For most artists, no matter what stage along their path, a nearly self-destructive question persists: what happens if nobody sees it? As the Senegalese and Philadelphia based artist Michel Delgado nonchalantly puts it, “You gotta be cool with it.”
Unsettling? Yes. Refreshing? Most certainly not. Worth it? If worth it to Michel, as his evolution as an artist continues to grow, his answer could serve as peace-of-mind to any artist unsure of themselves.
It’s a humid July afternoon when we visit Michel in his studio at the Crane Old School. His studio is neatly organized. The eccentricities of paint tubes, brushes, and un-stretched canvas are stowed in their designated areas. Finished paintings neatly stacked, ready to be shipped to Michel’s next exhibition cross-country. His windows are opened, and we can hear birds chirping while a crisp fresh air permeates through the room. Kids are playing basketball on a nearby block. One could say: this is the dream. This perfectly sized, room-temperature studio is exactly what we’d envision Picasso, Pollock, and Basquiat having at the height of their artistic careers. It’s a fortress of solitude–codes cracked, metaphors made, and art thriving.
In technical terms, Michel’s work is defined as Outsider Art, a term coined by the art critic Roger Cardinal in the 1970’s as an English synonym for the French genre known as art brut (English: rough art). As a self taught, or otherwise known naive, painter Michel sets himself free of academic concepts, withholding from discourse on conceivably influential themes in his work. Seeing concepts as restraints and discourse superfluous (most often worn on an artist’s sleeve), art is simply Michel’s liberator. It is a substance equal in necessity to water. And it’s something he can never let go of. “I’ve never been unconscious to my commitment,” he says, “painting always had been with me from the beginning…people tell me of a life changing or traumatic experience where they’ve left their work, and I think: that’s scary…it’s something I cannot compute.”
The practice of art, painting in particular, has been in equal parts a place of familiarity and a way to welcome danger, but above all is an internal journey. “We are stuck in an array of sequences…economic, or whatever..” he says. What keeps his craft evolving is his most important tool: honesty.
For Michel, painting has been his most straightforward journey. Having made the decision to move from Senegal to Paris at a young age, he used his time there as a way to develop as an artist while being exposed to art’s epicenter. After Paris, he set forth his career as an artist in the United States and has been here for over a decade; where there have been zero paths of least resistance. In lieu of art school: the stuff, the whirlwind, the “hurricane”, as he puts it, is the education. He says in a perfect metaphor, “you’re not the best swimmer, but you’re not gonna drown.”
We discuss how every artist chases something throughout their lives, continuously returning to an image or experience. What materializes is Michel’s mind, “is always seeking a higher level of sincerity..I remember each year on my birthday, I ask that the only gift I would like to have is to be a little bit more true to myself—and true in a variety of different levels.” Right now he says he is quite comfortable with his chaos. He says “its important to see the evolution of your sincere self.”
Self sufficiency, too, is always a concern. Lucrativeness, the artist learns early to let go of. But measurability of one’s work, is sustenance. Audacity is the step forward. “Always be in control of your work,” Michel states. “Some things you have to say no to, and you don’t have to explain yourself. There are some things you have to say yes and then elaborate…I’m pretty clear on what people are to see. I make the work to share with the world, and the dialogue will be inconsistent for sure. But nothing will hurt my feelings. The work does what it’s supposed to do, I’m sharing what I do, I’m not going to excuse myself…then we might as well be designers.” Our conversation only raised the question more. What if? Well, you’re just going to have to trust yourself on that, because if you really care, then ask yourself: why not?