's art scene over the past 12 years.
Austin Chronicle: What's the biggest change you've seen in the art scene in your time here?
Michael Schliefke: Since there was a very small infrastructure of galleries and museums [in 2002], the scene really was made from what artists brought to it. It's from this very nature of artists creating the scene that the East Austin Studio Tour popped up, the Blue Genie Art Bazaar, and even the painting shows I put together and curated with Ian Shults and Chris Chappell.
Twelve years later, the infrastructure of the art scene hasn't changed that drastically. The Blanton was built, but small galleries come and go, larger commercial galleries are almost non-existent, D Berman moved to Wimberley, the old Austin Museum of Art space is now a 7-Eleven. Despite all the money and people pouring into Austin, the scene itself isn't very self-sustaining. EAST has grown exponentially in size and ambition, WEST was born, and there are a lot, lot more artists in Austin, but the market remains soft, and the visual arts are still overshadowed by theatre, which is still overshadowed by music, film, video games, and now even foodies. Austin is a fantastic city, and the variety of entertainment options hasn't really helped the art scene out very much.
AC: How has being in Austin shaped your work as an artist?
MS: Austin really solidified my belief that real artists work. Anybody can pick up a paintbrush on Sunday afternoon or make a sculpture once a year, but the people who get things done and are continually moving, pushing forward, trying out new ideas, are the ones that make it. It's easy to complain about the scene; I've heard the same complaints from artists here as I have from ones in San Francisco, Kansas City, and New York, so at some point you have to look in the mirror and study your own work and push yourself to where you want your work to go. Austin is filled with countless talented artists that I have had the greatest pleasure working with side by side, and a healthy competition only makes everybody better.
I'm extremely fortunate to have been able to support myself as an artist for the past 12 years. I've struggled through some rough patches, but kept things together by teaching painting classes, building stretchers, selling paintings, and the occasional commission and odd art job that got tossed my way. Austin taught me to just keep pushing.
AC: Any parting words of advice for those of us left behind when you go?
MS: Artists should not get caught up in trends; stay true to your work and vision, and stay focused. Create small groups of artists that work similarly to you and build a community around your ideas. As the city grows and rents continue to rise, the pooling of resources will be vital to keep renting studio spaces and have shows. Use the Internet as a tool, not as a be-all, end-all. Follow museums and galleries from other cities online to see what is out there and be inspired. Make sure you have a website, but don't expect the world to beat down your door because the Internet is not only fickle, it isn't real. Don't expect or hope something "goes viral," because the next viral thing is just moments away. Art is better and lasts a lot longer than that, and means more to a community than a few likes or retweets.
Don't become complacent and rely on the small infrastructure that is currently in place for artists. Don't wait until the next studio tour to show your work; find friends to show with, make a plan to show, contact galleries in Houston, San Antonio, or Fort Worth. The energy you put into the scene becomes the scene. Yes, it's embarrassing that a city now the size of Austin has such a dearth and ever decreasing number of galleries and spaces to show at, but that can be looked at as a positive; with nobody watching, you can take chances and grow and develop.
"The Last Waltz: Paintings and Drawings by Michael Schliefke" is on display May 30-June 13 at Blue Genie Art Industries, 916 Springdale, Bldg. 4. An opening reception will take place Friday, May 30, 6-10pm. For more information, visit www.schliefkevision.com.
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