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Interview: Michael L Pontieri

Years ago, I discovered a blog called picnics and nocturnes. It was a strange name that drew me in, and the people and landscapes I encountered in a spread of watercolour, acrylic and oil on canvas took my fancy. It happened to be the work of painter Michael L Pontieri, who currently lives in Bainbridge Island, Washington.

After he started posting his work on Instagram earlier this year, his presence became harder to ignore. I found myself awaiting one more painting after another, which would happen far more frequently than I imagined owing to his speed of working. I adore his narratives, the sense of realism, the colourful symbology that heightens my curiosity, and how he plays with light and dark.

In conversation with Michael, who turned out to be an even more interesting and beautiful human being and artist through this simple interview:

Would you say that your art comes from a personal place? How do the images arrive in your mind? For the most part, yes. I paint a lot of images of my family and friends, sometimes mixing times and places, sometimes putting people together who are both in my mind but haven’t actually met. There are a lot of personal symbols in my work or at least expressions of my inner monologue.

Here is my son Joe in a desert of our own making but we did manage to kill the dragon:

Joe in the Desert, 2019
The Bright Abyss, 2017

With strangers, I sometimes talk to them, while a few others the rest are snuck all voyeuristic and nostalgic. For instance, I talked to to her:

In the hall of forgotten gods, 2019

So I come up with ideas from a variety of sources. I used to rely on dreams a lot, but that's not the case at the moment as such. New and old photographs might combine in a daydream along with some hypothetical this’s and that’s. What I read tends to also make its way into my paintings. And I like to do watercolour sketches on hikes and trips and these sometimes find their way in as well.

Your blog is called picnics and nocturnes, which is mysterious and inviting. What's the story there? I like Jean-Antoine Watteau and my emulations of him and his Fête galantes that I term as 'picnics', so I have a computer file called picnics. I also make a lot of nocturnes and have a file for those too. When I needed a blog after my website went dark, I combined the two. I've always been impressed by your frequency of putting out new work. Are you always painting? Also, what's your studio space like?

I try to always paint. I work part time in schools but sometimes have a long-term assignment and it is hard to get work done then when I am tired after the day and there is dinner to make and dishes to wash and why don’t my kids wash up? They have me trained I guess.  My studio is full of boards, some with canvases affixed to them , others waiting for canvas. It’s a mess!

Michael's studio

Your work reminds me of Gaugin sometimes. How did you arrive at this aesthetic and colour palette? Gaugin? I like his palette. When I was a teen, his friend Van Gogh was my favourite. I like his yellow but the closest to Tahiti I have been to is New Zealand and I don’t have syphilis. The drab parts of my palette are from the colours of the north west coast of North America- the Salish Sea and the bright colours are a reaction to it, or a reversion to my eastern Washington beginnings.

In your early days of blogging, you'd share the story behind the painting, which added something so raw and dream-like about what the artist was envisioning versus what the viewer saw. Why did you stop?

P.S. my favorite was for dr raczkowski and his eggplant escape pod, where you write:

"in an alternate universe there is a professor who spends more time playing chess on the internet and less writing articles and such. this universe is also increasingly litigious and there it is cheaper for universities to tell the not getting tenure professors they are going to give a paper in nome alaska. instead they are drugged on the plane which flies to kazakhstan where they are placed on a surplus soviet era rocket and sent to mars, where if they can find it they can teach at the university's satellite campus."

Dr Raczkowski and his eggplant escape pod, 2011

I still write blurbs when the moment strikes me, like in lucia, fourteen and a half:

lucia, fourteen and a half, 2018

i think the time to tell me about her attitude problem is perhaps not at some  end of the year tea party

Perhaps I have grown terse, but the last several places I have shown my work were not as conducive for long texts. I have a solo show lined up in 2021 and hope to elucidate it with text, witty in intent but perhaps hermetic in execution. You have mastery over light, and I love that the days and nights in your work are equally stunning and life-like, especially in the oil paintings. Tell me a bit about the mediums you've explored and your experiences. Thanks. I painted with oils for seven years but then the turps and varnishes gave me headaches and I had to switch to acrylics. It took me a long while to figure out how to paint with them in the language of realism. I started doing oil and spray paint in 1986, I think, as pictured below:

From Michael's oil and spray paint phase

Who are some of the artists (alive or dead) who have inspired you?

Jean-AntoineWatteau, Berthe Morisot, NicolasPoussin, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Maxfield Parrish and many more. What has been your biggest challenge till now? I rarely lack for ideas and I usually have a backlog. But I sometimes lack for time and sometimes I get depressed. I think my biggest challenge is getting my work shown and selling it. I have had a few collectors over the years but never many at once. I think one has to be somewhat of a big tent circus huckster to sell art well and I only have a little tent.

I was trained as a non-objective painter in the north west school of the 30s and 40s and incorporate that into my figurative narratives, which I imagine rubs wrongly purists on both ends of the spectrum. Though I guess I should applaud their avidity because I run into a lot of people who are indifferent to painting.

I'd love to get a glimpse of what you're working on currently. What are you immersed in at the moment?

Here's two WIP shots of a portrait of twins and their dog that I am working on:

With everything you've learnt so far as an artist and human being, is there any life advice you could give to those starting out on their creative journey?

Work on your craft. Look and listen. Empathy is nice. Don’t get too bent out of if you don’t have a big tent, top hat, whip, lion etc.

Thank you so much, Michael! :)

Follow picnics and nocturnes here, or check out Michael's work on Instagram.


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