Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute | About RPI | Academics & Research | Student Life | Admissions | News & Information
* *

Oatman and students

Pictured: Michael Oatman (with viewfinder) and Falling Anvil students (l-r) Erin Cusker '06, Matthew Fickett '06, Alan Okey, Stephanie Cramer '06, Jenna Beltram '06, Craig Hoffman '06, and Moniera Buck '06.

A visitor need only look around his studio in downtown Troy to see that Oatman—a renowned collage and installation artist whose work has been exhibited at museums and galleries around the globe—draws inspiration from nearly everything he encounters. The space is filled with a wide range of obscure objects that seemingly have no business residing side by side. Upon further inspection it becomes apparent that the artist has meticulously organized the chaos of the space.

Rows of bookshelves line the walls, home to hundreds of dated manuals, reference materials, encyclopedias, and children’s books from which Oatman culls thousands of images for his collages. Clipped images yet to be used sit in labeled folders and filing cabinets strewn about the studio. Some files are plainly named for the contents inside—Diving Equipment, Tools, Food (Packaged), Beverages, Birds, Medium-sized Mammals. Others have more enigmatic names, like the file titled Keeping an Eye (Ear) on The Sky, which holds astronomy-related images.

Oatman compares his work collecting images to “a dowser looking for water—only I dowse images and objects. Very often I’ll be looking for something in particular and then instead of finding what I had in mind, I’ll find something completely different, and it becomes apparent that it’s what I really wanted—and didn’t even know existed. When I work it seems I find what I need, not always what I want.”

Using only pictures from books published between the 1940s and the 1970s because of their similar image qualities, Oatman’s collages often leave viewers confused as to the genre of his work. “I can hear them asking ‘what is it exactly... is it a print... is it a computer-generated image?’”

In fact, Oatman understands the initial confusion. “I differ from a lot of collage artists who take things and tear them and rough them up and use collage in a painterly way, focusing on where there is a jarring difference,” he says. “My things are not painterly—they are as precise as scientific illustrations. In my mind I focus on where there’s a shocking sameness. I want you to look at this and be confronted by the image. If it’s important to you that it’s a collage, that’s going to come later.”

Oatman’s Falling Anvil Studios, named for the collection of 40 anvils he’s amassed over the years, swells with objects and curios that many times make their way into his collages. Inspiration usually comes from his personal experiences and observations. “I read a lot, and I listen a lot, too. I write stuff down and sometimes it sits for years before I do anything with it,” Oatman says.

An artwork centered on the giant image of a hand is beginning to take shape in the far corner of the loft. A collection of images—prehistoric tools, rocks, fossils, and gemstones—scatter from the hand onto the blank black background of a collage not yet fully contrived.


“Anaximander”, 2002, collage on paper with 40 framed micro-collages, 55 x 75 inches overall.

“ ‘Appleseed,’ ” Oatman says, pointing to the work in progress. “It’s a four-panel collage, almost like a series of film stills. I’m recreating Johnny Appleseed’s hand spreading seed, but in this case he’s casting artifacts as we move backward toward geologic time.”

Oatman describes the piece as “an image that is looking at the confusion of science and religious belief, and the ways many of us go back and forth between those things but embrace them all at once. I like the idea of being a political cartoonist of the time using a different, more ambiguous media,” he says. “If I can create an image that is powerfully contradictory, then hopefully people will look at the time that they are in, in another way.”

“When you look at any piece of Michael Oatman’s work, you quickly recognize that he is an artist of extraordinary talent, but that’s just for starters,” says Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Kennedy. “The range of his imagination dazzles. He is a relentless seeker after what is new, and ‘new’ to Michael means a wrenching transformation of any expectations you might have based on whatever you know of his previous work. He is a dogged realist in his detail, but a surrealist in his conceptions; and the fusion has given us a body of work that is bountifully diverse and original.” 

Discovering the artist in the architect
Named the “best local artist of 2005” by Metroland, a Capital Region newsweekly, and praised by the Albany Times Union for producing “some of the most ambitious, challenging work on the art scene,” Oatman has also gained acclaim for his dedication to his students in the classroom, where he challenges young architects to reflect on who they are as students, architects, and individuals, and to incorporate aspects of themselves into design.

“It’s interesting being the artist in the architecture department. It took me a long time to realize I didn’t have to tiptoe around with my interests,” says Oatman. “Yes, I have a different skill set than my colleagues, but it’s a necessary skill set.”


“Blanket”, 2002, collage and spray paint on paper (incorporates over 200 images), 100 x 100 inches.

Oatman sees his role as encouraging students to figure out what interests and motivates them. “That’s going to make them more successful in thesis, and it’s going to make them more interesting as people. Increasingly my role has become about guiding young people toward being able to say ‘I have an interest, and my interest is this,’” he says.

“What I love about teaching undergrads is that I can re-educate them, in a way, to stop worrying about a right or a wrong answer, the popular culture, the common voice. My job is to get them to look at things from as many different ways as possible, on the way to looking at them personally—and I don’t think you figure out what personal is for a while, you have to be guided through different modes of seeing.”

Architecture Dean Alan Balfour praises Oatman’s unique contribution to the Greene Building. “Michael is a wonderful civilizing presence in the school. He nurtures and encourages each student’s creativity, often in surprising ways, and draws them into the world of art beyond architecture,” Balfour says. “His role reminds me of artists such as Edward Millman, Don Mochon, and the internationally admired George Rickey, who were members of the architecture faculty in the ’50s and ’60s. They are the names still mentioned when alumni reminisce.”

Oatman teaches the fundamentals of drawing and space, providing students with crucial skills for their architecture careers. But he takes his teaching role a step further to offer students opportunities to work on his projects. Recently he involved students from his Extreme Drawing class—a class he developed that challenges students to use unconventional methods to create collaborative works at extreme scales, inspired by the phenomenon of extreme sports—in a proposal he’s working on for the MASS MoCA museum in North Adams, Mass.

* *
Rensselaer Home Page | AlumServ Home Page

Feature Articles | President's View | At Rensselaer | Class Notes Features
Making a Difference | Rensselaer Milestones | Staying Connected | In Memoriam
Back Issues

© 2006 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. All rights reserved worldwide.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), 110 8th St., Troy, NY 12180. (518) 276-6000