– Bob Bahr reporting, Editor PleinAir Today –
Oregon painter Michael Orwick and his wife and daughter have been back home for about two months after traveling the world for a year, and they are just now getting their heads around what they experienced. Orwick comments on the art-driven trip, below.
Lead Image: An inquisitive elephant seems to check Mike Orwick’s painting progress in Thailand.
First, a sense of the scope of their trip: The Orwicks traveled to 21 countries on three continents, stopping at about 50 spots. Orwick guesses that they slept in 80 different places, and the accommodations ranged from thin mats to simply sleeping on the floor. Only four times did they stay in a hotel. But when Orwick says he missed his comfortable bed while on the road, it’s his only real complaint, and a small one. “The trip was amazing,” he says.
So, what did they learn? Orwick says they only took one large backpack per person, and one small carry-on bag each. They actually pared down their art materials as the journey went on. “We downsized—you don’t really need that much stuff,” he says. Orwick realized he couldn’t pack a bunch of panels for the trip, so with minimal experimentation beforehand, he relied on Arches Oil Paper for surfaces. “That was key,” Orwick says. “But I had to use oil as my solvent and brush cleaner because I couldn’t travel with mineral spirits or depend on finding some in each place. That worked out nice, but my paintings dried so slowly that some were damaged in transit, squished in bags and in taxis. The ones I mailed back home fared better.” Orwick and his 11-year-old daughter Elena Grace, also a painter, were outfitted in part by Strada Easels, Rosemary & Co. brushes, and Gamblin Oil Colors. Orwick painted smaller than he is accustomed to, working primarily in 9″ x 12″, with some 12″ x 16″ sheets as well. In the end, he estimates that he completed about 45 studies. “I came home with a lot of unfinished work,” says Orwick. “Some got damaged, some didn’t turn out as I hoped.”
A major component of the Orwicks’ journey, which they dubbed Studio Everywhere, was working with children along the way, introducing or fostering an existing interest in painting in local communities. They couldn’t carry all the supplies needed for these painting sessions, so they had to buy art materials wherever they were. This was a bit of an eye-opener, too. “You can show what you can do with any kind of art materials,” he says. “Kids weren’t using the same supplies everywhere, but it was cool because it wasn’t some magical American supplies they were using. I feel bad for art material snobs. It’s basically excuses. If you have a minute waiting for coffee, you can draw. My daughter filled up about eight sketchpads. She just drew and drew and drew and drew. We met with more than 500 kids, and never did they not want to paint. Never did they not have a good time. Always, they wanted to paint a second one—maybe three or four more. Sometimes they were shy and quiet at the beginning, but within 15 or 20 minutes of painting, everyone was having a blast. By the end we didn’t want to leave, and neither did they.”
The 12-month trip started out somewhat inauspiciously. The Orwicks missed their first flight out of the country due to construction around Los Angeles Airport. Things got easier right after that. Orwick smartly planned destinations for the front of the trip that seemed like pleasant spots. “We started out a little bit easy with Costa Rica,” he says. “Later on, Thailand and Germany were easy too, as they are ready for tourists. But really, once you get rolling, you figure things out pretty quickly. We got better and better at it, and at the end it was going pretty easily. We didn’t speak the language in most countries, but people really are the same wherever you go. Dealing with people wasn’t easy but it really wasn’t that hard. We got around and stayed fed, and met a lot of unique people.”
Their trip wasn’t overly planned, by design. About half the time, the Orwicks didn’t know where they might be instructing children until they arrived in a town and scouted it out. Sometimes they simply knocked on the door of a school, orphanage, or similar institution. Sometimes they called ahead. Only once, in Ecuador, were they initially turned away, and the Orwicks simply knocked on another door of the building and went about teaching kids about art. The nun who initially refused admittance asked if they could come back the next day. “Looking at what the kids did, we never knew how much was lost in translation, how much was their interpretation, and how much was their degree of interest, and we realized it didn’t matter,” says Orwick. “We just wanted them to have fun and paint and be expressive. Enjoy art. We were leaving a lot of supplies behind in each place so they could continue to do it.”
Elena was home-schooled (away from home) for a year, and although she had an amazing experience, she did say she missed her friends. She says it was worth it, even if it was a little long to be away. “It showed me that the world was really different than my home,” Elena says. “Different colors and languages, and different kinds of people. It was different in every place. One of my favorite parts was in India. The kids were so nice and so sweet; they came in on a holiday to do the art project. We thought 20 kids would be there, we had supplies for 40 and it ended up being 50 kids. They were tearing paper in half so everyone could paint, and it was amazing to see how they shared. I learned more about the world than you can in a textbook. I think it was an amazing experience to have, and it’s really important to have your own experiences, not just reading about others’ experiences.”
And Michael Orwick’s experience? He enjoyed seeing the world with his family, and he gathered a lot of reference material. On the trip, Orwick tried to keep his painting sessions from severely impacting his time with Elena and his wife, Gaby. “I learned to work faster because I didn’t want to cut into my family time,” he says. “I would wake up early and get a painting or two done before they woke up. By the end of the trip I was getting better about thinking of the paintings as notes—a memory, not a finished painting. The studies were about how I felt about the place, how it was affecting me.”
Orwick is just about ready to make some studio paintings based on his photos, studies, and memories. Just about. “Everyone wanted to talk about our trip as soon as we got home, but it was hard to talk about it in the beginning,” he says. “Now it’s been two months and I can see it a lot more clearly. We’ve been looking back through the photos and thinking, ‘god, what a great trip. I’d like to do that some time!'” he says with a laugh. “Even though it was 12 months, it was all just so new and usually beautiful that it went by so fast.”
“Now we have 90,000 photographs to go through.”