Artist channels youth, vulnerability in well-known work

The well-wishers at the opening reception for “It Will All Happen Again,” Michael Sieben’s solo exhibition at the University of Texas’ Visual Arts Center, represented different but important parts of his life.

They included the artist’s father, John Sieben, a math professor at Texas Lutheran University; Sieben’s wife, Allison Sands, and the couple’s 3-month-old daughter, Eve (3-year-old son River was home with a babysitter); and friends from Okay Mountain, the Austin-based artist collective that Sieben co-founded and that now has a national reputation for its often elaborate projects that gently skewer the conventions and absurdities of consumer culture.

Lanky, with a wiry frame and a still somewhat boyish presence, Sieben, 39, is the center’s artist-in-residence for the spring semester, the first UT alumnus to net the appointment since the College of Fine Arts opened the art center galleries in 2010.

Sieben graduated with a bachelor’s degree in art in 1999 and has since become an artist, illustrator and designer whose work is routinely exhibited (and sold) worldwide, anthologized in magazines and whose clients include Adidas, Nickelodeon, MTV, Vans shoes and clothing, Juxtapoz magazine and Transmission Media. He also co-owns a skateboard design company, Roger Skateboards.

Last year, Sieben was appointed managing editor of legendary skateboard magazine Thrasher. He was also commissioned by Harper Collins to illustrate a new edition of L. Frank Baum’s original “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” (Sieben hid the name of his son, River, in one of the book’s illustrations.)

At the opening, Sieben patiently and politely answered questions about everything contained in the multi-faceted exhibit.

What did the enormous plywood A-frame clubhouse filled with treasures from Sieben’s childhood (skateboards, toys and figurines, illustrated books, zines, posters) and similar items that might be found in a clubhouse represent? And the animated video shown on a rough plywood screen, with crudely made benches offering campground-style seating for viewing? And the black-and-white zine that contains, among Sieben’s whimsical illustrations, his story about the Dwellers — big-eyed creatures who populate a playful childhood world of innocence and unbridled imagination?

Sieben explained how, as a child, he had always imagined living under a skateboard ramp and how the Dwellers represent those youthful furtive flights of imagination — the proverbial monsters under the bed. Losing the ability to give reign to one’s imagination or to cease instigating any defiant juvenile acts means not just a loss of innocence, but happiness, too.

“I guess the whole thing is a little bit subversive,” Sieben shrugged.

His father leaned in and added, “It’s always a good thing to be subversive.”

Defining his own style

Two days a week, Sieben drops off his son at preschool and afterward squeezes in some time at a nearby skateboard park before heading to his studio in East Austin.

Sieben sublets a studio within a design firm in an old bungalow with shiplap walls on East Cesar Chavez Street. Several old skateboards lean against the wall underneath Sieben’s built-in desk.

Growing up in the small Central Texas town of Seguin, Sieben found a creative relief and a social outlet in skateboard culture.

“I was always kind of little for my age, and skateboarding was just something I could immediately do well,” he says, sitting at his office desk.

The skateboarding scene was also an alternative subculture connected to a larger world beyond a limiting small Texas town. That it was a subculture replete with its own rich artistic aesthetic made it even more irresistible.

“Every board, every wheel, every T-shirt had a drawing on it,” says Sieben. “And I discovered that there were these master illustrators who each had their own style. The first time I went into a skate shop and I saw a wall of boards each covered with an illustration, I said, ‘That’s what I want to do, I want to draw those kind of pictures.’”

In the pre-Internet age, connecting to that alternative subculture required imagination and determination.

“We had to formulate our own ideas, make up our own scene,” says Sieben. “Every video or zine or publication we could get our hands on was so precious to us.”

Next to skateboarding, nothing has had the indelible pull on Sieben’s imagination as drawing. His was a childhood filled with never-ending sketching, doodling on any piece of paper available, filling the margins of his school notebooks, covering the front of the refrigerator and papering the walls of his room with drawings.

His inquisitive creativity met with plenty of parental encouragement, Sieben recalls. His family’s affiliation with TLU (for a while the family actually lived on campus where the paved sidewalks and stairs were perfect for skateboarding) meant a home life filled with visiting students and scholars from around the world, an embrace of curiosity about any number of topics and a tolerance for difference — all of which set the family apart from the more parochial aspects of Seguin.

“We do things our own way,” says his father, John. “I guess we’re a little bit eccentric. But we appreciated different ways of knowing something. The height of folly is to think there is only one way to accomplish an end, and Mikey grew up knowing that.”

Sieben devoured classic illustrated children’s books by Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstein, Dr. Seuss and Charles Schultz, reveling in the fanciful creatures, the absurd humor, the wistful and tender tales in which there are not always perfectly happy endings.

At the same time, Sieben embraced the exuberant visual language of 1980s pop culture — its cartoon characters, its loud logos, its boisterous graphic sensibility.

In his well-honed illustrative style as an adult artist, all the childhood influences are unmistakable. Strong, fluid lines define characters and creatures with googly eyes and long, gangly limbs. Finer lines render detail, but also imperfections: wrinkles in skin or fur, scars or specks on skin, rips or tears on clothing. Teeth jut out, but mostly Sieben’s creatures manage a smile.

Still, there’s an ever-present pathos in Sieben’s world, no matter how goofball or bizarre the scene. Not a foreboding darkness, so much as a recognition of the loss of innocence.

The flying monkeys he created for “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” are simultaneously more fearsome yet also more benign than their 1939 movie counterparts. Sieben’s flying monkeys bear pained expressions that are somewhere between a grimace and a sad smile.

Sterling Allen, one of the artist collaborators at Okay Mountain, sees an earnestness in Sieben’s drawings.

“There’s sincerity to Michael’s work,” says Allen. “Sure, there’s some irony and silly stuff, but there’s some sincere vulnerability, too.”

Sieben’s mother died of cancer when he was 15. Two years later, his older brother, John Jr., died unexpectedly from a severe asthma attack. The pall those tragedies cast never left.

“It gave me a hyperawareness of the brevity of life,” says Sieben. “You’re not guaranteed anything. You’re not even guaranteed tomorrow. And in terms of developing a work ethic, I decided real early on, I’m just not going to spend my life doing anything that doesn’t make me happy.”

Making an impact

Sieben detoured through two years of college at TLU, then a year at Texas State University before taking a break. Some brief time working an hourly wage job in Denver motivated him to return to college, landing at UT determined to gain the credentials to become a professional illustrator even though the university’s art program didn’t offer illustration as a specific art major.

The classic craft of drawing and pure illustration has had a rough ride in art schools in the past several decades, its commercial applications considered second-class vis-a-vis more conceptual pursuits.

But Sieben’s focus on perfecting his drawing chops never wavered.

“I had a very clear vision of what I wanted to do, but it was pretty confusing to a lot of my professors,” says Sieben. “Nobody knew what I was talking about. They’d ask, ‘What does skateboarding have to do with making art?’ But I wasn’t deterred that nobody was responding to my work.”

Nor was he deterred after college from making a living as an illustrator in Austin. Though he could have easily lit out for San Francisco or Los Angeles — centers for skateboard culture — Sieben opted to stay here.

Austin, he thought, could use an indie art community of its own.

“I wanted to see if I could cultivate a scene for the kind of art I wanted to see in Austin, but couldn’t.”

In 2002, Sieben, along with his wife and two of their friends, opened a gallery, Camp Fig, in a tiny storefront space on East Fifth Street, just steps away from the raucous Sixth Street bars.

Camp Fig quickly established a following and was recognized for its ability to show young indie drawing-focused artists from around the country and for presenting the art professionally and respectfully.

“We all noticed what Michael and Camp Fig were able to do,” says Allen, who now teaches at UT and at Texas State University. “And we all wanted to know that guy. And he was responsible for making something happen.”

Camp Fig had a good, if not always profitable, run for a couple of years, helping to ignite a scene that has since seen artist-run spaces crop up in East Austin.

One of the first of the Camp Fig East Austin offspring was Okay Mountain, the gallery Sieben, Allen and a crew of eight others opened on Cesar Chavez Street in 2006. Although as gallerists the Okay Mountain group at first never exhibited their own art, they eventually began showing the collectively made drawings created during weekly hang-out sessions, passing a piece of paper around.

They made 90 7-inch-by-7-inch drawings and exhibited them for one of the first iterations of the East Austin Studio Tour.

Those drawing sessions eventually caught the attention of Jade Walker, director of UT’s Visual Arts Center (then called the Creative Research Laboratory), and she gave the Okay Mountain collective its first exhibit in 2008.

“That they were all drawing-focused artists, when not as many others were at the time, was very compelling and original,” Walker says.

For their first collaborative project, group members created a gallery version of the backyard setting where they held their drawing parties, complete with a clubhouse made of empty beer cans and a picnic table filled with the remnants of a taco feast — and Sieben made a pastel-colored skateboard ramp.

Since then, Okay Mountain has been commissioned for projects in New York, Los Angeles, at the Massachusetts deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum and at several university art galleries around the country.

Presented at the tony Miami art fairs in 2009, Okay Mountain’s installation “Corner Store” — a meticulously hand-crafted replica of a down-market convenience store — was purchased by A-list contemporary art collector and Kentucky hotelier Steve Wilson.

(Perhaps not ironically, as a gallery, Okay Mountain has ceased operating, a victim of rising East Austin rents as well as the collective’s busy individual art careers.)

This year is the 75th anniversary of UT’s art department. With a desire to celebrate alumni, Walker immediately decided to feature Sieben.

“I thought what he could bring to our students would be very valuable,” she says. “They would be able to make a connection with him. He could show them something.”

Along with his solo exhibit, Sieben’s residency includes giving lectures and public programs and making a thorough round of individual student studio tours, critiquing the work of up-and-coming artists.

“He treats every student the same way — freshmen, graduate students, whoever. He’s encouraging and real straightforward and always polite,” says Walker.

Back at his studio desk, his cellphone buzzing with messages and with a Thrasher magazine deadline looming, Sieben is predictably humble.

He shrugs.

“It’s just very affirming to be asked back to UT.”

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