A Life of Fulfilling Work

The artwork of Michael Van Hout

BY Elyse Kiel

Michael Van Hout working on a new painting at Wallace Park in May. Steve McMillan
Michael Van Hout working on a new painting at Wallace Park in May. Steve McMillan

There is a skill in finding the beauty in everyday surroundings. Walking the dog through the same park every week, the view out a workshop window, and the short walk from the car to the house can all blend into a mundane blur of green leaves, black pavement, and blue skies. We can completely ignore the artistic opportunities these moments hold. Moments that Michael Van Hout stunningly captures in his landscape paintings.

Van Hout is well-recognized for his wire and metal sculptures featured throughout Wilmington, including the schooling fish at the Fort Fisher Aquarium and the copper birds at Airlie Gardens. In the last five years, he has focused his artistic energy on oil paintings. He enjoys capturing the still-life scenes around downtown and at Acme Art Studios, where he has worked for the past 28 years.

Van Hout grew up in the 1960s and ’70s as one of 11 children in a self-titled “secondary hippie” home. His father was a West Point graduate, and his mother was a passionate caregiver and hobby folk-artist.

After falling in love with Henry Davis Thoreau and Walden in his early education days, Van Hout studied forestry at NC State University. He planned to spend his days among the trees and wildlife. However, this didn’t quite scratch the itch he was searching for as a vocation.

Wallace Park Cypress 1, 18 x 24 inches, oil on wood panel. “Painted on location near my house. A view that I have observed for many years.” — MVH

Van Hout dedicated himself to art by attending the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where he learned various studio art techniques. After graduating with a BFA, he was ready to make his way as an artist.

He started his career doing oil paintings and metal and wire sculptures. His sculptures took off after his first show at Saint John’s Museum of Art (now the Cameron Art Museum) in 1987.

Since then, Van Hout has been a full-time artist creating works in various mediums for galleries, exhibits, and commissions.

Today, he creates bright, colorful oil paintings, often traveling to Wallace Park off Market Street with his easel and supplies to paint for hours in the afternoon sun.

In Wallace Park Cypress 4, viewers can see the contrast of a vivid blue sky and the brilliant oranges and browns of the famous Wilmington cypress trees, complementing each other like sun and moon in this innovative expression.

Van Hout wants viewers to take note of the forms of his paintings through the contrast of color. Branches reach for the sky free from cloud coverage, the sturdy base of the trees planted firmly in the electric green grass, the leaves clinging to the topmost limbs that create triangular cutouts in the sky.

“Every year I would see these trees and I think to myself, ‘I’m going to paint them one day,’” says Van Hout. “It is intimidating because it is so beautiful, and the colors are incredibly bright.”

Conquering his hesitations, he began creating new pieces by sketching and planning the structure of the trees in the winter, then returning in late spring and working throughout early fall to add the details of leaves, grass, and other foreground and background details.

Van Hout’s favorite pieces are his works from the 1980s. In Pleasant Garden, one can see the flawless blending of shades of brown, blue, and green in the strong forms of the trees. The sly peak of a man-made structure in the left of the composition contrasts with the horizontal flow of the branches crisscrossing the sky, which is mostly shaded by stunning layers of green leaves.

There is a clear connection to Van Hout’s current and past works where form is the main focus and color is the component that helps viewers appreciate the often-missed impressions that everyday nature makes on our lives.

“Practice, practice, practice,” says Van Hout in his advice for aspiring artists. “You have to have a love of your craft and a love for what you do.”

Pleasant Garden, 36 x 36 inches, oil on canvas. “Painted in the ’80s after graduating from art school while residing on a cow farm outside Greensboro.”  — MVH

Passion can clearly be seen oozing from the oil paint in Van Hout’s creations. Art cannot be contained or explained in a bubble. While Van Hout’s work resembles Post-Impressionism, he makes the medium entirely his own, providing a glimpse into his mind and the way he sees the world around him.

To grasp the charm and elegance of one’s surroundings and capture it in paint is a gift, one that Van Hout is happy to share with us.

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