Seeing with a ‘backwards brain’

Painter Michael Orwick, whose work will be included in an October show in Astoria, says his dyslexia helped him become an artist

Reading his bio, the first bit of information you learn about artist Michael Orwick is that he nearly died at birth (he’s not entirely sure, but he thinks the umbilical cord was wound around his neck) and that while his mother thought he was perfect, his physician father “knew better.” It’s something of an inside joke, but as it turns out, also true – at least in some eyes. But a learning disorder others might see as a deficit Orwick soon discovered could, in fact, be quite the attribute — one he says he “wouldn’t trade for a minute.”

Next month, the Beaverton painter will lead his usual plein air workshop in Cannon Beach, albeit with a very limited number of participants, thanks to the you-know-what. In October, he and his 16-year-old daughter, Elena, will participate in the Sins of the Father show at The Secret Gallery in Astoria, which will feature artists and their fathers. We talked with Orwick about his life as an artist and the imperfection that helped shape him. His comments have been edited for clarity.

Artist Elena Orwick, 16, and her father Michael Orwick will have their work included in the October "Sins of the Father" show at The Secret Gallery in Astoria.
Michael Orwick and his 16-year-old daughter, Elena, will have their work included in the October “Sins of the Father” show at The Secret Gallery in Astoria.

On your webpage, you mention that your parents realized early on that you were dyslexic and saw things differently. How did that affect you?

Orwick: I could tell early on I was meant to understand things that I wasn’t understanding. Things weren’t supposed to be as hard as that. But I was able to put disparate things together to make something really creative. I just had a different way of seeing things.

In a thank you letter you sent to the “people that shaped me,” you wrote: “You should understand, growing up dyslexic, school was hard. Any subject with letters, or numbers, or dates or facts — they seemed harder for me than most kids. Although, if the assignment was visual, or creative — AHHHHH, it was like the clouds parting and angels singing! I felt like saying, “Step back citizens, I have this, everything is under control.”

Did being dyslexic make it hard on you as kid?

Sometimes I’d get scolded. I was put into special education classes. One of my fourth-grade teachers realized I was missing art. I was missing my favorite time of the day. He set it up so I could walk to the middle school and go to art classes there with older kids. I was the only one. It really felt like a reward. But I fit in fine. I was always the weirder one of the group; the more artsy one.

Yet, despite being artistic from a very young age, you didn’t initially pursue it as a career.

I guess when you grow up in small logging town like Lebanon, it doesn’t seem valid. There were no galleries around. My parents were so supportive. They were always buying me art supplies.

How did you finally decide on art as a full-time career?

I was lucky to grow up surrounded by beautiful creeks and evergreen wilderness and within a family that loved to travel, and encouraged curiosity and following one’s heart. And my heart has always told me to create.

Michael Orwick, "Cloud Opening" (oil on panel, 12 by 12 inches)
Michael Orwick’s work includes landscapes, seascapes, Zenscapes, and skyscapes, such as “Cloud Opening” (oil on panel, 12 by 12 inches).

I started college at the University of Oregon where, for reasons I cannot now recollect, I majored in business. Two years in and losing interest, I jumped at the chance to move to Australia for half a year, where I filled up sketch pads with drawings and small paintings. The thought of returning to business classes never crossed my mind. I spent the next year a transient, sleeping on friends’ couches and beanbag chairs, putting together a portfolio and dating my future wife, Gabriela.

Returning to the Pacific Northwest, Gaby and I started our life together in Portland, where I majored in illustration at Pacific Northwest College of Art. I discovered that oil painting and the method of working from dark to light worked with my “backwards brain.”

It was a gradual transition. I was a waiter/bartender for years. I was doing children’s book illustrations, working with galleries. I’d get home at 2:30 in the morning after working in the bar, then get up at 7 or 8, work in our extra bedroom that was a studio, and then back to the bar. There was a point where I was getting enough work so I had taken time off from the restaurant. I stopped in the restaurant and there was a new manager. He was like, “Do you work here?” I said, “I guess I don’t.” I went home and told my wife, “I think I just quit.” My daughter was born shortly after that. I’ve been lucky ever since. She just turned 16. I haven’ t had a real job since.

Many of your landscapes feature the Coast, and you mentioned you were born in Astoria and Cannon Beach is something of a second home. [Orwick’s work can be seen there in the DragonFire Gallery.] You’ve spent time all over the world, but you always come back to Oregon. What draws you here?

I love the Oregon weather and atmosphere and the light. Some people might consider it on the gloomier side, but I really love the mystery… the fog. And the great thing about Oregon is you drive 70 miles in another direction and it’s completely different weather.

Michael Orwick will be one of the teachers of a five-day plein air workshop in Cannon Beach leading up to the Earth & Ocean Arts Festival.
Michael Orwick, who will lead a plein air workshop at Cannon Beach next month, often finds inspiration in coastal scenes.

Any particular subject on the Coast you are drawn to?

One of my favorite motifs is the windswept trees. I love how nature carved those trees. They get bent and beat up. It’s almost like some master bonsai gardener created them. I like to think of them as bent, not broken. They’re beautiful how they withstand nature and become part of it.

I guess it wouldn’t do to ignore COVID-19. How’s that affecting you?

During summer, I’m usually really active, but my workshops and classes have all been canceled. It’s come to kind of a screeching halt. I am painting by myself more and I don’t mind that at all. I got very lucky with big commissions and projects. I’ve never woke up and not known what I was going to do. I joke, as an artist, I’ve been practicing social distancing most of my life.

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