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Columbia College Chicago
Michael K. Paxton
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Michael K. Paxton

“If you’re not ready to bet the farm on yourself, why should anyone else bet the farm on you?”

Michael K. Paxton

Written by Jennifer Tatum, Nonfiction MFA 2013
Photo by John Farley, Gallery Director, Marshall University

Michael K. Paxton believes in hard work and determination. He believes in passion and understanding, and his work, often influenced by his hometown, aims to explore his family history, rooted deep in Appalachia, deep in the coal mines. His paintings and drawings speak from the heart and work to acknowledge the personal interests, experiences and voices of the Appalachian community. Originally from West Virginia, Michael K. Paxton arrived in Chicago in the early eighties. At the time, he was working as a film-editor and as a set-designer and was renting a studio space, but six years later, he realized he was doing “too much editing and too little painting,” so he decided to stop editing to begin focusing solely on his painting.

Art, however, wasn’t what first sparked Paxton’s interest. He was first interested in Journalism, but “the line was too long” at registration and so he “got in the art line.” Just like that, he jumped into the art line and hasn’t gotten out of it since. He says his work in film editing and set-design has influenced his drawing and painting, specifically his larger installation pieces and he views everything he does as professional development. Everything influences or helps him build skills, but above all, he says, that the most important skills that an artist must have are determination and professionalism. In the classroom, he leads by example and teaches his students that being a professional “has to do with your work ethic, not just your work.”

Paxton is an Adjunct Faculty member in the Art + Design program and has been teaching at Columbia for almost eight years. He says that what originally attracted him to Columbia was that the students seemed “just like working class kids, just like me.” He says that an undergraduate professor, Ms. Kilgore, “saved [his] life” by giving just fifteen minutes of her time to tell him that it was possible to follow his dreams. He is forever grateful to Ms. Kilgore for sharing this positive message and says that his job, as a teacher, is to give his students that same fifteen minutes, to encourage them, to find a way to reach them and to give them positive feedback.

Positive feedback is important to a creative artist, but realizing the reality of the profession is too. Paxton asks his students, “If you’re not ready to bet the farm on yourself, why should anyone else bet the farm on you?” He encourages his students to find where they feel they are being most honest and authentic, the space where everyone is out of the room and they are alone with their own voice and can follow their own instincts. He says that when you figure out who you are, that’s when you will produce the most honest and authentic work.

Paxton’s success wasn’t easy and it wasn’t handed to him. He says, “An artist’s career is one of the few professions where you’re marked as a success if you just survive doing it for decades.” Paxton didn’t start teaching until he was in his fifties. He wasn’t able to make a living off of his art until he was in his forties. He worked odd jobs—laying train tracks, cutting wood. He is a two time Cancer survivor. His success and longevity in his field did not come easily. He had to have determination and believe in himself and his artwork in order to get to the point in his career where he was living off of his art, being invited to display his art and to speak about his process as an artist. During the summer of 2012, Paxton was the artist-in-residence with Air Le Pac, Project and Research Center in Pampelonne France and had recent work featured in Columbia’s Rights, Radical + Revolution Exhibit Spring 2012. He’s been the recipient of numerous grants and fellowships, and his art has been displayed all over the Midwest and east coast, amongst other places. His Artist Statement, contact information and samples of his work can be found at: michaelkpaxton.com