The Madison-based artist uses drawings and coloring books to challenge people to look within.
For the self-taught artist Michael Ward, creating vivid and colorful pen and pencil drawings means reflecting about his inner life. That is why he created the concept of Obsurd art, which is about questioning yourself and finding deeper truths through introspection.
To explain why art is such an essential means of communication for Ward, the Madison-based artist goes back in time to when he was a newborn in New York. Just a few days after it began, his life abruptly and drastically changed.
“On the way going home from the hospital [at] five days old, I guess my father ran a red light,” Ward says. “The car that was coming [the other way] didn’t stop and my body crashed out. I hit the window and it shattered. I [now] have a brain injury. I’ve got only one side of my brain and the left side of my body is a lot weaker than my right side.”
Doctors diagnosed Ward with cerebral palsy, a condition in which brain damage impairs muscle coordination.
“I was always the person that was struggling. I felt that the world saw me, but my voice was not being heard,” Ward says. “My grandmother and my mama told me: these are little things that will help you be who you are.”
Both his grandmother and mother’s support from a young age have greatly shaped Ward as a person and artist. His grandmother constantly helped him find his strength while his mother encouraged him to use art as a tool to communicate.
“My grandma told me: you are special because you walk with your disability,” Ward says. “I’m faced with my disability every day. It’s like a force: get up, breathe, stick my chest up, and be the best I can.”
Ward found his passion for art when he was only three years old. Both of his parents are artists and when he was a child he would trace over his mother’s drawings.
In tracing these drawings, he discovered art served as a tool for him to express himself to people when he was struggling to make himself understood through the more conventional means of communication most of us take for granted.
“This was my language. The pen, paper, and I have been best friends for a long, long, long time. We’ve never been divorced,” Ward says. “I was going to get messages out somehow, some way, and the art just stuck with me. [Through art] I could make someone feel good without saying words.”
The lack of words became dancing lines that Ward drew with pen on paper, letting his feelings guide him. The work he now creates as an adult fuses an unmistakable element of play and mischief with a profound sense of purpose.
“I’m here for a reason. Not just to be Michael. I’m here to do something that’s greater than me. That’s greater than my disability,” Ward says. “That’s what made me just draw more. It helped me draw with my unconscious and have no fear.”
Understanding his feelings and expressing them through art led him to dive deep into his concept of Obsurd.
“My art tells a story. Everything that I do is called Obsurd. Obsurd means to be questioned,” Ward says. “The only person that has the answer is you. It’s how you look at it. You can take the experience and live with it in your own means.”
Ward also began channeling this concept into coloring books both for children and adults, filling them with characters meant to inspire and challenge. In one of these books, Monster On The Surfaces, where Ward gives the reader/colorer an immersive experience.
On each page of Monster On The Surfaces, Ward outlines his characters—each of them a funny but unsettling blend of human, machine, and cryptid—in black. Readers have the choice to color in the pages however they desire, but the experience does not end there. Ward’s characters are staring at you and making you wonder about what they are thinking.
Ward accompanies the drawings with statements and questions that hint at what he actually wants you to reflect on “Are you the dreamer in the dream or are you in someone else’s dream?” he asks on one page, under a pair of uncanny figures whose exact nature is hard to pin down.
Are you really living your dream? Keep coloring to find out and continue flipping the pages. You land on page seven to two broad-headed, almost owl-like characters labeled “Up” and “Down.” They’re looking straight into your eyes with serious expressions, and Ward helps them burrow into your mind with a caption that reads: “Start looking within, trust me the answer to all your questions are inside you.”
Do you have the answers or are you in a reflexive state of mind? Perhaps Ward wants to keep you a bit off-balance, but ultimately he’s trying to get across a positive message. These whimsical, unclassifiable characters are meant to help people find the strength to define themselves. As that caption above suggests, Ward is a deep believer in the idea that people have the answers to all their questions within them. His own answers are inextricably bound up in the practice of art.
His drawings outside of the coloring-book pages rely heavily on vivid and bright greens, reds, yellows, and blues to create strong contrasts and riotous bursts of energy. These colors reflect both what he’s feeling in the moment and correlate with the running themes in Ward’s art. His favorite is light blue.
“[Light blue is] infinity. It’s like the sky. Skies are the limit. It’s soft, it’s light, and it’s just easy to navigate through,” Ward says. “You could navigate through sky blue rather than a darker color that just has you stuck. Sky blue is me.”
These shades of light blue also tie in with Ward’s commitment to fearless creative freedom.
“We dress up in the style of art. Art is a signature. It’s a stamp that only you have. We walk up in a rhythm. We talk in a rhythm,” Ward says. “No matter how we look at it, we are all combined in a way that takes the form of our art, our style, and our craft.”
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