"Vibe Realm" Exhibition: Interview with Michael Kalmbach

Michael Kalmbach received his MFA at the University of Delaware in 2008. Shortly after graduation he accepted a position at the Delaware College of Art & Design, and founded the New Wilmington Art Association, an organization that organized exhibitions of contemporary art in Wilmington’s vacant retail spaces from August 2008 to April 2013. This work led to Michael’s involvement with the Chris White Community Development Corporation, which developed the 23-unit artist live/work space, Shipley Lofts. Kalmbach served the CWCDC as Board Chairman from 2013-2016. In June 2011 he accepted a contract with the State’s Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health to develop and direct an art program in downtown Wilmington. The Creative Vision Factory has been open since December of 2011, and fosters the creative potential of individuals on the behavioral health spectrum in a studio art environment that cultivates integration with the community through a program of exhibitions, workshops, and communal work space. 

Michael lives in Newark, Delaware with his beautiful French Teacher wife Rebecca, his professional Xbox player son Thurman, and his genius 5 year old daughter Maeve.


Vibe Realm, opens at the Chris White Gallery on April 6th and runs through April 27th.


Tell us about your academic and artistic background. When did you initially become interested in abstract work? 

I received my MFA in 2008 from the University of Delaware. In 2005, I was in a post-bacc program at Virginia Commonwealth University that proved to be formative. My undergraduate degree is from one of the best party schools in the nation, Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, where I received a BA in Studio Art in 2003. Bloomsburg is also the alma mater of another Western Pennsylvania native, the famous Rebecca Morgan (check out her work!).

I can’t remember a time where I was not interested in abstraction—there was something magical about the old Art in Americas in Mr. Minnich’s art room at Somerset Area High School. Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly were early favorites, and I continue to mine them to this day.


What is your new series about and how do you feel your work has evolved over the past few years?

This latest series has me going back to some of the concerns I had when I first started painting at 16. In those early hard-edge works I was obsessed with trying to eliminate evidence of the hand, I remember a brush-stroke, a hair, or a speck of dust had the power to ruin my whole day. In these new works, I have 20 years of experience in my corner, but they are also powered by the small insight that texture is forgiving. Three layers of gesso builds the ground in these paintings and it’s applied with a swirling brushstroke that reminds me of plaster ceilings. I remember being spaced out at my grandmother’s place in town, wondering what it would be like if all the furniture were on the ceiling—the texture in these pieces is somehow communing with that little kid and memories of my grandmother. The forms however are drawn from the Nintendo game, Excitebike. If you’re familiar with the game, imagine hovering over the ramps and getting an aerial view of the racetracks. This form has captured my imagination for a little over a year, and is just now starting to evolve into new forms, all of which give me a structure to think about my primary concern, color.

How do you feel your local community in Wilmington affects your studio practice?

I’ve been working in Wilmington for ten years now, and it has been a distinct pleasure to grow with the community. Most folks leaving the UD MFA program don’t stick around, so the scene here is largely artists who are from Delaware and the practitioners have a diverse range of experience and education. I find this to be incredibly refreshing, at times the MFA-Illuminati can be downright cynical. I’ve also been out of school for a while, so perhaps what I’m experiencing is the freedom of not having to defend every single decision. My job at the Creative Vision Factory also makes it a hell of a lot easier to put things in perspective—life is too tragic and precious to take artmaking too seriously.


How do you design your schedule and make time for painting, family responsibilities, and your work at the Creative Vision Factory? 

Our whole approach at the CVF is to utilize creative practice as a wellness strategy. Painting has always served that purpose for me, and the maintenance of a daily practice is reinforced by my work at the CVF. The family balance was a lot more difficult when my kids were younger. They are now at the age where they love to spend time with me in the studio. My son is even lobbying for some space in my upcoming show at the Chris White Gallery. My new studio schedule is really the creation of my wife. As a French teacher, she leaves for school at an ungodly hour, and she’s usually asleep by 9:30. I used to then wander down to the studio and work until midnight, but this year it dawned on me that I could get the same amount of time in if I simply got up when she does, so Monday through Friday, I’m moving the needle in the studio from 5:00AM to 7:00AM. I spend a lot of time painting on the weekends, and catastrophic weather always helps—I’ve been keeping my fingers crossed for one more snow storm!

What is the best piece of advice you received that has helped you in your art career so far?

I don’t know if I ever received any solid advice for my “art career”—there are times that I wish I had a commanding figure in my life that would have forced me to go to law school, so I would be better situated to enter into politics (a trajectory that I’m actually interested in).  A fellow board member of Shipley Artists’ Lofts once dropped this gem on me, “under promise and over deliver”. At the time, I was definitely promising folks the world as a general organizing strategy—this piece of advice really helped me see and clearly define my own limitations, but at the same time, I’m committed to following through and doing whatever I can to support another artist. In my own experience, I ran into plenty of people who were quick to tell me how impossible a life in the arts was—I always wanted to be the opposite of that—I wanted to be the person who actually encouraged the idea.

Who are your biggest influences and mentors? 

The Founder of AS220, Bert Crenca, is sort of like my spirit animal when it comes to my work in Wilmington. The community that he created in Providence is so genuine and so structural—it amazes me that art programs across the country are not trying to recreate his model all over the country. I also put Rick Lowe of Project Row Houses on a giant pedestal. More of us need to be responsive to structural inequality—the same creativity and innovation that flows in the studio has to make its way into the world—supportive economic and social infrastructures are things that can be made—artists ought to make them!

When it comes to my studio practice, I definitely hope to be a combination of Bob Straight and Peter Williams when I grow up. Those two guys are painters’ painters and I’m continually inspired by their generosity and productivity. Lately I have found myself deeply motivated to please two other local painters whose enthusiasm and energy are contagious, Alim Smith and Rick Hidalgo. Creative Vision Factory artist, Knicoma Frederick is also my daily shot in the arm—he’s the hardest working artist that I know, his vision is so singular and authentic, and his belief in the power and efficacy of art has resurrected me on more than one occasion. 

What's next for you and what should we be on the lookout for?

My solo exhibition, Vibe Realm, opens at the Chris White Gallery on April 6th and runs through April 27th. With four more panels to finish as I write this, nothing else is really on my radar. One thing to keep an eye on though, is that I was nominated for a United States Artist Fellowship this year. United States Artists have funded artists in 49 States plus Puerto Rico, but they have yet to fund an artist from Delaware. I am hoping to break the streak this year, so light a candle for me.