The genesis of Austin-based Aaron Michalovic’s wood collages traces back to his childhood days immersed in nature in Maine—and to artful outings with his grandfather, a painter who is still working today at 103 years of age. “He always taught me that you look at nature and you look at life and that’s what you paint,” Michalovic says. “He often took me out into the fields to do pastels with him—and he never wanted me to work from a photograph.”
That informal but formative art education meant that when Michalovic briefly attended art school, it wasn’t quite the right fit. “The experience with my grandfather seemed much more intense and hands-on,” he explains. “I’m too utilitarian; I needed to go and work.” And while his work initially took the form of carpentry, things eventually came full circle when he found a way to combine the worlds of art and woodworking by creating his signature handmade collage art pieces and installations.
His collages manipulate color, texture and geometry for an almost 3D effect, possessing an earthy palette evoking the natural tones Michalovic learned to appreciate alongside his grandfather and while observing nature. Each comprises hundreds of individual wood pieces cut from locally milled varieties such as pecan, walnut and mesquite, as well as plywood. Although, the artist often also scavenges through scrap piles outside local building sites for material. “Many of the houses being torn down here in East Austin were built with the most beautiful wood you could ever imagine, from slow-growing pine trees,” he says.
When shaping the wood, absolute precision is key. “Being off by just a hundredth of an inch really adds up when you get to the 700th piece,” Michalovic explains. So he uses an heirloom quality rabbet block plane for precise molding to create a puzzle-like fit. “I have a complete obsession with antique hand tools, mostly chisels and planes,” he notes. Citing the patience acquired from mastering traditional mortise and tenon joinery, the artist says, “You have to learn to work by hand and appreciate the process. It’s about slowing things down in order to make something that’s going to be really beautiful.” After carefully shaping, he often layers on several coats of paint with his fingers or a brush, wiping away any excess to achieve the perfect color. And as a final step, he assembles and then frames each collage in antique pine.
How the paint reacts with the wood and affects the design excites Michalovic. “The color can change the pattern, and I’m inspired by the newness this brings from piece to piece,” says the artist, whose muse remains the natural world: “Oftentimes, when I see a pattern or color in nature, I think, ‘I’ve got to remember that combo.’ ” No doubt, his grandfather is proud.