Yeggy Michael is the man behind Central Cinema’s front mosaic, and an example of what artists should aspire to be. His contemporary approach to traditional Eritrean art, driven by bold lines and color, is a worldwide success that has nothing to do with making money.
“I didn’t become an artist, I just was an artist,” Michael told The Capitol Hill Times, remembering that as a child he was always sketching and thinking unconventionally. “Everything that I did, I tried to do differently. I was good at music, art, writing, and poetry, but I choose painting and visual art as a medium because it gave me space to be myself.”
For a profession, Michael never entertained the question of making a living outside of art, and moved into its competitive world while attending the Addis Ababa University’s School of Fine Art and Design in Ethiopia, making money on the side with freelance design projects. He then moved to Kenya and began working for-hire on mosaics and pieces of public art. Today, Michael’s portfolio boasts more than 250 paintings and 10 pieces of public art spread across two continents — five of them belonging to the streets of Seattle (plus one concrete inlay project along the 52nd Avenue Walkway in the works, commissioned by Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture, and due in 2014).
The piece that Michael did for Central Cinema on East Union Street and 21st Avenue, “Tree of Life,” which represents a healthy lifestyle and community, has been around since 2005, and another one of his mosaics, “Dancing with Nature,” can be found just a couple of blocks east at 2514 East Cherry Street.
In a city packed with creative talent like Seattle, competition for public art space and projects is high, and there is an added pressure to compromise personal style for the sake of selling. If painting bikes are the hot-selling item, Michael explained, painters are encouraged to do so, instead of following their individual style and craving. Same goes for musicians, photographers, textile designers, etc.
“I’m not a gallery kind of artist. In galleries there are lots of politics that every artist knows about,” Michael said. “For artists, it’s much freer to do art alone, and then promote it. I don’t like the idea of galleries thinking that they know what art is, who is an artist, and who isn’t. You know what? Create. Just produce, produce, produce. We make a mistake when we think that art is a product to be sold only. First and foremost, the reason that you’re an artist is because it gives you pleasure and healing. There is something special when you create; you get a feeling that cannot be measured by money. When one of my products moves to the market, whoever likes it buys it, and then it pleases and heals them, extending the process.”
Michael also has ideas about Capitol Hill’s art scene, how it came about, and what its future might look like. “Capitol Hill is growing. Every place starts with artists. Artists move somewhere because it’s cheap, then people follow the artists and it becomes more expensive. Then, artists look for another, cheaper place. Capitol Hill is the only place where I see a lot of the artists stick around, and pay the high price.”
To guarantee the longevity of artists on the Hill, Michael hopes that Seattle will create more programs that offer them support, like low-income housing that is specific to the creative community (which already exist in Europe and other parts of the world, and what we’ll see in the incoming 12th Avenue Arts development). As well, the community has a role to play by buying the work produced by local artists.
Capitol Hill is Seattle’s top art scene today, but its talent and hype will only stay if the neighborhood makes it possible for artists to exist in its increasingly hostile environment.
Visit www.yeggystudio.com to learn more about Yeggy Michael’s works and life.