"Body, Mind and Soul"
“Fall Bosque Reflections"
Michael Coleman in his garage studio. For more examples of Michael Coleman's work, please visit mikecolemanfineart.com.
Lifelong passion draws Coleman forward
—Keiko Ohnuma, Signpost
Michael Coleman says he was not a born artist, but the kind that is made. And his story reveals just what it takes to make an artist from scratch: passion, a lifetime of energy, and never being comfortable with just being comfortable.
At fifty-four, Coleman has painted and drawn in every medium there is. His garage studio is stacked with artwork that fills drawers, shelves, boxes, and covers the walls: figures, landscapes, abstraction, geometric studies. But it was his best friend back in Kansas City who had natural talent, he says, not him. “I just loved it. I had a passion.”
Obviously, he still does.
But Coleman, like so many artists, has devoted much of his energy to finding ways to make a living and raise a family so he could squeeze in a little time to paint. Currently he is the art teacher at Bernalillo Middle School; before that he taught six years at Bernalillo High, where he led the kids in painting the fifteen-foot Spartan mural in the gym. Before teaching, he had careers in illustration, mural painting, graphic design, and drafting.
That makes him a natural choice to collaborate on the next phase of the mosaic wildlife mural that is slowly covering the walls of the Placitas Recycling Center. Eighth-graders in Coleman’s Advanced Art class will make the next mosaic panel—which means not only making tiles, as kids have done in the past, but planning and designing the mosaic from scratch.
The choice of Coleman was purely a stroke of luck. The mural planners were just looking for an interested art teacher, and Coleman jumped at the suggestion because he has vast experience with public murals. He still lingers on memories from his favorite career, the decade he spent in the late 1990s with the Albuquerque sign company Opp Art, which has since moved to Louisiana.
Together with owner Chris Opp and Corrales muralist Pietro Palladini, Coleman worked on fantastic interiors around the country, at casinos, theme parks, and restaurants. Opp Art specialized in themed sets and faux finish, and worked locally on the Route 66 Casino, Sandiago’s Mexican Grill at the tram, and Scarpa’s restaurant.
His magnum opus was the $20 million Imus Ranch, a camp for children with cancer about fifty miles southeast of Santa Fe. As project manager, Coleman lived on site weekdays for the better part of two years, converting some seventeen plain buildings on the four-thousand-acre property into a Western town to rival any Hollywood set.
Opp Art’s contracts dwindled after 9/11, and Coleman cast about again for something to do. He had worked in illustration and graphic design after college; before that, he studied architecture at Louisiana State University before going to work as a draftsman for an engineering firm. Discovering he “had too much artist in me” to find fulfillment in straight lines, he went back to school and got his bachelor’s degree in fine arts.
Coleman and his wife met in the Air Force during the last days of the Vietnam War. They studied at LSU under the G.I. Bill, raised a daughter (now twenty-five), and moved from state to state before settling in Rio Rancho in 1996.
The reason was simple: “The mountains,” Coleman says. “I was forty years old and had never seen the mountains.”
Through it all, he never quit painting for himself, studying figure drawing, and cranking out landscapes. In 2002, on the suggestion of an artist he met at a workshop, he applied for a teaching job at Bernalillo High, and was hired with little previous experience.
“I flew by the seat of my pants,” he confesses. “I knew art. I had to learn how to teach.” He was given three years to get his teaching license; with characteristic zest, he finished in eighteen months, taking six to nine credit hours at the College of Santa Fe each semester while teaching during the day.
When he finished, Coleman had so many credits at the graduate level that he went on to earn his Master‘s degree. He graduated in 2005 with an academic award for his thesis on Native American education.
The eldest of seven children, Coleman never seems satisfied to rest on his laurels. At the College of Santa Fe, he had an art teacher who described the four painting styles: realism, representational, abstraction, and nonobjective. That led Coleman, until then a realistic painter, to take a single subject and tackle it in all four styles, to his teacher’s surprise. The result is an intriguing study that already presages his career as a teacher. Then he took another subject and did it all again.
His restless explorations show up in his recent work, a combination of his years at Opp Art and his academic training. Colorful, geometric abstractions feature op-art “windows” onto realistic landscapes, much like the idyllic scenes in French porcelain. But in this case, “The whole thing is about the background,” he emphasizes. “The background is what’s important.”
At school, Coleman continues to develop a curriculum in foundational art skills in pursuit of the top (Level 3) teaching certification. “My basic philosophy is that art is a language, so in order to do it, you have to teach the fundamentals.” His middle school students study color theory before starting their first painting, which must be based on a color theme and followed by a written report on their artistic process.
“It’s like pulling teeth,” he admits. “But my kids learn art.”
“I never thought I’d like it,” he says of teaching, though it’s clear from his next thought why he makes such a good teacher. Art is “where my passion is. I do it because I have to.” Developing art skills through practice and persistence, Coleman knows that passion bears fruit on a foundation of lifelong learning—and that enthusiastic effort, more than natural talent, really contributes to the making of an artist.