We had the good fortune of connecting with Michael Janis and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Michael, how do you think about risk?
I came to art later in life. I wanted to be an artist from an early age, but when looking at colleges and career choices, my parents were adamant –being an artist was too risky. So, I studied architecture – it seemed the safe choice, and was still in the arts realm. I went out into the big world as an architect, ready to design away. I soon found out that architecture is not centered on design, rather seemed to focus more on contracts, safety codes, construction schedules, and budgets. And many meetings reviewing status. For twenty years I worked like this – involved in some great projects and had some designs that were very satisfying.
but I always wanted something…different. I always felt trapped working in jobs for different architecture firms. I continued doing what I thought I was supposed to be doing and told myself I should be satisfied with a nice, safe career, and if I could “wait it out” a little longer, better things will come along. While designing architectural statement building lobbies, I began incorporating architectural glass. The handmade castings were exciting and always different. The artists that made the glass invited me to their studio to see how the artwork was made … and I was hooked. I made the decision to change everything in my life, moved thousands of miles away to a city I never visited and change careers. With no connections on the East Coast, I floundered a bit as I tried to get my bearings on what re-educating in glass making would be. I went from Baltimore to Washington, DC looking for glass centers that I could be part of, with no previous experience or training. I found myself at the Washington Glass School in Washington, DC, and began taking classes, later becoming a teaching assistant, then instructor, then in 2005, one of the Co-Directors. In taking risk, I found my artistic voice. In 20012, I became a Fulbright Scholar for my glass artwork, and went to the University of Sunderland and the National Glass Centre in the UK, where I became an artist-in-residence at the Institute for International Research in Glass (IIRG). My background as an architect remained a strong asset, I was able to draw on that history for both providing me disciplined process and as allowing my studio strong qualifications in creating large scale public art projects. Our glass studio created the sculpted glass doors for the Library of Congress Adams Building. A new world opened up for me after I left my safe zone. Sometimes there are low points, to be sure, but now I feel the confidence to handle the obstacles and challenges that arise. Better things don’t just fall into our laps. They will actually get worse over time, especially if one doesn’t do anything to change course. I’ve learned that even if one doesn’t feel ready quite yet, take the plunge. Trust in your ability to handle whatever comes your way. After all, you’ve been doing it every day of your life up to this point.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
The challenge of taking traditional craft into the contemporary artworld. Glass is a seemingly untamable medium, continually floating in the lingering discourse between Art and Craft. For those outside the Art world: if something can be used for a purpose (for instance a bowl) it’s often considered a work of Craft, and if it not, it can be considered a work of Art. Since the start of the Studio Glass Movement, in the 1960’s in the United States, glass artists have worked the medium to communicate their concepts. While some artists continue to reflect the deep history of glass with traditional techniques, I explore contemporary art rather than craft production. I make my signature glass powder drawings by sifting finely crushed colored glass onto sheets of flat glass. By scraping and scratching the powder with an X-acto knife or a rubber tipped shaper, I create incredibly detailed imagery. I have an almost obsessive focus that served me well when I was an architect, and now allows me to sit for hours maneuvering frit powder into intricate forms that populate my narratives. I like engaging others with what I make, and incorporating both abstract and representational forms gives me the ability to tell stories and make the artwork something not just by me, but of me.
At the core of my artwork is pure portraiture, but great focus on the disharmony of the self and perception. Pressures from society and the toll it takes on one’s emotional state are featured and the familiar is fractured and distorted by outside influence.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
The Nation’s Capital certainly doesn’t lack for beautiful houses of worship. There’s the Washington National Cathedral and North America’s largest Roman Catholic Church, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. But for a quiet spot that is far off the tourist track, I’d suggest a day at D.C.’s Franciscan Monastery. The site, in a quiet residential area 3 miles from the Nation’s Capital, has beautiful architecture. Forty acres of gardens surround the church to provide an oasis of serenity for pilgrims and others seeking a respite for meditation, as well as place of natural beauty. The gardens are renowned for the formal rose beds, and there is a vegetable garden where 8,000 pounds of food is grown every year to donate to parish food pantries and non-profits. You can also visit the underground catacombs, inspired by original burial sites for early Christians in Ancient Rome and replicated here in DC. The monastery also offers retreat experiences at the hermitage, a peaceful, one-room urban retreat for one person located on the monastery’s 42-acre grounds. The simple, yet sleek, hermitage was designed by architecture and design students from nearby Catholic University.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
Shoutout to artist Tim Tate. I came to become an artist. I had taken a huge career change with no safety net – just picked up and moved to Washington, DC. I wandered into the Washington Glass School, and met Tim Tate, one of the Co-Founders. As my education in glass as a sculptural medium progressed, Tim has helped my career at many key moments, getting me into courses at Penland School of Craft and at Haystack Mountain. He also had me work at the Washington Glass School, first as an assistant, later instructor, and in 2005 a Co-Director. He challenged and pushed me into many events, productions and opportunities, and was the one who suggested I apply to be a Fulbright Scholar – as he was, and we both were named Fulbright Scholars. We recently began creating a series of large scale glass mural collaborations – and it is rewarding to have a business partner, arts collaborator, friend, brother all rolled into one.