Seeing clear to forever

Oct 7, 1998 at 12:00 am

It's a bright afternoon in 1948, on a street off Gratiot on Detroit's east side. A little girl looks through a second-floor kitchen window at the house next door. Along with her mother and younger brother, she's painting on the glass in watercolors -- red, yellow, blue, green -- mixing them right on the pane where they form other hues. The daylight seeps through the paint, leaving a faint blue glow on her hand, a brighter orange on her forearm. She brushes in a landscape with sky and figures that both the neighbors and her family on this side of the glass can see.

Ann Mikolowski remembers these, her first paintings, and that pure, almost innocent pleasure of painting inspires her work today. Now in her 50s, she is known nationally for her immediately identifiable portraits and illustrations. In January, some of her portraits appeared in the group show "Original Scale," with the work of such notables as Jasper Johns and Richard Tuttle, at Apex Art C.P. in Manhattan. But her facility in art hasn't come easily, and life itself has been an uncertain journey for her of late.

"You know, I didn't grow up knowing about art, although my mother would take us to the art museum. Every time there was like a school day off, we'd always go."

Ann's visual education, which had started so early at home, didn't leap forward until after high school. As a young layout artist working at Chrysler, she took night classes in drawing at Wayne State University with Robert Wilbert. "I didn't have a big background in art history, in fact, a great deal of my inspiration came from poets."

Major American poets such as Robert Creeley, Kenward Elmslie and Ted Berrigan connected with her work through the Alternative Press that she and her husband Ken -- a fine minimalist poet himself -- started in 1969. The press began publishing poetry broadsides, bumper stickers, and art and poetry postcards -- and still does -- devoting a run of 500 cards to an artist or poet whose name is printed on one side, with an intimidating blank space on the other, to be filled with whatever that artist might imagine.

Ann's own work took on a distinctive identity in the early '70s, when she began digesting ideas about abstraction, realism, pop and conceptual art. Her dual response to the world around her -- the art world combined with that of everyday life -- was both realistic and formally inventive: She debuted the first of her small portraits -- some measuring 2 inches by 3 inches -- in 1974 at Detroit's Willis Gallery.

"The thing about the portraits is that there are stories with every one, and if I talk about the paintings, it's mostly about the people that I painted and what was going on at the time," Ann recalls.

The same exhibition featured a huge, life-size portrait of a cow entitled "Stella," shocking in its pale imminence. Such realistic works seemed to line up squarely within traditional concerns, until their conceptual aftershock hit viewers like a light but unsettling tremor. Life-size cows? Miniature human beings?

By working from snapshots that she took herself, and faithfully following her need to interact with the artists, poets and musicians around her, she became a personal historian of the scene -- the lives that made it live -- its coming into being and, by extension, its passing away.

When she and Ken decided to move to a small town in Michigan's thumb in 1974, planning to raise their son Michael and daughter Molly in a quieter, greener place, Ann discovered more about why the portraits were important: "They were all that size so that you could carry them in your pocket -- and we were thinking about moving to Grindstone City at that point, so it was almost as if I could take my friends with me. It was all a kind of funny play on size."

As well as a serious project of human contact: "I always work from my own photos, 'cause there it's like a sketchbook. If I try to work from other photos that people give me, I don't have any connection with a live person."

Just outside of Grindstone City is the shore of Lake Huron, and Ann turned to painting the vast reaches of water and sky in what some might see as a different project. The waterscapes are expansive, like symphonic tone poems -- while the portraits, by contrast, are chamber music, making use of one or two subjects as in a sonata. Not only are there differences in scale and focus, but also in technique, lighting and meaning.

A portrait is always a specific person, identifiable by someone at some time in history. The vistas in Ann's waterscapes offer up, instead, a universal, anonymous presence: infinitely interchangeable water, the great cycle of moisture, dense mists hanging over rocks on the shore as in an ancient Chinese scroll. These apparently polar opposites -- the social scene of urban art and the primordial background of nature -- are connected on a deeper level: that of flowing, passing time and the problem of our awareness of it.

"When I was in Grindstone, watching that lake, I could see that horizon line, and like you could see forever. ... Your eyes just opened up, for a long ways, and it would change, like in five or 15 minutes it would change into something else ... It was so powerful. I wouldn't know it at the time that I was picking up something that connected with what was emotionally going on in my life, but once I'd finish it, I could see where the energy was in the painting."

In 1988, they moved to Ann Arbor because Ken was teaching at the University of Michigan, and then Ann was diagnosed with cancer. After surgery, chemotherapy, recovery from both, and a mountain of courage, Ann seemed to have the illness licked. But last October, after almost a decade of remission, it surfaced again.

This time, since Ann's regular doctors weren't very hopeful about the effectiveness of the traditional chemo regime, she and Ken researched alternative medicines. They decided on the Iscador treatment developed by Rudolf Steiner in Switzerland and practiced by Drs. Quintin and Molly McMullen of Ann Arbor. It involves regular intravenous injections of a mistletoe derivative to provoke a cleansing fever and slowly rebuild the immune system. Results have been tentative, but encouraging to both Ann and Ken, who says, "I'm most impressed with Ann's absolute courage in the face of established medical opinion. She chose an alternative treatment and she believes in it. Obviously the success is there to be seen. She's got great spirit and energy."

Ann is painting again -- she glows with that same quiet purpose that she's always been known by -- but now she also seems to resonate like a bell, brushing color from the changing daylight around her into new portraits which she'll show this month at U-M's Residential College. Her art has been a steady point of reference throughout this troubled time, because, she maintains, working and loving are synonymous for her with living: "Love and compassion ... those issues are what begin to be really clear and stick out ... that that's the most important thing about life -- a lot of other things can fall away -- and art is important too."

Ann now thinks of the waterscapes as she once did the portraits: as a way of taking something that you love with you when you move, a way of bringing Lake Huron to her home in Ann Arbor. But she also knows that the connection between people and the land, between those who pass on and that which endures, is inextricable. So in her art, which is also her everyday mind, Ann Mikolowski balances gently on the cusp of the wide world.

Oct. 9-Nov. 9, Opening reception
Friday, 5-7 p.m.,
U-M Residential College,
East Quad Art Gallery,
701 E. University,
Ann Arbor
Call 734-763-0176

George Tysh is Metro Times' arts editor. E-mail him at [email protected]