Q&A with Mike McSorley

Q&A with Mike McSorley

June 2023 Solo Artist Mike McSorley

By Julia Chance


In Spirit of Life, June solo artist Mike McSorley draws on his recent challenges and inspiration with thoughtful still-life paintings and scenes of nature. His work suggests the human spirit behind a careful collection of man-made objects, from humor to functionality, and their place within the natural world. 

McSorley’s subjects and scenarios are commonplace, with some suggesting anthropomorphic quality. Items lining a bathroom sink—liquid soap, hand lotion, and a cup of cotton swabs—appear to be standing at attention, ready for action. A cluster of daffodils, their trumpets pointing in various directions, look like spectators taking in the view around them. A single palette knife in the forefront of one painting could likely have escaped the stifling containment of fellow knives in the glass behind it. Brass Switch Plate, a cheeky miniature painting, looks like the real thing. 


Palette Knives by Mike McSorley; Oil

McSorley’s serene and inviting palette beckons viewers to see the character in ordinary things that we seldom consider beyond their use. 

I chose my objects because they’re handy or convenient so I can start painting right away,” the artist says. I want viewers to come away with an appreciation of the common things around them.”

McSorley’s work has been shown in regional and national shows where he’s received awards. For three consecutive years, 2020–2022, he was awarded the Arts and Humanities Fellowship Program Grant by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. His painting Eckington Korner is part of The Washingtonia Collection through the DC Creates! Public Art Program, and Along the Patuxent was acquired by the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies. McSorley’s paintings have also been featured in a solo exhibit at The Arts Club of Washington D.C.

Last year he and his wife left the bustling nation’s capital for Milford, Delaware, a smaller city with a bustling art scene. Along with his painting, he lends his creative energy to fixing up the charming old house that they now call home. McSorley recently took time out to talk about his early creative endeavors, the artists he’s learned from, and the meaning of Spirit of Life.


What are your earliest artistic memories?

I made small clay animals and drew characters. I was about 8 or 10 years old. In high school. I was carving a marble my senior year and had this strange feeling I had done this before. Against my instructor’s advice, I tore into it and didn’t break anything off. It was as if I had a sense of how far I could push it. Not sure what that means.


Where did you study art?

I received a Bachelor of Science degree in Fine Art from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, concentrating in painting. My college professors were mostly abstract expressionists. From them I learned about relationships between items in your work and balancing a composition. There was one traditional painter, James Inness, who only taught one painting class in the summer during the four years I was there. I stayed one summer so I could take it. Reading about Monet, I learned to paint shapes of color and forget the object. 

There was a great group of students at IUP, many eager to learn. We had quite a few late-night painting sessions and discussions about art. There was a trick to get into the building after it closed and someone was always there, working.

In workshops and classes I focused on taking painters whose technique I admired. An artist friend in Pittsburgh, Ron Donoughe, advised me to take workshops from artists in the area to fill in the gap in my realistic painting knowledge. He also gave me demonstrations of his technique.

I took dozens of classes and workshops in the decades after, ranging from Burt Silverman to Wolf Kahn and Janet Fish. I think one can always learn and I’d rather take a class from someone than spend five years figuring it out myself. I attended over three dozen workshops, demos or classes from over 25 artists. Just yesterday I watched a demo by Charlie Hunter on how he uses encaustic in his work— unique method.

My path was crooked. I had a studio right out of college and managed to produce art sporadically in the years after I graduated. After moving to D.C. in 2015 I was able to focus more intensely on painting.


Daffodils by Mike McSorley; Oil


Describe your artistry.

 I create paintings that are observation-based. I tell stories using visual language within the framework of realism. I started as a sculpture major. It has occurred to me recently that I am very interested in form in my paintings. I especially like playing with color bias to achieve this. I’m not relying as much on value to achieve form, but on color. This makes my work unique.


What is your process for painting?

Sometimes I draw the object in with charcoal or graphite. If I’m working from a photo, I grid it. I may brush the form in using more charcoal and paint thinner. Then I apply a wash of either the local color or it’s compliment. Sometimes I seal the drawing with retouch varnish or I let the charcoal darken the edges. Sometimes I start right in with paint on the blank canvas—depends on my mood.


Tub Faucet by Mike McSorley; Oil


Your solo exhibit is titled Spirit of Life. What is it about?  

I had a heart attack in late March this year that slowed me down considerably. I was very tired and took a sleeping mat to my studio so I could lie down occasionally. Part of the title is about overcoming that and producing this show. Eight of the largest pieces were produced after my heart attack—nine if you count Brass Switch Plate.

It’s also about the objects we see, no matter how mundane, were designed by someone. Designed for function but aesthetics plays a part to some degree. All have the spark of creativity in it. I wanted to capture that spirit of creativity present in all objects.


What does the title imply?

The spirit to produce this show after the heart attack; the spirit in the natural world, which I’m surrounded by in Delaware; the spirit put into objects by the designer and maker of them.


You proposed your show two years ago. Has it changed much from what you initially envisioned? 

It changed. The pandemic started me working from photos, as I couldn’t just wander around and find objects to paint. I also made sure I went to the studio every day so I didn’t get stuck in a rut of anxiety and despair. 

My heart attack also changed my work. This crunched my timeframe. I had a few plant still-lifes I was able to use. Creating larger paintings and horizontal images filled the walls faster. They worked out great compositionally. Happy accident.


Brass Switch Plate by Mike McSorely; Oil


Do you make art every day?

No. We bought an old house and this past year I painted very little. Before that I painted four to five days a week. I will get back to that in the near future. For this show I painted five to six days a week for a couple months, but only a few hours a day. I don’t have the stamina I had before. I consider painting a job and I don’t usually paint on the weekend or holidays. It’s mentally and emotionally draining.


What artists, contemporary or past, inspire you? Why?

Wayne Thiebaud for his playfulness, Edward Hopper for his design and mood, Wolf Kahn for the joy of color, Zoey Frank, Jon Redmond, Catherine Kehoe. Really, I’m inspired by so many artists. Working at The Phillips Collection as a museum assistant taught me about many artists that I can now appreciate: (Richard) Diebenkorn, (Mark) Rothko, (Pierre) Bonnard, (Édouard) Vuillard. So much wonderful stuff.


If you weren’t making art, what would you be doing?

Originally, I wanted to be a music major but I was playing drums and didn’t want to major in percussion. I quit the drums but never really learned another instrument. I did take classical piano and music theory in college. That fascinates me.

I worked construction and enjoyed doing that. It gives you a sense of accomplishment, some problem solving and creative thinking. I like working on our house for those reasons. Plus, you get to work with your hands which is important to me.


Is there something that you are still working to achieve?

I will continue to work on solving painting problems. Color theory is a special interest to me. The beauty of painting is that there are so many directions and rabbit holes one can pursue. I will never run out of things to work on. I compare it to golf: you are never satisfied, and you can always do better.


Mike Mcsorley’s must-have items when making art:

“I need nothing in particular, except a few colors of paint: Transparent Oxide Red by Rembrandt and Transparent Earth Yellow by Gamblin. Most of my paints are from Gamblin. I also like a Quinacridone Magenta and a Colbalt Teal. There is a warm and a cool of each color on my palette and I am thinking of adding an opaque and transparent of each. I’ve also developed a bad habit of sucking on cough drops when I work.”





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