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ArtSplash: Flowers and moss enliven Mason's work

Cedar Mill artist will showcase, sell his mixed media work at Tualatin's ArtSplash Festival

TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Mixed media artist Michael Mason works at his studio on his newest landscape piece.When artist Michael Mason sees a flower, he doesn’t just see a flower. He sees his palette, brush and canvas.

Mason creates elaborate landscapes, intricate still lifes and hypnotic abstracts without a drop of paint or ink.

Instead, he uses the bounty of the earth, combining a botanist’s eye with a painter’s vision. Flowers and plants are the medium for his art.

In a filing cabinet at his Cedar Mill studio, he combed through a collection of dried specimens. Carnations, violets, hibiscus, hydrangeas and roses are some of the most common flowers he uses, but there’s also lily, kale, monkhood and poppies.TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Artist Michael Mason places bits of moss on his latest landscape.

Then there’s whole families of leaves, barks, mosses and grasses.

Mason collects flora and harvests their natural hues, shaping them into his ever-growing collection. He creates what the art world calls “floral collages,” using finely cut petals as his brushstrokes and layered pieces of plant material as blending sponges.

“I usually use almost all of the plant,” Mason said, including the stamen, petals, stems, pistil and leaves.

This weekend, Mason will be showcasing his art at Tualatin's ArtSplash festival. For the 21st year, the festival will give local artists a platform to show and sell their work, all while raising funds to support public arts in Tualatin.

Last year, Mason’s work won first place at the festival's Artist Awards. This year, he’s one of 10 artists who will have their own tent at the festival.

“There’s just something to organic colors that I like most,” said Mason, who looks for multicolored flowers in particular. “And then they start to break down.”

Capturing color before nature claims it is how Mason creates his masterpieces.

“That’s hydrangeas in the background for the sky,” he said, pointing to a finished piece that’s been preserved as a print. “And with the trees, that’s just different kinds of moss. I’m trying to get some shadowing in there.”

Most of materials are found in Oregon. Occasionally, he looks elsewhere for a rare hue.

For years, Mason came by a bounty of flowers because he sold them.

In an old greenhouse on his parents’ property, Mason looked at a few beds of trillium, one of the main flowers he sold. Today, the greenhouse is in a state of disrepair.

For the last eight years, Mason’s life has been about taking care of other people rather than plants. In 2008, Mason’s wife Pamela was diagnosed with cancer.

Mason said he fell apart at the feet of her slowly worsening illness, regularly losing his keys and wallet, his mind in a daze.

“I was a mess,” he said.

And yet, it was around the time his wife became sick that Mason delved into his most laborious work: the large, intricate floral collages that fill his studio to this day.TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Michael Mason's art consists of intricately-placed pieces of flowers.

“People were like, ‘Doesn’t this work make you crazy?’ And I was like, ‘It’s the one thing that was keeping me sane,’” said Mason, who said his life spun out of control during those years.

Art, he said, was his one escape.

“I read somewhere that great art is born from great suffering,” said Mason. “And I don’t know if any of this stuff is great, but I certainly suffered.”

His wife and his father both died in 2014. Since then, Mason has been working largely from a studio in his mother’s home, where he lives much of the time these days. Ever since Mason’s father died, he’s been his aging mother’s primary caregiver.

Mason was born in 1955 in the Portland area and has stayed here for much of his life. He knew from an early age that he wanted to be an artist.

“Art is the only thing I’ve ever been kind of good at,” said Mason.

He started his art career after his band, The Weevils, needed money to finance the purchase of new music equipment. So he started making and selling art and has never looked back.

Mason begins work by taking the flowers he works with and drying them out with a special white flour.

As he works, he sets a layered petal background for his pieces before moving on to the foreground.

“It’s sort of like making a pizza, you see,” said Mason. “I call the stuff on the foreground the toppings.”

Many years ago, he would regularly end up with a huge backlog of flowers after florists sent him their surplus. After Mother’s Day one year, a flower shop donated three shopping carts of tulips.

“I could never run out of flowers,” said Mason.TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Artist Michael Mason pulls out a piece of paper bark that he will use for a future project.

As Mason builds his collages, he uses a magnifying glass and light source to work in extremely fine detail, creating lifelike textures.

One of his trademarks, he said, is using the see-through skeletons of magnolia leaves that fall in his yard for shading and ornament.

Mason has perfected much of his process to yield the desired results.

When applying the floral pieces to the canvas, he uses as little glue as possible. He uses silver dollars, which he used to collect, to weigh pieces down during his work process.

But over the years, he’s learned to not get locked into ideas, to be flexible to “the way the material wants to go,” he said.

He pointed to a print of a forest standing in the wake of a fire, conifers stripped bare.

“I made that from a picture I snapped on Highway 22, driving to Bend to see a Ringo (Starr) concert,” said Mason.

Black petunias created the charred silhouettes of trees, with black ornamental grass, split fine and thin, added for texture. The sky is made of hydrangeas and moth-eaten hibiscus stands in for clouds.

“I need to get more of my stuff moth-eaten,” said Mason.

Soon, Mason will create a floral abstract themed around the decay and decomposition of autumn. He’s planning on using fungus, such as mushrooms, in the piece. The print that he’ll produce will join a seasonal collection he’s already begun. TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Artist Michael Mason uses flowers and plants as his medium.

For his spring piece, he’ll use oddly-shaped marijuana leaves given to him by a friend.

“They’re as green as anything,” said Mason.

In addition to landscapes and floral abstracts, much of Mason’s work depicts cats.

“We’ve always been cat people,” he said.

One of his breakthrough projects was an intricately shaded rendering of a friend’s tabby cat. He created the print for his friend before she passed away

Mason digitally prints his works because originals, which he keeps locked away, sealed with UV-resistant lamination, are subject to eventual damage and decay. In fact, when he goes to get prints laminated, he brings a repair kit in case things start to fall apart at the last moment.

Lately, he’s moved to printing his works on polished aluminum.

He also sells tiles, fabrics, coasters, greeting cards and postcards at his shows.

Mason has shown his work at venues such as Washington County Open Studios, Beaverton Vision Arts Showcase, Art Over Macleay Park and the White Bird Gallery in Cannon Beach, where he displayed a poster made from over a thousand hydrangea petals. It took him a month to glue the petals alone.

“It’s what I’m going to do, whether I have success or not. Success follows recognition. I’ve gotten some recognition, I’m just waiting for the success, I guess,” said Mason.

To some extent, his unique medium gives him an edge in the marketplace.

“It’s an odd niche I’ve found myself in,” said Mason. “I’m kind of in this bin called mixed media, just kind of miscellaneous you know, but even in the miscellaneous bin there’s no one doing what I’m doing, pretty much.”

These days, Mason’s full-time job is being a caregiver for his mother. For the last few years before her death, he was a caregiver for his wife.

“In the old days, I had no ideas and all the time in the world,” said Mason. “Now I have no time and nothing but ideas.”

Mason’s mother used to travel to London to trade seeds with other members of the Royal Horticultural Society.

His parents’ house, built in 1975, sits on four acres of forest off Cornell Road. Mason spent three summers clearing the property with his father, who was a surgeon.

“This used to be a real paradise of flowers,” said Mason, walking through the woods past Japanese maples surrounded by weeds.

Out here, he’s found all kinds of materials for his projects, from different types of mosses to a rare white flower called Indian Pipe, which was growing on a fungus on the north side of the garage.

“It’s overwhelming to take care of right now,” he said. “I’m going to stay here as long as Mom is here. After that, I’m not sure what’s going to happen.”

For some time, he’s thought of using his father’s microscope to zoom into single petals, uncovering another universe.

“You start staring into it, it’s like a satellite map,” he said. “You look at something and you think you see it, but the more you look, the more you see.”

Most recently, he’s spent a couple months working on adding a floral design to a guitar body. It’s made in honor of his wife, he said. He’s even preserved strands of her hair in the guitar.

“I’m calling the guitar ‘Pamela.’”