Michael V. Smith
Our conversation began with me lucky to find Michael in his office; an ambient space, decorated with many books I myself would love to read. This new addition to the Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies, on the Creative Writing side of things, seemed well at ease during our chat about “who he is” which brought significant depth to our dialogue. He was quick to mention the “V” was a way of personalizing his so-called common name, though I could tell it was less the “V” and more his warm personality and vibrant engagement with art that will set him apart from the other Michael Smiths of the world.
Michael is a self-described “artsy” kid, who grew up dreaming of moving to L.A. after high school, to hopefully work as an actor in Hollywood. His intended path has diverged just a little. He has been writing poems since a young age, not only because he enjoys it, but also because it’s cheap. He comments on his blue collar background and how creative expression through writing could be accomplished with practically no money at all. The only real resource he needed was time, and he made plenty of it. From his roots of writing poetry, Michael began to explore other artistic practices. He counted off for me a dozen films, hundreds of performances and lately, visual arts projects with a photographer friend.
1998 is Michael’s self-described watershed year. In 1998 he finished his MFA from UBC Vancouver, a Creative Writing project which emerged as a feature-length film screenplay. It was during the winter of ’98 in which he met many new people and started to build a broad artistic practice. In Vancouver he became involved with a creative community that grew out of a queer punk collective listserv. Being out of school prompted a search for new friends, but Michael couldn’t have imagined it would lead to a vibrant, grass-roots creative community which saw him participating in films, performances and events. Michael sees the same potential for this kind of creative explosion in Kelowna. And he’s optimistic this is an excellent time to be at UBC O. Of course in the back of my mind I’m hoping he’ll spearhead a listserv project here!
From his earlier comments about the financial ease of writing, Michael began to discuss in-depth his philosophies for artistic practice, including something he calls DIY Culture, Do-It-Yourself art projects. For Michael, the best communities are those that are organic and local. His ideal project involves friends coming together to create art, maybe a film or performance, and then posting it on YouTube, or sending it to festivals … or the creation of a new festival! He explains that just because these communities are small and local, doesn’t mean they don’t source outward – that Toronto can’t be considered a place of organic artistic community practice – bridges between small communities can be built, and micro-cultures can exist within a larger geography.
Michael’s enthusiasm seems boundless, as he described the kinds of DIY projects already happening at UBC O. His ideal is making work at home and then sending it out into the world. For Michael, the best part is when that art manifests itself, develops an audience, is spread around in a positive way – and it all happened without enormous resources. In his own work, Michael loves how easy it is to make art, to be generous with himself, and to be vulnerable. The more work he puts out into the world that terrifies him, the more genuine and heartfelt responses he receives. And it is this that I interpret as part of Michael’s motivation. He tells me he is constantly shown though his artistic practice that he is not alone in the world – the more isolated he feels, the more people come to him and share their similar experiences.
Michael explains that he really has no dislikes when it comes to making art, but he confides that because he is an artist that explores gender, power and sexual identity, he might seem intimidating. I certainly disagree. His work reveals much about himself and he is as honest in his artistic practice as in person. Michael “wouldn’t trade it for the world” and I’m relieved to hear him say that. He explains that he’s waiting to meet people who will match his artistic fervour, and this is one goal I know he will achieve.
Michael’s other teaching philosophy centers on creating permissive space. He wants to make his students feel both safe and secure in the classroom – a place where they can be vulnerable, generous and welcoming of art. He explains that one can’t be critical and challenging unless there is a common sense of community. While Michael might be the authority during class, he doesn’t see himself as the only or final voice. In his opinion, one of the goals of art is to explore and investigate oneself, to explore the dark and frightening parts of our lives and to investigate what that reveals. This enriches work, and he wants his students to use this “strength from vulnerability” to determine how they might manoeuvre through the world – and to find out who they are.
As I ask Michael what he would say to students interested in the Creative Studies faculty, he wonders out loud what his students would say about his classes now. He relates that he has a romantic approach to art and writing – he’s interested in changing the world through art. He wants to build community, build permissive space and let students explore themselves.
“I like my students to live big and demand a lot of themselves - and give a lot of themselves.”
And so our conversation ended with Michael excitedly showing me a book entitled “Body of Text” which was co-created with a photographer friend, David Ellingsen (dotcom). It is a body-based work, which includes photographs of Michael in different contorted positions, exploring the sensual aspect of language. Michael relates that the disappearing and materializing of body reminds us that we understand the world through our senses. And with that, a student materializes at his door – and I will have to wait for another chance to strike up an interesting conversation once again with Michael V. Smith.
Photos by David Ellingsen, Article by Melissa Larkin
Last reviewed 11/14/2014 4:05:52 PM