Michael Raaum’s string and other artistic incidents
October 6, 2005
It was a revelatory, perhaps mystical moment, when Michael Raaum discovered he wanted to be a painter.Taking a break from his undergraduate studies, in journalism, in Oaxaca, Mexico, Raaum brought with him a Nikon FTN camera, a movie camera, and some paints, expecting to divide his time between the three. But Raaum spent much of his time ill – hallucinating, losing some 40 pounds, and eventually being literally carried to the town doctor (who, he remembered, doubled as the town vet). Out of the sickness came clarity.”One morning, I was in a heavy fever, and I had a vision – that I was weightless, leaving the earth, like I was a javelin. And I thought I wasn’t going to come down,” said Raaum. “But in landed in green earth. And the next day, I was amazed by how my mind created such images. I realized the camera would never do that.”Raaum had chosen journalism to distinguish himself from his father – “who could draw anything,” said Raaum – and his brother, who had won awards for his art. At the University of Minnesota, the native of Jamestown, N.D. and self-described hippie, was steered toward journalism after expressing an interest in writing. But the pull of the visual was strong; he drifted from journalism to photojournalism to art photography in his undergrad years. The Mexican episode prompted the final leap in what sounds like a destined calling.”From then on, I turned all my attention to drawing and painting,” said Raaum, a 54-year-old who has lived in the Roaring Fork Valley for 21 years. “I thought I was dying, but it was the opposite of dying. It was coming to life.”For 32 years, drawing and painting have occupied Raaum. He attended graduate school at the University of Minnesota, a time he found unusually stimulating; even outside of class, much of his time was spent with his professors. After working at the university’s law school, and teaching art to children in Minneapolis, he spent some time in Denver while planning his move, with Ilene Schmidt, his wife of 27 years, to the mountains. After researching and visiting most every mountain town in the American West, Raaum settled on Aspen, judging it the most artistically vital of the bunch. Raaum has taught a Drawing and Painting class at Colorado Mountain College for 21 years; his day job for 16 of those years was as a career counselor at CMC.
Virtually every day since that experience in Mexico, Raaum has drawn, painted or both. That incident not only inspired Raaum to paint, but also influenced the kind of work he would do.Raaum remembers showing two of the works he made in Mexico to a Mexican audience. The first, made before the illness, was a traditional painting of Mexican pottery. “And the second,” said Raaum, “was these forms floating in space.” Raaum points out that the earlier painting drew much criticism for being old-fashioned, while the odder “floating forms” were looked at warmly. But even if it hadn’t been for the positive reception, Raaum would likely have continued making his ungrounded images.”I like shapes that can float,” said Raaum, whose demeanor, likewise, seems devoid of heaviness. “As a child, I always loved aquariums, environments that were weightless. I raised fish all through college, fresh and saltwater tanks. I’m a scuba diver. I love floating forms in the water, and seeing sunlight come through that water. So I think my work is somewhat influenced by the weightlessness effect.”Raaum might never would have linked his paintings to a subject as heavy as theoretical physics. But then came another revelatory moment, this time in Maui, this past January. Raaum was painting and watching TV, an episode of the science show “Nova.” The show was about string theory, an area of physics that postulates that strings – rather than atoms or particles – is the fundamental unit of matter.”Seeing on TV, seeing what a theoretical illustration would look like, I burst out laughing. Because it looked just like what I was painting at that moment,” said Raaum. “I said, ‘Oh, that’s what I’ve been painting.’ “
Raaum had long had some interest in physics, concepts of time and space. One of his paintings from the ’70s was titled “Big Bang Theory.” But he was stunned to see just how much alignment there was between the work he had produced over three decades and what he saw described on “Nova.” Ram’s art suggested movement and vibration, stringlike objects flowing and intertwining – all elements of string theory.The 17 paintings in “String Dimensions,” the solo exhibit of Ram’s works that opens today, Friday, Oct. 7, at the CMC Gallery in Glenwood Springs, are not exactly inspired by string theory. Raaum was been making such paintings for years. But he is pleased with the parallels. “It clicked on more than one level, not just what it looked like,” said Raaum of the relationship. “The idea of strings differs from particle physics because it is a vibration theory. All the matter in the universe, everything is composed not of atoms or particles, but vibrating strings. A cosmic symphony, I think it said. I love music and I love the fact that it’s audio vibration, and visual art is visual vibration. It seemed elegant to me that there were similarities between the arts and science. It felt right.”Among the “String Dimensions” pieces is “Enlightened Pursuit,” whose title nods to the newfound connection between art and physics. “I was enlightened about the concepts of space and time, how the universe is structured,” said Raaum. “I got a little boost from that, knowing where my knowledge is coming from.” Another light-bulb moment came in 1972. With his roots in small-town, Great Plains America, Raaum had a sense back then that contemporary art meant something remote and elite. Then, on May 12, 1972 – he remembers exactly – he saw a show of work by Russian-born painter Vassal Kandinsky that turned that idea around.”If I had to go to who would be the roots of my art, the first person whose works spoke to me was Kandinsky. To me, he’s the inventor of modern art, even of nonobjective art,” said Raaum. “Coming from North Dakota, I thought modern art was incomprehensible, not enjoyable. After seeing his show, I could see for the first time that shape and line and form could be as free of specific meaning as musical notes are – and still make a composition.”
The reference to musical notes, compositions, are frequent with Raaum. The only time he ever ditched classes in high school was to see a 1968 Grateful Dead concert in Minneapolis. He has been a fan of most kinds of music ever since, but the musical eye-opener came with the 1994 One World Festival in Snowmass Village. Seeing the likes of Bunny Wailer, Andrew Tosh and Ziggy Marley & the Melody Makers, Raaum, who had figured reggae would die out after the 1981 death of Bob Marley, reawakened to the reggae vibe.”It rang true to me, the concept of one love,” said Raaum, who takes in some 100 performances, mostly reggae, in a year. “Reggae provided something I needed.”And a lot of my thoughts come from music, how things come together. In Jamaica, they call it ‘call-and-response.’ And there’s a lot of that in painting, where on form affects another.”The references to music are rarely explicit in his work. Even the explicit references can be unintentional. In “Guitar Player,” from the “String Dimensions” series, Raaum didn’t notice the shape that suggested a guitar till he was finished. But always in the work there is the interconnection of parts, interplay among lines – like an orchestra more than a reggae band.”If I want to draw rock, I have to think – well, what’s behind that rock, and how far down does the rock go into the earth?” said Raaum. “That continuous line creates the form If the lines are moving in unison, if they’re integrating, they make form.”In my forms, how I differ from a lot of artists is, I’m not a cubist. I don’t think in chunks of surfaces. Even if I draw a rock or a dog, I’m using a line that circles the entire form.”
Raaum, who has lived in Basalt 21 years, is having another kind of artistic moment, this time a professional one. He has never made much of a commercial push. But last year, he began showing at Denver’s Sandra Phillips Gallery. His 2004 acrylic painting, “Three Part Harmony,” was selected for the poster image announcing CMC’s Callaway Honors Series of performances. His work is included in the current faculty show at CMC’s Aspen campus, and a piece – a politically inspired acrylic work, “Liberty” – will be in the Roaring Fork Open, opening at the Aspen Art Museum Friday, Oct. 14. Raaum will also participate in the Roaring Fork Artists Exhibit, Studio Tours and Benefit Auction, which raises funds for the Aspen and Carbondale Community Schools. The exhibit runs through Oct. 14 at various local branches of Alpine Bank, with a reception and silent auction at the Roaring Fork Club in Basalt, Oct. 14 at 6:30 p.m. The event concludes with tours of Raaum’s Basalt studio Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 15-16.Topping the exposure is the “String Dimensions” show, Raaum’s first solo exhibit.While he is enthused about discovering the string theory element in his work, Raaum is also cautious not to make too much of it. He’s never before had conceptual borders around his art, and he doesn’t want to be constrained by any now. So the “String Dimensions” series may turn out to be just another noteworthy, but passing, moment in Raaum’s artistic life.”It was funny at first. Then I identified with it,” he said of the string theory link. “Then I didn’t want to get locked down by that idea. It’s important to be open to whatever is coming to you, visual or whatever. I’m interested in letting the paintings develop, letting anything that wants to come forward.
“I have to see new things all the time. I don’t finish a work and say, ‘That’s step one, now on to step two.’ I like to work intuitively. I never know what I’m going to see during the day, and how it’s going to come out at night.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org