Photo by Matthew Desmond

Michael Cina

An interview with Ghostly Founder Sam Valenti IV

Michael Cina is an artist working in the fields of graphic design and painting. Having tried his hand at most every medium in his near 20-year career, Cina has resurfaced as a major force at the height of his creative powers.

Educated close to Dallas, Texas, Cina spent countless nights playing records in its reemerging dance music scene. The unorthodox approach to music publications and packaging that flourished in this period would prove to have a lasting influence on his work in design.

Cina began his design career in 1996, leaving college in pursuit of an advertising job in Minneapolis. At the time, he was one of a handful of designers who had begun posting new work and typefaces on the web. Within a couple of years, he had garnered the attention of numerous publications eager to feature his "personal" design work, a relatively new concept in the world of graphic design. He later expanded this personal vision to trueistrue.com, where the notion of art and design blurred into a virtual gallery of ideas.

As co-founder of the award-winning design studio, WeWorkForThem (established in the early 2000s), Cina was propelled to the forefront of America's design scene. While other design firms were closing their doors, his company flourished. YouWorkForThem followed shortly thereafter, becoming the preeminent design shop for typefaces and art/design books. Importing the world's best art and design books, Cina sought to further the field of graphic design, educating and inspiring countless professionals and enthusiasts.

Joining Ghostly International in late 2007, Cina fused his love of design, painting, and photography into an aesthetic whole, bringing a radical new visual perspective to the company. In 2010 Cina left YWFT to return to the world of commercial design, founding his own studio, Cina Associates. That same year, he entered a prolific period of artistic experimentation in painting and new creative processes that continues to this day.

Michael Cina lives in St. Paul and works in Minneapolis.

Photo by Matthew Desmond

[Sam Valenti] Something you said that has stuck with me was: "The future of art is artists." How has the role of the artist changed?

[Michael Cina] I feel that artists should have no boundaries when it comes to medium. If you look at the crew from the Bauhaus, they were working in every arts profession and excelling in them all. I think when you work like that, each medium you explore influences the other. It is an artist's role to use everything at his disposal to push thought and limits. I feel capitalism has changed that aspect of art. If you look at the difference between artists today and artists 70 years ago, you will see stark differences in their body of work. Artists used to be so robust in their interests and exploration, and that is what excites and inspires me. We are in an extremely pivotal time where the public is taking back art. This will be a huge shift for every aspect of "art."

[SV] We've entered an era where art is often disembodied from its maker. A result of Google Image Search and re-blogging becoming a craft in itself. Does the web signal the death of authorship?

[MC] I have a lot of thoughts on this. The Internet has created a level platform for people to share, and recent technology has made it more open than ever. Your voice is equal to anyone else's now and the rules for art and its boundaries are being completely rewritten.

Four months ago one of my images was featured on a multitude of blogs, but it was never credited and I never saw any traffic from it. Recently one of my paintings [Burning City, pictured at right] was featured on the art blog Mecene and it went viral--about 25,000 people "liked" and reblogged it from the tumblr platform alone, not to mention the other art and fashion blogs that picked it up. This was all done without a gallery's assistance or representation. Is this the death of authorship or is it reformation? All of this is so fascinating to me on so many levels. I think it is a new form of authorship that somewhat ties to how our society is starting to value information.

Photo by Matthew Desmond

[SV] Describe your early days in graphic design, as an occupation. Did it feel like business or a new kind of art?

[MC] When I got into graphic design, the baton was being ripped out of the past generation's hand. It was a silent takeover that went under the radar. A lot of people did not perceive the undercurrents of design in the late 90s on the web and unfortunately it was never documented. The Internet provided a free publishing platform to use however one wished. Previously the only format for design was print which cost thousands of dollars.

The Internet gave designers the freedom to make whatever they wanted, unconstrained by a client. So yes, it was a new art and we see the evolution of it today. People still don't know how to address the new wave of work going on.

[SV] What was the fundamental shift that moved you into painting?

[MC] It was simply the act of getting back into art again. At first it was awkward and foreign. When I began, I would stay up after my family went to sleep and just draw. It was great because I had no direction, no goals, no pressure... just doing new work. It felt so good.

Eventually fine art began calling me more and more and I would spend more time working on a piece. I was experimenting with different materials and the work was slowly coming together. I started painting again right at that point and it just clicked. It was at a really challenging point in my career, so that helped fuel the fire. I was in the process of starting my new studio, and more importantly, we were expecting a new child, along with a long list of other things. A lot of change was happening at that time.

Photo by Matthew Desmond

[SV] How does your new work relate to music (your passion for music)?

[MC] Every interest that you have manifests itself in different aspects of your life. Music plays a huge role in my daily life. I use it as a source of inspiration. Whatever job I am working on, I will find music that will complement it.

I enjoy music that embodies the creative struggle. You can't listen to someone like John Coltrane and not hear it. He was looking beyond the mundane; he was exploring. My work comes from that same struggle. I push myself harder than anyone could ever push me. I create more work than I could ever show on my own.

[SV] How did your work with us (Ghostly) begin? From what I remember, it was a very long engagement. We spoke a good deal and when we finally connected, both your work and our desire for bold new styles were coalescing.

[MC] It is hard to really pinpoint how it all began, it was really organic. I remember talking with you shortly after Ghostly began. I had some Ghostly releases and you just hit me up after a nudge from Will Calcutt. We exchanged emails and you sent me a big stack of records. A couple of years passed and you were stranded in Minneapolis, so I took you out to eat. Then, out of the blue, you contacted me because Ghostly needed some help on the Dabrye single for Get Dirty.

Looking back, the timing couldn't have been better. Ghostly was becoming a force to be reckoned with and I was starting in a new direction. We now feed off of each other and it's about as good of a working relationship as one could ever hope for.

Photo by Matthew Desmond

[SV] As a team, we've tried to think about music and art working in unison, not one serving the other. Art is art, so to speak (Will Calcutt/Boym Partner's Totem for Matthew Dear, for example), so how does one work in a conceptual realm without losing sight of pure feeling?

[MC] Thoughtful art is not easy to do. To me, I analyze the big picture. Is the form solid? Does it have a refined maturity? Is there thought involved? What does the artist's full body of work look like? What is his background and what is he trying to communicate? And so on.

In the end, work either communicates something to the viewer or not. That is the long and the short of it. Great work can do something without saying anything. It touches the heart and soul. You can look at an excellent Rothko in a book and dismiss it, but when you see one in person, and it doesn't touch you, you are dead.

[SV] How can we imagine the forward movement of art within the context of a commercialized culture?

[MC] If someone needs to make a living solely from art, they make decisions based on that tension and will usually gravitate toward a commercial outlet. Art can be a way for people to sincerely interpret the world around them and and how they interact with that world. I am able to do client work to support my explorations in the fine arts but a lot of people don't have that luxury. We are starting to see a tidal change where artists are moving beyond the traditional structure of the gallery. Artists are taking more risks and making things up out of lack of opportunities to communicate their ideas. There are a lot more questions than answers at this stage.

It has been an extremely exciting time to be an artist and a designer. A big change is germinating. There is a substantial shift in ideas and technology transpiring right now and it's great to be in the middle of it all.