It’s not just talent for art that runs in the Coleman family. Michael Coleman and his son Nicholas Coleman are indeed accomplished, renowned western artists, but they also share an avid interest in history and animals, as well as the lifelong passion -- even compulsion-- for painting.
From the time he was a little boy in Provo, Utah, in the 1950s, Michael remembers his constant desire to paint, despite having little artistic influence around him.
“I think they must have dropped me on my head when I was a little kid, because I sure grew up loving it. I don’t remember when it started, but that’s all I remember doing is drawing and painting, drawing and painting,” Michael said. “I drew some really gruesome monster faces on some of my reports [at school]. My handwriting was really good and the teachers would love what I had done. I don’t think they read half the stuff I had done, they just liked my handwriting. Then they’d get me to change the cover on the report to a rose or something
While Michael’s artistry may have beguiled his teachers for a time, his hands-on research of his subjects caused his mother a bit more consternation.
“I’d shoot small animals and prop them up in my bedroom and draw pictures of them, and my mom would get mad at me and I’d have to throw them away. They’d start getting a bit aromatic in my room,” Michael said.
As unpleasant as that may have seemed, those early BB gun hunting experiences led to an artistic epiphany for Michael.
“I’d just shoot and not expect to hit anything. And once I hit this one little male English sparrow and it dropped and, ‘Whoa!’, it freaked me out.” Michael said. “But when I picked up that bird, it was like magic. I mean it was just the feathers, the symmetry. I just had to get home and draw pictures of him. It was amazing to see it up close like that. It was really kind of a shock and kind of an answer to some mysteries.”
Nicholas shared the same youthful passion for painting, but he had his father to inspire, influence, and teach him not only the artistry, but the drive, the curiosity and the work ethic.
Michael instilled those lessons in Nicholas as well as his older brother, Morgan.
“We were constantly wandering into his studio, begging for attention. And I always begged to be doing artwork with him...and I’d ask to paint on his paintings and he would mark off certain spots for me, like under rocks and dark patches on certain things,” Nicholas said. “Then a lot of times when he wasn’t working or not in the studio, I would sneak in and try to paint on his [canvas] without having him know that I had done that. And I’m sure he knew instantly, and he was very nice about it. And I’m sure he could paint over what I had done or tried to do. But he always made it fun.”
Because the work of painting does not end or begin with paint on canvas, Michael taught Nicholas and Morgan the other necessary aspects of creating art, including preparation,
matting, framing, and shipping.
“I got a good education in the workroom, priming canvases and stretching canvases, and cutting Masonite panels for my dad,” Nicholas said. “And I don’t know if my dad knew how much I loved it.”
While Morgan had a talent for art, he chose medicine as a career, but neither Michael nor Nicholas ever wavered in their certainty that they would pursue painting as a career. Both
studied fine art in college, at the encouragement of their families, but neither of them found the experience to be helpful or motivating. Michael said he was excited to begin college, but soon found he had differences with the professors and, in some cases, the students.
“I got into more arguments than you can shake a stick at. I took it very, very seriously, and they were just there to get grades and screw around,” Michael said. “Then the teachers, I had to be restrained a couple of times from throwing chairs at them.”
While Nicholas’ school years might have been a bit less turbulent, they were disappointing at times. Nicholas said, with rare exceptions, he found his professors, and even high school teachers, to be discouraging of his plan to pursue art as a career, citing how few will make it as an artist.
“I got a lot of professors telling me what I couldn’t do, and I was always shocked at having any kind of authority telling me -- I’m paying them to teach me -- and them telling me what I can and can’t do with my future,” Nicholas said. “But for better or worse, I was hyper-focused. I started pursuing what I wanted to pursue in college.”
As a student of his father’s life and experience, Nicholas was able to learn from the tough lessons Michael learned when he was starting out as a working artist. After completing three years in college, Michael decided to give painting a try on his own. And after asking and being denied permission to display his art in several local businesses, Michael was put in touch with an agent, with whom he signed a 1-year contract, which actually turned out to be a 10-year contract.
“I said, ’Wow! You must have confidence in me!’ That’s how dumb I was. But anyway, he turned out really to be a crook,” Michael said. “He gave me a chance to start making some money but he very seldom paid me.”
However, Michael continued to work very hard and it was not long before he and his wife navigated through some “very tricky times,” and began to see some success. Always integrating
art with family, Michael became successful enough to build a house with an adjacent studio, and Nicholas and his siblings would spend time there.
“All the children would come in and I always loved to have them around in the studio. They would come in and jump around and play, and Nick especially would come up and say, ‘Dad, can I paint?’ and I’d say, ‘Sure.’ And I’d put him up on my knee. And I’d mix up some paint and mark something on the canvas and say, ‘Put this paint right there.’ So he’d just sit there and paint with this very serious look on his face.”
In addition to creating art, Nicholas and Michael have always shared a love of hunting, specifically the time they spend together doing it, the opportunity to watch the animals, and the ability to enjoy and experience, the beauty, and adventure of the outdoors. They have spent many hours and shared many stories that have sparked their imaginations and inspired their paintings.
“When you’re out in the bush and get by yourself with no distractions, and you can just sit there and just feel things and watch the light change, it’s magic,” Michael said. “You check your traps in the early morning and late evening, and that’s when you get the best light. You’re in the stream, rather than on the path, and the light comes raking through the willows and it’s magic. It’s magic. And I try to capture that. Try to get that. When it comes through, man, it really comes through and it’s a happy feeling.”
“In Utah in the late summer, we get fantastic rain showers and sunsets,” Nicholas said. “There are elk running around and there are deer and we run into badgers and coyotes and it’s just kind of a treat for the senses. I try to look for ways to incorporate that into my life for motivation and inspiration to get back to the studio and start another painting,”
In their work, whether it’s historic, animal or landscape, both artists strive for and take it as high praise when people feel a familiar experience when they look at their paintings.
“Artwork can remind people of that peaceful time they had in the outdoors and whether it’s something related to history or just wildlife, we get to share that together and I think that makes for a fun way to make a living,” Nicholas said.
“People really can only see in a painting their own experiences, and that’s what they bring to a painting, no matter who did it,” Michael said. “They can relate to their own experiences and look for accuracy, look for the mood of the painting, whatever the landscape happens to be or whatever the subject is.”
Through books and stories, Michael instilled a true love of American history in Nicholas, which has inspired much of both of their work and also helps create a sense of shared experience with viewers of their paintings.
“I just love the history of the west and how untamed and wild that it was. I love that humans are constantly learning lessons, and I think if we know our history, then we can make our future better and we can work together more,” Nicholas said. “I think that kind of struggle against nature, and the history of the West is a very unique story. And I think it makes it fun to think about paintings that you want to paint.”
One quality that stands out for both artists is the compulsion to paint, to create. Neither Nicholas nor Michael feels he must work to stay motivated, because they are both always full of new ideas, scenes, and subject matter. While both of them occupy most of their creative time with painting on canvas, they also sculpt, and etch, though Nicholas admits that his father does it more.
“My father has an amazing catalog of etchings. And my dad is still the busiest guy I know and his brain … I am always impressed with the brain that’s inside this funny body. That’s my dad,” Nicholas said. “He still has all kinds of ideas and pursues them whenever he can. It drives my mom nuts to this day that he is so busy and industrious. He’s got arthritis in his hands and what’s he doing? He’s sculpting a Cape buffalo right now.”
This devotion to art did not end with Nicholas. His children, Michael’s grandchildren, both have a love and talent for art and have made it an integral part of their lives, juggling the activities of typical American kids with their need to create, often to the detriment of social time and precious sleep.
“They are definitely artistically inclined. Like my father, we built a house almost 20 years ago and I built my studio attached to the house. And with children come distractions. At the same time, though, I knew my dad was able to get his work done, and so I could get my work done,” Nicholas said.
Like their father, Henrik, a budding sculptor, and Maja, an illustrator with thoughts of medicine as a career, offer welcome interruptions to his work, asking, learning, reading, practicing and continuing the Coleman legacy of passion, hard work and talent.
Michael and Nicholas will now share the their passion, their legacy, and their art at Predator & Prey, an exclusive exhibition at Montana Trails Gallery, on Friday, October 14.
By Kim Weeks
Copyright Montana Trails Gallery, Inc 2022