Mike Segal brings art to kids

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By Warren Parkin

Cedar Key artist and Florida native Mike Segal has been busy in 2009. His painting “July 4th Snoozer at Cedar Key,” was chosen to headline the upcoming Old Florida Celebration of the Arts and he received an honorarium to teach art to after school teachers in Alachua County.

Thousands of art festival visitors will see his painting which depicts Bart the dog sleeping through last year’s local celebration of the nation’s birth in a lawn chair under a pagoda at the beach, and hundreds of Alachua students will learn how to draw thanks to Mike’s talent and commitment.

Both honors intertwine with Mike’s interest in making art available and accessible to the masses – children and adults alike. He believes that art education is paramount to developing creativity, problem solving, perspective, and transmitting civilization from one generation to the next. “If we don’t have children learning art in the schools then they will be without art education.”

“I want to bring the arts to children,” he continued.

Over a period of four days last week, he did just that, teaching an original art curriculum to students and teachers alike in a three day symposium and a one day course.

On the first day of the symposium 15 teachers learned art side by side with 20 students. The teachers observed Mike’s instructional style, interaction with students, and gained valuable hands-on, immediately verifiable artistic results that will motivate them to carry Mike’s art curriculum into after-school programs.

The following days teachers learned how to teach four other lessons about abstract art, tessellation and composition.

The one-day seminar walked teachers through five art lessons of Mike’s curriculum.

In all, Mike taught art to 30 teachers who will educate hundreds of children in after school programs this academic year.

The curriculum is the result of Mike’s decades of art teaching experience in North Carolina and Florida. He gave Alachua county perpetual permission to reproduce it.

He taught art for six years in North Carolina. Too cold to paint outside, for three months each winter, Mike was a visiting artist in the Mountain Arts Program in rural Appalachia schools. He typically spent two to six weeks in impoverished schools that sprawled over 11 counties.

He found the experience invaluable.

“I learned to teach in these rural schools in the poorest, underserved counties.” Although teaching was new for him, art was even newer for the isolated students. “It was the first time any of these kids encountered an artist, and it was me.”

The students were poor. “There was a [coin] jar for shoes in schools. The children went barefoot.”

Poverty, however, was not the biggest obstacle to teaching art for Mike then or now. “The biggest problem is that nobody thinks they can draw,” he said. He dismisses this notion as culturally indoctrinated bias. “Everyone knows how to draw. We’ve trained ourselves to feel embarrassed if we don’t get it right.”

To overcome self-doubt in students, Mike employs abstract art to teach drawing. The end product is purposely not realistic, resulting in less judgmental drawings so that students can feel success and pride in their own creativity and vision instead of evaluating themselves against an unrealistic standard of photographic realism.

“Every child in school, when I was finished, could draw. Long before No Child Left Behind I didn’t leave any child behind.”

When Mike moved back to Florida in1990 he was a visiting artist for many years in Alachua county schools until funding was redirected to erecting the Phillips Center for the Arts. The diversion of funds proved disastrous for public school art education, he said. “You ended up with the upper class people in Gainesville looting money from the Artists in Schools Program that served the general public, to benefit themselves. It was Robin Hood in reverse.”

In times where budget cuts have eliminated most art education in public schools, Mike hopes that after school programs will become a force in educating a new generation of artists. “These lessons could be used the next 500 years. They’ll always be valid.”

One senses the sacred when Mike speaks about how he sees his profession. “Artists are the keepers of the flame of creativity. The arts bring humanity to people. They make us civilized. Art is one of the most important developmental tools for children to learn.”

Mike Segal on government and the arts

Mike Segal is concerned that governmental officials don’t understand the real benefits of art.

“It is incumbent on leaders of government to support the arts and if they don’t they’re abandoning their responsibilities. Unfortunately, in our society the people we’ve put in power don’t understand the relationship between art and civilization.”

The painter and educator wants to remind people that “the definition of culture is the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next.”

He believes that art not only measures a society but that teaching art leads to creative minds that produce innovative solutions.

“Any society that doesn’t have new ideas will not survive.  The arts bring sensitivity to people and creativity which brings new solutions.”

When budgets get cut, art is always the first program to go. Mike believes this is a mistake, citing the axiom that “education delayed is education denied.”

In the face of such hurdles, Mike remains steadfastly optimistic. Regardless of governmental support, “art can’t be turned off.”

The long road to becoming a people’s artist

Born February 6, 1949, Cedar Key artist Mike Segal grew up in Miami Beach Florida, graduated high school and attended college for three years in the turbulent ‘60s at the University of South Florida and the University of Miami where he was reunited with his fifth grade childhood sweetheart Marvi Wynn with whom he has shared his life for 40 years. 

“I’ve been a painter since I was 17.  I always painted.”  Now he paints “simple line drawings and colors between the lines.”

It took 18 years before he committed himself to art full time.

In 1972 the college couple traveled to Canada and made their home in British Columbia for two years with the Dukahbor community, a persecuted fundamentalist Christian community that practiced communal living and eschewed violence. Although a hippie, which were universally banned from the Dukahbor community, Segal’s Jewish heritage set him apart and he was embraced and immediately appointed to the community council.

The Dukahbor emigrated from czarist Russia with the aid of proceeds from Tolstoy’s Nonviolence and Civil Disobedience and a promise from Queen Victoria that they would enjoy 100 years of political and religious freedom.  Segal wanted to be around like-minded non-violent people.  “I wasn’t evading the draft, my number was high,” he said.

Mike and Marvi returned to America in 1972 and a year later he enrolled in the North Carolina School of Design to complete his Bachelor’s of Environmental Design in Landscape Architecture. 

He worked at the Florida Department of Natural Resources where he did landscape design for state parks and secured grants to develop local community recreational facilities under the auspices of the Florida Recreation Development Assistance Program.  “As we developed Florida we tried to retain the natural landscape.” 

In this capacity Mike wrote the environmental impact assessment for Devil’s Millhopper.  The assessment recommended abatement strategies for the impact of the number of visitors, amount of trash, need for restrooms and parking at the park.

Due to his experience, Bill Fulford, Chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, hired Mike to interpret federal laws’ impact on Florida’s natural resources.  “I was good at what I did.  He knew I would put the state first and he needed someone who could analyze laws.” 

Mike then moved to Hendersonville North Carolina after the election cycle to open a licensed landscape design contracting business where he maintained his own nursery and did site planting and design for large developments. 

With the passing of his mother in1984 Mike looked at his life and decided to follow a riskier path, abandoning business for creativity.  He was 35. He quit his job and turned to painting full time, selling his art at Blue Mountain Gallery. 

 “The more I painted the less interest I had in landscape design. I wanted to be a painter and I knew if I didn’t make a lifetime commitment I wouldn’t reach my potential.”

Two years later he was one of 35 state artists chosen for a show at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh.  More than 800 applied. After a private showing of 50 paintings, Roberta Smith, the Art Editor of the New York Times and Village Voices, selected four of Mike’s expressionist mountain landscapes.  “That was my big break,” he said.

During this time he studied a natural scene, looking at it every day for a couple of weeks, no sketches, then took out his easel and applied acrylic to canvas. One painting in one day without addition.  “If you go back you ruin it.  That’s how I got in the show.”

“I call it paintin’ outside. Now they call it plein air because they have to Frenchify everything.”

Mike’s style changed dramatically when he moved to High Springs Florida in 1990, lived in a trailer on a friend’s land, and began sketching Cedar Key.

“The first thing I did was come to Cedar Key and made ink sketches.”  From those sketches he produced 25 paintings that were shown in the Art Collector Gallery in Gainesville.  “All sold right away.”

“I wasn’t intending on doing anything.  I was at a point in my painting career where my hands did it for me. This style that I paint with just came out of me full blown right away.”

Mike has painted in this new style for the last 19 years. 

It looks deceptively simple, almost as though a child had painted it, a child with landscape design on his or her mind. Composition reigns supreme in a two dimensional flat depiction of the subject with colors that spring at random as though limited to the available crayons from a half empty box.

The composition, color choice, flat look, and simple lines are purposeful.

“I don’t go to the canvas until I have the exact composition I want. You paint in between the lines. I keep it flat and simple. Then the art becomes colorist.  I never use realistic colors except for skies. I’m trying to create as much excitement as I can.”

Since his move back to Florida from North Carolina, Mike, ironically, no longer paints outside.  Instead, he relies on sketches.

“I always sketch very quickly. I want to abbreviate the subject. I want to capture the essence of the subject.  Most important is the composition of the picture.”

Marvi takes care of day to day business and household obligations, while Mike typically paints 8 hours a day. She oversees all reproductions which now number 93 images.

“I just want him to paint,” says Marvi, a ballerina who danced 13 years with the Miami Ballet Company. 

Being married to an artist feels familiar to her.  “It’s just like coming home,” she said.   Marvi’s mother was a singer in New York, and her brother is an artist and guitarist.  “I take care of things so he can spend more time painting.” 

She is content with her own accomplishments and those of her husband. “Art’s what makes life worth living in my book.”