20 Questions w/ Michael Dixon


madelife is thrilled to be showcasing an array of portraiture works by Michael Dixon for The Makings of a Man Show. In anticipation of the show’s opening reception, madelife sat down with Michael to discuss his work, process, and life as an Artist. 


The Makings of a Man Opening Reception | Saturday, June 30th | 7:00 pm – 10:00 pm


Describe yourself and your work: 

I am a bi-racial black man, and I make work about race and identity. I was born in San Diego, CA, to a white mother (Peggy) and a black father (Michael). I never met my father; and as a result, I struggled with my racial identity as a young man and into adulthood. Art making has been a space for me to explore my struggles and to find meaning in an American landscape that looks at race as either/or and not as both/and. My work is about fitting in or not fitting in. Where do I belong? Who am I? I have been searching for and have found my most authentic self in the arts. I still don’t quite feel black enough or white enough. Therefore racially, I float in the perpetual middle. An outsider. Mulatto Man.


Who or what has been your biggest influence?

An African-American female artist named Beverly McIver has been one of my biggest influences. She was one of my undergraduate painting faculty members at Arizona State University. She has been one of my greatest supporters, and I love her work.

How did you get started in your career as an artist?

Slowly. I have had great mentorship and support over the years. I have already mentioned Beverly McIver, but there are countless others including Kay Miller, John Battenberg, Gregory Sale, Nick DeMatties, and Sherrie Medina. These are the people that picked me up, encouraged me, showed me the way, and guided me to my current situation with care. I would not have made it without their generosity and support. Solid mentorship is how I got started in my career as an artist.

 What piece of work best represents you and why?

I love “Mike Brown’s Body,” because I find it to have all of the elements I enjoy in art. I think it is a beautiful image, but it is also ugly. It is playful but serious. It speaks to both black American history but also to current affairs. The hand is my hand, but it could be a white had around a black body. I respond to the complexities and contradictions in this image. That is where narratives are made. There is not just one answer, but several possibilities.

 Mike Brown’s Body | Oil on canvas | 60 x 48 | 2015


How do your materials influence your work?

My materials are oil on canvas, which is a preference on my part. I don’t think these materials influence my work as much as they inform how I express myself on a two-dimensional surface. Oil paint on canvas allows me to make certain kinds of marks that are different than acrylic, watercolor, gouache, wood, paper, etc. I continue to paint with oil on canvas because I am still learning how to paint. I feel like I am still growing and figuring out the materials. That is what keeps me interested in oil painting. It is hard.

Where do you go daily / weekly to get inspired? 

Much of my inspiration comes from reading and looking at the work of other artists. Some of the books I have read lately include: “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander; “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates; “Seeing Race in Modern America” by Matthew Pratt Guterl; and Making Whiteness by Grace Elizabeth Hale. Some artists I have been looking at lately include Michael Borremans, Justin Mortimer, Ronald Ophuis, and Alexandria Smith.

What have you learned through creating that has surprised you?

I have learned persistence, patience, and coping with rejection. My art career has been a slow-moving train. I am in this for the long haul. The surprise for me has been the time factor. It takes time. Small fractions of people shoot to the top, but most of us slowly marinate for a lifetime or quite. Fame and fortune cannot be what drives you in my estimation. I hope to die in my studio painting with or without fame and fortune.

Describe your work routine for your artistic practice.

My most productive time is from 11 AM to 4 PM, but I sometimes paint later and/or earlier depending on my circumstances. I prefer to have at least three hours of uninterrupted time in the studio. And, I am a little bit of both organized and spontaneous when I get into the studio. I usually have something that needs to get done, but my undiagnosed ADHD sends me off in other directions too.

Tell us about any recent collaborations, why they worked or didn’t.

I collaborated with a dancer named Onye Ozuzu. Our collaboration was magical. We were working on similar themes in our work. It was a collaboration that lasted for several years 2006-2009. The name of the project was called, “Sambo Scratches His Navel and Watches His Crazy Sister.” I would collaborate again.

How do you balance being an artist and making a living? 

As a professor of art, I have time in the summer and winter breaks. My most productive times are during these four plus months. I try and make little things during the fall and spring semesters, but I am less productive. It is difficult because I hate not being as productive during the fall and spring semesters. I do force myself to go to the studio during these times. I have been going on like this for the past thirteen years. It seems to mostly work for me.

What is your process for coming up with new work?

New work for me starts with ideas generated from my personal life as I experience the world, current events, and/or from books I am reading. I typically have more ideas than time and store notes for myself in my sketchbooks. I also will generate ideas from the work I am making in the studio. Those tend to be the threads I follow most. I listen to my paintings and let them tell me where to go. If that isn’t happening, I consult my notes.


Why do you believe art has value?

Art is visual communication and the value to me is in communicating ideas. It is different from written and oral communication. I don’t find it less or more valuable and don’t worry about such things. I let art historians and critics worry about its value. I make things because that is how I communicate best. I am compelled to make art whether it has value or no value.

What is playing on your stereo these days?

Some bands I am in love with right now include The Giraffes, Young Widows, Kowloon Walled City, METZ, Michael Kiwanuka, Valerie June, The Breeders, Clutch, and Dom La Nena.

What are you reading right now? 

I am currently reading “Policing the Black Man: Arrest, Prosecution, and Imprisonment” edited by Angela J Davis.

Where is your favorite place to visit?

My favorite place to visit is Paris, France, and I am determined to learn French.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received in your creative career?

Always ask for what you want. If you don’t ask the answer is automatically no, but if you ask, the answer could be yes.

Which new (or newly discovered) artist is currently inspiring you the most? 

I have been looking at Michael Borremans quite a bit lately. I really enjoy his painting but didn’t always like it. Something shifted for me and I can’t stop looking at it.

What’s the best thing about your studio/ workspace/ workshop?

I currently have a large studio with lots of space, and Albion College allows me to use the space for free. Free and big is the best.

What do you do when you hit a block? 

I do a combination of things that include going out to look at art, reading, talking with other artists, and either taking a break from the studio or pushing through. Making the decision to take a break, or continuing to push through, really depends on how I am feeling about my block. I might do both.

What’s the best part about being an artist? 

I don’t have one thing. I like watching people discuss and grapple with my work in an exhibition space. I love being at an artist residency with someone cooking my meals and having the whole day to make art. I love mentoring my students and watching them grow into young artists. I love the way the oil paint feels as I push it around on the canvas.

Learn more about Michael Dixon @ michaeldixonart.com

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