Interview with Michael Pajon: Visionary Americana

Michael Pajon, printmaker and collage artist, depicts images and stories with Southern gothic themes, folklore, and Americana in his dreamlike etchings and collages. His etchings are filled with gothic archetypes and symbolism, literally snapshots of people living their everyday lives in small towns, immersed in their superstitions, supernatural beliefs, and cultural and moral baggage.

Lost and Found
Lost and Found. Courtesy of the Artist.

This is actually the first one that I made in this series. I just had this image of an old car that had been driven off into the swamp and had been overgrown and taken over by plants, and I liked the idea of a young boy using it as an area for entertainment and to hide his stash of things. There's a woman in the car, and he's going through her purse; it's on the ground and all of her things are scattered. You can't see the rest of her, and you only see enough to know that she could be passed out or there could be something more going on there. Those are will o' the wisps coming up out of a marshy area. I really love the tree in the background; it was something that I had fun a lot of fun drawing.

ArtStyle: How did you get into printmaking and specifically etching?

Michael Pajon (MP): I taught myself to draw from comic books as a kid and I did a lot of it. I'd never known what an etching was, but I remember seeing them in museums and liking the marks that they made — similar to comic books and Japanese wood blocks — and you see that same language in the imagery.

I went to the Art Institute, and getting involved in printmaking kind of evolved out of not being able to get into painting classes. I read a description on printmaking, which I think described the traditional methods of stone lithography and new photographic methods. And I thought that sounded great. At that time, I thought I would make Toulouse Lautrec-like posters.

I was immediately drawn to etching just because it's a very physical medium, and it slowed me down because the process takes time, and it gave me a lot of pause in between steps to contemplate what I was doing.

Foxes Prey Where Serpents Flee
Foxes Prey Where Serpents Flee. Courtesy of the Artist.

We have a little girl in the front, who has flipped up a rock and finds garter snakes and is beating them with a stick, and I wanted this to speak to the irrational fears we all have. Someone, who could be her mother, is sitting on the front porch having some soup and trying to keep an eye on her. You can kind of see an old rail line in the back. Some of the jobs in this town no longer exist, but people stop here because the train still passes through and deposits these wandering strangers. I like to think of the man as someone who has just blown into town, and you're not quite sure why he's standing back there. The little fox in the back is a metaphor for the man. The symbol of the fox can mean two things: the person can be sly and swift or predatory. You get the sense that maybe he's not really a good person — you're getting that from his pose or the way he's looking at the little girl.

ArtStyle: Your work depicts the small towns in the South. Where did you grow up?

MP: I grew up in the south suburbs here, but I spent a bulk of my vacations, oddly enough, in the South. My wife's family is from Arkansas (they now live in Maryland), and I just found myself drawn to the area around North and South Carolina. In this area, if you go out an hour and a half outside of the city, it starts to be a little less hilly, and you come across sparse rural areas and old farms.

Crows in the Corn
Crows in the Corn. Courtesy of the Artist.

I like to call this character Old Nellie. She's kind of a failed local talent; maybe she's a failed musician. She'd had aspirations to maybe leave the town and pursue a career as a performer, but like a lot of people in small towns even today, they have great ideas, but they can't escape where they're from. These people passing through and growing up in these areas are kind of coming to terms with losing their way. I see her as someone who is mentoring that little girl, showing her how to play the guitar, which is connected to an escape route.

ArtStyle: Could you talk about the general process of etching?

MP: The process starts with a copper plate. You file your edges so that they're slightly beveled, it gives the paper a plate indentation when it goes through the press, and keeps the plate from cutting through the paper. You put a hard ground on the plate (the hard ground is a combination of asphaltum — a tar-like substance — and mineral spirits).

And then you heat the copper on a hot plate so that the mineral spirits evaporate, and the ground is no longer liquid and becomes hard on the plate. So you are left with an intense black ground. I prefer to use the hard ground rather than soft because the hard ground is a little more resistant. You kind of have to draw through a little harder, and you can carry it around in a case and take it back and forth with you.

After the plate cools, you can start drawing on it. I use a twisted steel needle, which looks like a giant spike. After you do the drawing, you put the plate into an acid bath, which actually etches the image down into the plate. You can add more to your drawing or cover up areas you don't want printed with liquid ground, and then put it in the bath again. Once you're completely finished with your drawing, you remove the ground, and the plate is ready for printing.

Reckoning. Courtesy of the Artist.

The woman lives in the trailer up on a hill in kind of her own area outside of town. You have a preacher and his following, and they're coming up the hill with their lanterns, and he's got his Bible in one hand and a snake in the other. They look like they've caught someone on the ground. She's stepping on a shirt and it's probably his, and a little boy hiding in the bathtub, kind of peeking over and wondering what's going on. Her body language says she's not intimidated. It's something that I've always loved in these stories about southern rural towns. All the characters have their way about them, but the women are always very independent and strong. She's smoking a cigarette and kind of watching these guys, and she's wearing a negligee. You kind of assume that they've gotten together and that they're aren't very happy about what she's done.

ArtStyle: What size plate do you use?

MP: They're about 3 ¾” x 5”. I work really small because they're easier to take with me. I like the packed images so that when people are going up to them, there are lots of little things to find. You do have to step away to get the whole picture. I love watching people step forward and back when they look at them, and then they do the same thing with the next one, and then go back to the first one because they thought they saw similarities, maybe in one of the characters.

ArtStyle: Let's talk about your themes. How do you determine what type of etching to do?

MP: A lot of themes come from reading a lot of Flannery O'Connor and listening to songwriters like Johnny Cash and Nick Cave of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Palace Brothers, etc. Nick Cave has always been very interested in American themes, as they run parallel with the history of his native Australia. He's got an album called Murder Ballads, and I love the themes in the songs dealing with mythic characters. For example, his version of the classic song Stagger Lee is very vulgar and very much like an episode of Deadwood. The way he describes the scene is very gory and does nothing to spare the listener any detail of how he kills the bartender and committing acts of carnal deviance. Also, listening to the music just conjured up a lot of ideas. And Flannery O'Connor was like an immersion course I gave for myself, and like Nick Cave's songs, her stories have a lot to do with sweetness and vulgarity at the same time.

I was originally drawn to artists like Edward Hopper. The people that inhabit his paintings may have come from small towns, but even in a large city, they're isolated and introspective because there are so many people and so many personalities that no one really stands out.

Hidden Mountain Pass
Hidden Mountain Pass. Courtesy of the Artist.

There's a train bridge and a guy, hiding behind the tree; he has an axe in hand and a baby in tow. He's obviously clearly out of breath, and coming up over the bridge on the other side is a foot path, and there are two guys and a couple of dogs, and they're somewhat in pursuit of this guy. I want to leave it up to the viewer as to whether or not they're in pursuit of him because he's stolen the baby or they're after the baby for other reasons. I think the child was orphaned because the mother was lost in childbirth. In literature, the idea of a single irresponsible drunken man, when given the responsibility of rearing a child, all of a sudden becomes sober, and, seemingly, this cleanses him of his faults. It kind of gives him a second chance through the child.

ArtStyle: How do your collages fit in with your etchings?

MP: They're two separate art forms but they overlap. There's a lot of layering that goes on in the collages, which is similar to the idea of the layering process that goes into making the etchings. I was always interested in going through these old photos and finding old ads and the use of language and how people lived in different decades.

Standard American XIX
Standard American XIX. Courtesy of the Artist.

This is a piece I just finished. I had found this letter from a women’s finishing school. The letter was written from the school to a young lady who had applied, informing her that she should try another school because they do not offer a certificate in “domestic science.” She is politely referred to another school. I built from that a loose narrative of this girl leaving her home town and taking a train to fulfill her her life’s goal (the train car and torn ticket represent this). The girl in the corner with the apples appears very serene, but naïve and she is thinking of someone — a brother, friend, or relative at home working in the coal mines. She is bombarded with old memories and new experiences — women in skirts with heels, slick looking men, and flashy advertisements. She remembers her childhood pet, a cat that she named Copycat (when she was child, she thought it was “coffee-cat”). The dancing stars and Indian are remnants of childhood fables and dime-store novels, which she still holds dear.

ArtStyle: How do you do the collages? Do you have something in mind or do you just work with whatever you have?

MP: What I often like to do is to let the materials dictate how it's going to work. I'll look through an old book, sheet music, notes, or matchbooks and find a piece that kind of sparks the first thing to glue down. I use old clothbound book covers as a surface to work on, so the size of the work is dictated by the size of the book cover. Some of them are the front covers, and some are the inside covers. I use gel matte medium to paste Crackerjack toys, match book covers, ads, and other ephemera I want to add. I'll draw on them and sometimes do a little bit of painting, ink wash, and fine ink.

ArtStyle: Are you trying to tell a story in the collages? What are you trying to show?

MP: They all kind of vary. The stories that I have are in part due to the things I have found. When I first started making them, we were in the process of moving my grandmother out of her apartment, and she's since been put into assisted living. She grew up during the Depression, so she kept everything. I remember seeing a lot of this stuff when we were kids. She didn't really have a lot of toys for us to play with, but she kept some of my mom's old toys. I use little Crackerjack plastic toys in my collages because I remember playing with them, and they're sort of generational.

Some of these collages are part and parcel of my experience with my family. In 2000 my Grandmother was diagnosed with dementia and early onset Alzheimer’s. Experiencing her break in rational thinking and slow but steady memory loss made me very aware of the fragility of memory. My father suffered from an aneurism and died in March of 2003, and though I think of him everyday, I am very aware of the breakdown of memories of him — the way he spoke, how he smelled, remembering how exactly how he looked, just by closing my eyes. These things have gotten fuzzy and often take looking over some things to jog the memory.

Standard American XVI
Standard American XVI. Courtesy of the Artist.

Last November, 2006, my brother took his own life, which came as a huge blow to me and my family. This is mostly a memorial to him. I drew a sweet briar rose branch in this piece because it was something he remarked upon the last time I spoke with him. He was working on a promotion at an Air Force base in Birmingham, Alabama, and he told me how beautiful they were and how sickly sweet they smelled. The soldier at the left is on guard and represents his military service. The airplanes in the upper left and right are for his life-long service in the Air Force and the distance we always seemed to have to travel to see one another. The women on the branch are tending to it and making sure it remains pristine. My brother was a family man — family always came first for him — so the little figures in blue represent those happier memories from his childhood and the time spent with his children. His ticket has been torn and scattered in the collage and hopefully they have led him to a better place.

ArtStyle: How do you see your work changing?

MP: The collages evolve depending on what I have, and that is one of the things that attracts me to collage making. For example, eventually I’ll run out of those little plastic toys, and I’ll have to find something else. The thing I like about the book covers is that, like a lot of imagery I use, they are familiar.

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