Artist explores geographic inspirations

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Carol Sorgen

Michael Economos has been a painting and drawing professor at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) for the past 46 years. Now 74, his own art is being spotlighted in a solo show, “The New York Years Versus the Maryland Years.”

For 10 years, Economos commuted from New York City to Baltimore to teach at MICA. Then, in 1974, he moved to Maryland.

The exhibition examines the effect of his geographic home on his artwork over the years. Works are on view in Bunting Center’s Pinkard Gallery, 1401 W. Mount Royal Ave. A public reception will take place Friday, December 3, from 5 to 7 p.m., and the show will continue through Dec. 19.

Economos’ artistic philosophy stems from his belief that an idea develops from life experiences, either positive or negative, and that it is possible to translate these ideas into paintings.

“The New York Years Versus the Maryland Years” delves into the personal stories that separate these two locations as distinct periods in his life. “I consider my paintings to be visual novels,” said Economos. “The journey of my life dictates what I paint.”

For example, Economos found the years he spent in New York to be challenging. His reaction was to explore through his art the debris he found in New York parks.

The result was a series of paintings of familiar objects in the grass, such as cans of Coke and Colt 45. After his first show in New York, Artforum referred to his work as containing “vanitas [or symbolic] elements such as melancholy, nostalgia and the passing of time.”

After a decade of commuting from New York to MICA, Economos decided to move to Maryland, where he discovered the Chesapeake Bay and bought a sailboat.

The new challenges in his life as an artist were no longer capturing the gritty urban realities of life in the city, but rather catching the color and light refraction of water. Accordingly, he moved from painting reality to abstraction.

His also started to allow his paintings to voice ecological concerns. This theme can be seen in the 1978 “Sounion,” for example, which depicts the Greek Temple of Poseidon near Athens.

At a quick glance, the work appears to be a representative painting of a traditional Athenian monument. Pay more attention, though, and you’ll see that one of the painted columns is not of stone but instead a tower of crushed tin cans, a visual representation of the ecological destruction of Greece’s heritage.

Among the highlights of the exhibit is “Swimmer A,” painted in 1986 during the “Maryland years.” It is one example of the effect of his move from New York’s concrete jungle to the more ethereal nature of life on the water in Maryland.

And the pathos of “Flora,” painted in 1978, is made more poignant knowing that the subject is Economos’ late wife, Barbara Marcus, also an artist.

This show is, in fact, dedicated in honor and to the memory of Barbara Marcus Economos. “All the past years that I shared my life with her, she was always an inspiration, encouraging me both in my teaching and in my painting,” said Economos.

Work exhibited widely

Economos is a native of Greece who came to the United States at the age of 10 and settled with his family in Worcester, Mass. 

His work has been shown extensively in the U.S., including the Baltimore Museum of Art and Chameleon Gallery in Baltimore, as well as galleries in New Orleans, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York City.

It can also be seen in collections at the University of Michigan, Republic of China, Chase Manhattan Bank, Yale Museum, and the former Lebanese minister of Cultural Affairs.

Economos has received the Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award, various grants, and the Maryland Institute Trustee Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Economos has long been inspired by a quote found on the tombstone of the grandfather of German painter Kathe Kollwitz. It reads: “Man is not here to be happy but to do his duty.”

Hours for MICA’s galleries, which are free and open to the public, are Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. They are closed on major holidays.

For more information, visit www.mica.edu or call (410) 669-9200.