(From an article featured in the Jan/Feb 2011 issue of Art of the West Magazine, written by Mary Nelson)
In 1994, Mike Malm was newly married, going to school, and working in construction.
The 21-year-old was studying art with Del Parson at Dixie State College in Utah, absorbing from him the fundamentals of drawing, the foundation for what would become his life’s work.
Malm’s ability at capturing the essence of his subject quickly brought the young artist commissions to paint portraits of people’s children, their pets, and relatives. It didn’t take the Utah native long to realize that he could make more money—and derive more enjoyment—from painting portraits than working construction. Being an astute young man and passionate about art, he put down his tool belt, left the job site, and strode into his dream career as an artist.
Malm could walk away from manual labor because, he says, “Juanita and I were young, and we hadn’t yet set a precedent about how much money we needed to make.” So, he painted portraits and continued to study art, while living in one of the most scenic areas of the country: the Cache Valley in Utah.
The pristine environment, with its plethora of eye-catching scenery, ripe for painting, excited his artistic sensibilities with its simplicity and grandeur.
After earning an associate degree from Dixie College, Malm enrolled at Southern Utah University, where he studied with Stewart Perry, and went on to earn a bachelor degree. Malm completed his formal art education at Utah State University, where he studied with Glen Edwards, and earned a Master’s degree in Fine Art.
Malm is grateful for his early education and for the artists who taught him what he needed to know. “I’m fortunate to have studied under such great artists,” he says. “I was impressed with their work and ability and willingness to pass along their knowledge to me.” Because of those instructors, Malm felt empowered to pursue a career in fine art.
Along the way, other great artists also were instrumental in shaping Malm’s work. Some he studied under—Richard Schmid, Burt Silverman, Dan Gerhartz, Quang Ho, CW Mundy, and Jim Norton. He also visited museums and galleries, where he studied works by artists such as John Singer Sargent, Dean Cornwell, J.W. Waterhouse, and Nicolai Fechin. Malm says he will never stop being a student of art, because he realizes that the more he paints, the more he needs to know.
“Looking at [these artist’] work keeps me humble, and I’m inspired to work harder to improve my own painting,” he says. “I try to set the bar high and aim for that and, often, that causes me to push beyond my abilities. Hopefully, I can grow in that way.” Although painting is his main focus, sculpture is an art form that intrigues him. Some day he’d like to try his hand at it, but right now those hands are busy keeping up with the increasing gallery demand for his work.
Finding balance in the creative and technical aspects of an art career has proven to be a challenge for Malm. Fortunately, he says, Juanita has been his rock of support, both personally and professionally.
In addition to being his number-one fan, she has taken on much of the business end of his career, which frees him from worry about paying bills, contracting with galleries, the logistics of getting his paintings where they need to go, and so much more. Without her support, he says, his career and his family life would not be as satisfying as they are.
The Cache Valley is an inspirational haven for Malm. The sweeping panoramas that prevail in the rural northern Utah community provide the backdrop for many of his figure paintings and inspire his landscape paintings, as well.
Those paintings, a mixture of realism and impressionism, are timeless renderings of people and places. Light and color play significant roles, no matter what Malm is painting, and inject the mood or emotion that beckon viewers.
More recently, he is attempting to convey a deeper meaning, to capture the essence of is his subjects.
Malm has always been a fan of variety in his art—landscape, still lifes, pastoral renderings—but mostly he paints the human figure. He finds the human body both beautiful and amazing. So much, he says, can be communicated through gestures—the tilt of a head, the arch of a neck, the placement of a hand. These subtle movements often can suggest an emotion or convey a deeper message.
“A lot of times, when I have a model outdoors or in the studio, if I just watch how the person moves, I see something that inspires me,” Malm explains. “Sometimes it’s a gesture or maybe a pose that really feels natural and beautiful. Those are the things I’m after.” At times his muse might appear in the form of “something as simple as a color harmony,” he adds. “Other times it’s just a combination of the beautiful light and a beautiful pose.”
When committing his images to canvas, Malm likes to keep it simple. He hearkens back to a quote by Leonardo da Vinci: “Simplicity is the ultimate form of sophistication.” He explains how that concept shares his art, saying, “I feel like a painting should look like a painting. I aspire to art where you are selective about what you do paint and what you don’t paint. If you want every detail in your image, take a photograph. But a painting is like poetry, where you use carefully selected words to convey a message or feeling. So, when I paint, I try to render some things more [prominently] and subordinate others so it says what I want it to say.”
Malm uses oil paints to achieve his poetic renderings, enjoying the diversity the medium allows. Even though he has worked with other media, oils seem to be a natural fit for him. “I love a painting surface that has a variety of thick and thin, a nice contrast of simple areas and more complex areas,” he explains. “You can really add another dimension with the texture. Oil painting is ideal for that, building up layers and just creating an interesting surface.”
Simplicity is more than just a theme in Malm’s art; it is the balance of his life. He has chosen to remain in rural Utah, because his heritage is there, and the simple life is one that suits his temperament as a family man and his religious pursuits. His art reflects the way he lives his life.
“[The Cache Valley] is a beautiful, peaceful place, backwoods really,” Malm says. “It really has a large influence on what I do. I just love being here and so, a lot of times, these settings provide the backdrop for what I paint. I love to put a figure against a pond or among the trees. It’s very pastoral, which appeals to me. It has a large impact on what I choose to paint.”
Malm’s studio, situated about 40 yards from his home, is ideally located to paint indoors, with the beauty of the valley just outside the window, or to walk out and immerse himself in the scenery that surrounds his home. Each serves a vital purpose to his artistic renderings.
“I love to paint from life,” Malm says. “I think it really helps to capture the effect of light, accurate colors and values. Then I enjoy bringing it back into the studio and refining my ideas. I love the whole process.”
As Malm’s four children grow up and slip off into adulthood, he can envision other possibilities for himself and Juanita. He can see trips to Europe to paint. He can imagine dabbling in sculpture. For now, however, Malm is content to be an artist, a husband, and family man, grateful for the blessings life has bestowed on him. He is doing what he loves, what he believes he was born to do: He is capturing beauty and expressing it through his art.
Mary Nelson is a writer living in Minneapolis, Minnesota.