Painter Mike Malm evokes the beauty and simplicity of an earlier time
By Gussie Fauntleroy
This story was featured in the May 2013 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Order the Southwest Art May 2013 print issue, or get the Southwest Art May 2013 digital download now…Or better yet, just subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss a story!
It was a brilliant summer morning, sunlight sparkling off the ripples of a shallow stream. Standing beside the stream, painter Mike Malm was talking with friends who had commissioned a family portrait in the tranquil setting, conferring on possible poses for the painting they had in mind. Meanwhile, the couple’s young daughter wandered into the stream. Holding up her dress, she was exploring the streambed with her toes, stepping carefully over rocks as the clear water flowed over her bare feet. The image caught the attention of the artist’s practiced eye, and he was ready and quick with his camera.
Malm went on to photograph the family and paint the portrait they wanted. But the bonus for him was DAZZLING LIGHT, a portrayal of innocent beauty that incorporates the qualities most essential to this Utah painter’s widely collected work: the simplicity and timelessness of figures in a natural setting, the tenderness and warmth evoked by children and familial relationships, and the incandescent effects of light. “A really important part of my work is capturing light—the quality sunlight can have on a figure and water—how beautiful and dazzling it is. And I love images to feel like they’re not posed. You just have to keep your eyes open,” the soft-spoken artist observes.
Out the north windows of Malm’s studio, a few steps away from the home he shares with his wife, Juanita, and their four children, are wide-open views of farmland in northern Utah’s picturesque Cache Valley. With its pastures, wooded areas, streams, and ponds, the valley provides both inspiration and physical backdrops for much of the 41-year-old artist’s work. Here, with his own children, neighbors, and others serving as models, he can re-create the feeling of a time long past—a girl in a flowing skirt and shawl walking thoughtfully and carrying a wooden water pail, a young couple sharing quiet reflections in golden evening light, a boy with a homemade fishing pole on the bank of a stream. Malm’s west studio windows look out to the spectacular Wellsville Mountains, reminding him of his own boyhood, much of which was spent in the forested foothills on the outskirts of Bountiful, UT. “I always liked the trees and being outside,” he says. “I had a fondness for it. It felt like home.”
Malm remembers himself as a quiet boy, yet also athletic and friendly. From his father, an honest, hardworking man, he gained a solid work ethic that fuels the artist’s continuous efforts to refine his skills and infuse his work with greater levels of meaning and depth. His mother raised five children and provided a model for the kind of maternal tenderness and devotion expressed in his portrayals of mother and child. “She poured her heart and soul into our family,” he relates.
While art museums were not part of Malm’s early experience, a painting on the wall of his childhood home imprinted itself on his mind and resonated across the years. It depicted a pair of young children in the woods, crossing a small stream by way of a log. Malm recalls the pleasure of gazing at the picture; he associates its innocence and warmth with the qualities of enduring human relationships and beauty that he now so greatly values in his life and art.
Imagination was the spark for Malm’s drawings as a boy. Sitting in church each week with paper and a pencil his mother had given him, he was always “quiet as could be,” he says, smiling. Sometimes he drew other people in the pews, but mostly his images were of his own imaginings. His first life-drawing class was in high school, and from the start, he had a knack for it. Later came painting instruction with Del Parson at Dixie State College in southern Utah. There Malm discovered a talent for portraiture, and in his early 20s and recently married, he began painting commissioned portraits. One pivotal moment from that period was during a student art show in which he exhibited a pastel portrait of four girls. Parson stood in front of the painting for a time and then turned to Malm. “You can do anything you want to do,” he said. “That was such a shot of confidence from someone I really respected,” Malm recounts. “It was a big deal.”
Two years later at Southern Utah University, professional illustrator and instructor Perry Stewart focused Malm’s attention on the importance of design. This provided the young artist with tools to shift from straightforward portraiture into more complex compositions involving multiple figures in the landscape. Other powerful influences along the way included coming across the work of Richard Schmid and later having an opportunity to take a workshop with him, as well as studying with such acclaimed painters as Dan Gerhartz, Burt Silverman, and Quang Ho. At art museums, Malm was especially drawn to the masterful work of Nicolai Fechin and John Singer Sargent. From these and other sources of instruction and inspiration—including earning an MFA from Utah State University in the Cache Valley—Malm learned and began incorporating technical and aesthetic qualities he admired in other artists’ work: brevity and freshness of style, expressiveness, and abstract paint marks that sharpen into a representational image as the viewer steps back from the canvas.
Yet there is also a level of skill beyond the ability to render a visually compelling image—that of working in such a way that the painting’s technical elements themselves contribute directly to the deeper sense of meaning the artist aspires to convey. “Flowing, lyrical lines, the way you handle light, and the harmony of colors and composition, all add to the message that comes through. It all works together,” Malm explains. “Painting is a language, and you work so hard to learn the language. But now, more, I can use it to express ideas about faith, and beauty of creation, and God’s hand in our lives.”
Much of what Malm hopes to say with his art reflects the universal human values of family, simplicity, kindness, and hard work that surrounded him as a child and that he continues to see expressed in such simple things as Juanita’s gestures of mothering care. When the Malms were on vacation in Hawaii, for example, the artist was struck by the image of his wife as she wrapped a towel around the shoulders of one of their children as they stood in the shallow surf. On the same trip, he was moved by a fountain sculpture of a mother bathing her child by pouring water out of a shell. The outcome of these two sights became ARMS OF COMFORT, which Malm sees as a metaphor for a mother “pouring love over her child and how it goes from generation to generation. My wife really devotes her life to our children,” he continues. “She gives up a lot of herself to teach and guide them, and that’s what this piece expresses.”
Not far from Malm’s Cache Valley home is a farm that operates as a living museum, preserving the valley’s agricultural heritage by using only traditional methods and tools. Enormous draft horses pull plows; men and women cut and harvest hay, milk cows, and shear sheep in the age-old way; and even the farmworkers’ midday meal is prepared as it would have been a century ago, on a wood-burning cook-stove. The farm is a rich source of visual inspiration for Malm, who visits frequently. STRENGTH AND BEAUTY is the result of one of those visits. “I just love those horses—they’re so graceful, with beautiful lines, but also just so powerful,” Malm says. Indeed, the animal’s magnificence and muscular vigor are equally conveyed in the rippling sheen of its coat.
Because religion is a central part of Malm’s life, another focus of his art involves visual interpretations of Bible scenes. These are the artist’s personal explorations into the spiritual meaning and messages of ancient stories he has known all his life. EXERCISING FAITH depicts the moment when Peter steps out of the boat, answering Jesus’ invitation to follow him onto the water. Rather than imagining Peter losing faith and beginning to sink, as many artists have done, Malm focused instead on the intensity of faith required for that first step out of the boat. “This painting is an idea I had several years ago, and I finally had to take a step of faith to paint it,” he acknowledges. “Its message to me was to exercise faith in myself and in God and to take that step.”
In all of Malm’s work, whether outwardly religious or reflecting enduring human qualities and an earlier time, one of the painter’s essential aims is to impart a sense of serenity often missing in our world today. “Life is so hectic for all of us,” he observes. “I’m striving to capture beauty because it is out there, all around us. What I hope to do for myself and the viewer is capture that sense of peace.”
Authentique Gallery, St. George, UT; Montgomery Lee Fine Art, Park City, UT; Meyer Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; Trailside Galleries, Jackson, WY, and Scottsdale, AZ; Whistle Pik Galleries, Fredericksburg, TX; Illume Gallery, Salt Lake City, UT; www.mikemalm.com.
Featured in the May 2013 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
Southwest Art May 2013 digital download
Southwest Art May 2013 print issue
Or subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss a story!
MORE RESOURCES FOR ART COLLECTORS & ENTHUSIASTS
• Subscribe to Southwest Art magazine
• Learn how to paint & how to draw with downloads, books, videos & more from North Light Shop
• Sign up for your Southwest Art email newsletter & download a FREE ebook