Mirror on America: Images lead to deeper thinking

Thursday, June 15, 2017
Bush thought of this painting as moving from top to bottom — about the problem of so many Americans being incarcerated. But one high school student read it in the opposite way and thought about prisoners being jettisoned out into society following their terms.

In 2015, artist W. Michael Bush of Bell Buckle was in Marietta, Georgia, at the art shop of his friend Jerry Allen.

"The show just blew me away," said Bush. Although the show as a whole wasn't necessarily political in nature, there were several thought-provoking pieces that made Bush, as an artist, wish he were doing something "with more meat to it."

He told the galleries he normally works with that he would be taking a break from his normal, more decorative pieces to work on a special project.

Bush intended this as a depiction of the “glass ceiling” — a description of sexism that keeps women out of some high-level executive jobs.

Views of America

That project became "Mirror On America," a series of about 20 pieces which comment on American society. For example, one piece, meant to illustrate the "glass ceiling" in certain areas of employment, depicts a man standing on a woman's shoulders, with a literal sheet of Plexiglas sticking out from the painting. Another piece, "Decriminalized Dinner," was a comment on cities that have made it illegal to feed homeless people in downtown areas.

Although Bush describes himself as "a short, fat old hippie from the 60s," the show invokes political debate without being hyper-partisan. Some pieces illustrate what might be seen as liberal talking points, but one, "The Government Is Here To Help," uses hands bound in red tape to illustrate the problems with government intervention.

This painting was a response to cities that have made it illegal to feed the homeless.

Another painting, "Welfare Queens," depicts two women -- one white, one black -- wearing tiaras, but obviously struggling with the reality of poverty. When the painting is exhibited, there are tiaras tethered next to it which people can use to pose for a photo with the painting. Bush said that while there are those who abuse or take advantage of any assistance program, the painting is meant to remind the viewer that most people who receive assistance deal with the difficulties of poverty and low income, and people who use derisive terms like "welfare queen" would in reality not want to trade places with a person on public assistance.

Series develops

As the pieces came together, Bush realized they were part of a series.

W. Michael Bush
T-G File Photo by Derrick Hill

"I recognized that I had a show," said Bush, "but I didn't know if anybody would want to show it."

He contacted his normal galleries, and most were uninterested, knowing that this wasn't the type of marketable artwork that a typical customer would buy and hang over the mantel.

However, Keeli Crewe of the Chattanooga art gallery Area 61 agreed to show the collection. That led to an invitation for Bush to present and discuss it at the Chattanooga High School Center for the Creative Arts, a fine arts-themed magnet high school. Last fall, he spent two days at the school, speaking to three classes a day, with 40 to 60 students in each class.

Telling stories

The students took the artwork seriously and with open minds. Sometimes, their interpretations weren't what Bush had intended or expected. One piece of artwork, from Bush's perspective, shows a blue jean-clad figure entering machinery from the top of the frame and being processed into an orange-jumpsuited prison inmate. It was meant as a comment on America's high incarceration rates. But one student read the painting from bottom to top -- the machinery was taking the inmates and throwing them back out into society at the end of their sentences, whether they were ready or not.

Another difference in interpretation was even more dramatic. One female student, unfamiliar with the term "glass ceiling," initially interpreted the piece with the man on the woman's shoulders as a tribute to maternal influence -- a depiction of how the man's success depends on the support of his mother! The woman's hair looks white in the painting, perhaps suggesting the idea of her as a maternal figure.

There were also generational differences. As a comment on human trafficking, one piece uses a 6-foot-tall cutout of a woman with paper doll dresses made of currency. When Bush described the piece to the teenagers, one girl had a question.

"What's a paper doll?" she asked.

On the road

The discussions with the teenagers firmed up the vision of the exhibit in Bush's mind, and he knew he had to take it further. But a traveling art exhibit, and an educational program to go with it, is not cheap. Bush approached Bell Buckle Arts Council, an existing 501(c)3 not-for-profit, and asked if they would be willing to take on the show. This would allow potential donors to give to a tax-exempt charity and know that the dollars would be properly supervised, said Bush.

A young couple Bush knows in Nashville provided additional assistance. Bernadette Ruby took photos of the exhibit, while her husband Jeff Robert Smith produced a high-quality promotional video about the collection which can be viewed at the website Vimeo.com by searing for "Mirror On America Michael Bush." They traded their services for one of Bush's paintings.

After producing "Mirror On America" in the winter of 2015-16, Bush returned to his normal decorative work during the warm weather months, when it's easier to put multiple canvases out to dry. Then, this past winter, he returned to create another set of thought-provoking works, "Reflective Conversations."

He is taking both exhibits on the road. The Tullahoma Fine Arts Center, for example, will have "Mirror On America" in August. It will be replaced by "Reflective Conversations" in September, at which time "Mirror" will move to Columbia State Community College. He also has events lined up at Nashville and at The Webb School in his Bell Buckle hometown.

If he can get some corporate contributions, he can go into more schools, doing two-day or three-day visits like the one in Chattanooga during which he can discuss his work with students. The video gives him a tool he can show to potential donors.

Next winter, he plans a third series. The exact title hasn't been determined yet but will probably include or be related to the phrase "looking glass," in keeping with the mirror theme of the first two titles.