I am fascinated by the range of Michael Teel’s paintings, as demonstrated on his website,
michaelteel.com, and other views. The images I see include pastoral scenes, including his giant mural at the Scott Depot Kroger store; representational portraits; and dramatic and graphic portrayals that are labeled as “social.”
It was a real pleasure to get to interview Michael and hear about his life and his own take on his work. We met briefly via zoom and then spoke on the phone due to technical issues.
At the heart of Michael’s work is his desire to tell a story and to get across a message. He has primarily used composition and color to set the mood in his paintings.
Michael was born in Brooklyn, NY, to parents Ann and Homer Teel, who both grew up in West Virginia. In 1963, when he was three, his father, Homer, died in a construction accident. He had two older sisters, and his mother was pregnant with his younger brother when she was widowed. She moved back to West Virginia with her children so he pretty much grew up here in our state.
He went to Charleston High School before deciding to study fine art at West Virginia State College. After two and a half years of study he decided to get into the workforce. Several years later he moved to Pittsburgh, PA, to finish his degree at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. After graduation he moved to the Washington DC area to begin work as a professional graphic designer for a Fortune 500 company.
When the tech boom collapsed in DC sixteen years ago, Michael’s employer gave him the option to move to the corporate office in Philadelphia or take a severance package. His wife, Elizabeth, is from a large family on the west side. After their youngest daughter was born they decided to sell their house in Maryland to move back here. They now have two adult daughters, Suzanna, 22, and Madeline, 19, at home and two adult children and their families, with nine grandchildren, who are living in North Carolina.
In 2015 Michael started his own company, Teel Design Group, where he does print and web design. He works from home except for trips, pre-covid, to serve clients in DC. While he is happy to live in West Virginia, he still enjoys the expanded options for museums and restaurants and friends on his visits to DC..
Since becoming serious about painting at age fifty, Michael has primarily painted in the evenings and on weekends. He sells his paintings mainly through juried shows and his website. At some point his goal is to transition to being a full-time artist.
In the beginning Michael took a more standard representative approach, but he also likes to experiment. He is interested in texture and color and using mixed media. He plans to expand both his output and the quality of this work.
Both sides of Michael’s family lived on farms in the Elkview area of West Virginia for many generations. He spent time at one grandfather’s farm when there was no running water and remembers both the trips to the outhouse and bathing in a washtub. Looking at family photos that his mother has shared has opened his eyes to his roots and the work and meaning involved in farming.
In the next phase of Michael’s work he plans to explore the family photos and his memories of his grandparents. He remembers them as storytellers who used folklore to keep the kids in line. He wants to work more with textures and open up his color palette to bring in colors that work well with the subject matter that he portrays.
Michael shared a very clear picture of how his painting reemergence developed. He started out with a blog where he would post his paintings once or twice a week. He also developed consistency in his painting with a goal of producing a small six inch square painting of a still life or landscape approximately once a day for a year. The result was the creation of 175 paintings. He eventually sold around fifty of the paintings after posting them with a narrative on his blog.
He has also had his work accepted and sold through a number of juried exhibitions, including the annual Best of West Virginia show at Tamarack. He has won first, second, and third place awards in that particular show.
I was particularly intrigued by his painting “Swim In Pure Drinking Water” which won third place at Tamarack this year and also sold out of the show. The painting is composed of two canvases. The top canvas shows a brightly colored scene of people swimming and sun bathing at the former Rock Lake pool in South Charleston. The bottom canvas, which is monochromatic, shows a Black family looking through the closed gate into the segregated pool area which was restricted to whites only.
Michael noted that he is able to rely on his business for income and is not primarily focused on sales of his paintings. He likes the recognition, but he is more interested in continuing to develop his style. He shared that it will be hard to let go of his newer pieces that are related to his family and their farm life and folklore.
Two of Michael’s favorite painters are Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth. His choices resonated for me since I have always liked Hopper and saw a retrospective of his work at the Whitney Museum in New York. During a photography workshop I visited the Olson House in Maine that Wyeth depicted in his famous painting, Christina’s World.
Michael has a strong visual literacy and also talked about seeing their work in person. His painting based on downtown Charleston is particularly reminiscent of Hopper.
He told me about current painting teachers, particularly Ian Roberts and Phil Stark, whose YouTube lessons he likes.
He also has had the opportunity to study in person with Barrie Kaufman, an accomplished Charleston artist and teacher who he views as a mentor.
It was interesting to me to discover that Michael and I have two very different approaches to our art while at the same time sharing the same goal of honoring our state. The focus of my own fine art landscape photography has been to view it as an end in and of itself to show the beauty and the individuality of West Virginia.
Michael has viewed his landscapes as more of a means to an end where he could develop and practice his technique on a smaller scale before expanding into bigger work. To him the subject matter is something that already exists for him to use to get better as a painter.
He is committed to going beyond this existing subject matter to create something out of his head that tells a story that means something to him.
I really look forward to seeing the new paintings that will result from his unique vision as well as the legacy that he inherited from his family. This is a largely undeveloped topic in our state’s contemporary paintings and one that all of us will be able to enjoy and to learn from.