Michael Parenteau

Art doesn't pay the bills, or does it?

Art doesn't pay the bills, or does it?
March 4, 2018
Portland, OR

Michael Parenteau is an artist, a designer, a developer, and a dad. Hear him talk about creativity, passion for learning, and how an art education can lead to some pretty unexpected places.


To record this episode, I visited Michael in his home in Portland, Oregon.

We are sitting in the backyard cottage, which is Michael’s office and his art studio. Around us, on the walls, are paintings he created over the last couple of decades. You can see the history here and how one’s style and feelings and priorities were changing with each passing year.

As we are talking, the room is slowly filling up with a sweet smell of beef and a faint fragrance of firewood, from the smoker that has been running in the backyard. Mmm… it’s so delicious. The threes and the passage way outside are decorated with Christmas lights, and Michael’s friend is setting up a wood-fired pizza over for the upcoming party. The setting just couldn’t get any more Portland than this.

Growing up as an artist

Michael is a rad human being, a designer and a career artists who has been able to sustain his living and raise a child as an artist. Michael’s grandma had always told him to do business, or maybe be a doctor, go into finance, and otherwise do something where the money is. “Food on the table, shirt on your back, roof over your head” - was the family mantra and what being successful meant growing up. At the same time, she was sending him art and supplies for Christmas, fueling his desire to be creative. Grandma liked him being happy and she was doing it to make him happy. At the same time, Michael’s mom, the oldest of 8 children, was very supportive of him doing art. When his daughter was born, making actual money became a concern and he was wondering if he should do something that would make more, like architecture. He asked his uncle, the most successful guy he knew, and uncle’s advice was this: 

“The money will come if keep doing what you are passionate about.”

Michael’s first guidance councilor in high school purchase his first painting, which was incredibly inspiring. Another human, an adult, someone who was working to make money, gave Michael money for the thing that he made. How awesome? People were telling Michael that he’d never make any money with art, and yet he was only 15 and he had just made money with that exact thing!

Parenting vs. Being Parented : What’s the differential between those two paths?

Michael wants to get to know his daughter well enough to know when she finds something that she loves to do. School and education, everyone wants their kids to do that, but that’s not the end all be all. What do you want to get out of school anyway? To be inspired, to be thrilled and motivated to learn - that should be the foundation which will enable our kids to make the most out of the limited time available to them.

If you, as a parent, think that it is your job to tell your child how to do things, think again. Your job is to be supportive and to get out of the way. -Kirill

Of course it’s easy to attach yourself to a certain idea of what your child should be doing, especially as the kid’s getting older and becoming a teenager. Different emotions and behaviors start to happen, communication gets harder, the range of choices for kids opens up. It’s different from what your kid’s like at early ages, and it feels like becoming a parent all over again. In fact, you kind of have to remember to chill and ask yourself whether you’re working on your kid or yourself as a parent. Your kid will keep learning and doing her thing, but as a dad you need to figure out how yo fit into this picture.

How to get your kid to be more open to other human beings?

While going out for many years, Michael had encouraged his daughter to talk to the waiter and order her own food. For a while that meant that she’d ask him or her mother to order, but over time she’s learned to acknowledge the waiter. This way you’re not making her do anything, but you set her up for success to discover this ability on her own.

Learning to achieve the impossible

Michael’s daughter came to her dad and asked him if they could climb Mt. St. Helen’s for her 10s birthday. He didn’t want to say no, but honestly, he couldn’t even say for sure if he could climb a mountain. Instead, they decided to see what it would take do it. Started looking at guide books, trail logs, mountain details … learning about the gear, the terrain, the timing, passes and permits, …etc. It turned into a group lesson.

At the end of the day, they went. The first time it didn’t work out due to conditions, but that didn’t stop them. Getting up to the ridge line was a good climb just in itself, a little taste of what the experience could be like, and gave Michael a confidence that even though she’s only 10, his daughter could do it. So, literally the next week, they were back on the mountain!

[listen to the podcast for the whole story]

The climb was hard, really hard, plenty of people told them to go back, but once they saw the top, little steps at a time, they powered through and they got all the way.  Once a little kid has experience the physically difficult climb, now she’s got a much higher bar for “difficult.”

She also now knows that she can do anything, all she’s got to do is to figure it all out. Just watch videos, read books, do your pre-requisites and you will succeed. Perseverance and the desire to finish what you started is what you need to win.

What if your child is bored?

As an adult, there are a lot of things you have to do , like doing work to pay the bills. But as a child, what’s the motivation to do what you do?

Michael may not even notice, but he is quite amazing at enabling the space that enables creativity, a safe space where self-expression, discussion, feelings and emotions, are all acceptable. Life is complex and being able to have a conversation is important.

This is something Michael had in art school - all the tools and supplies available 24/7 for students to play, guided by respectful humans. How can you as a father figure out and create the same experience for your child, give freedom to explore, specifically for the things that are important and interesting to your children?

Michael Parenteau Bicycle Doodles

Is it okay for growing adults to have no idea what they want to do?

Michael is a digital designer who became awesome at his work before he’s gained the ability to process information and ask the right questions. Going to school for fine arts allowed him to learn how to collaborate with people and to come up with a way of working with other people.

Compassion and ability to explore is what makes Michael a great designer. Your colors , lines and shapes and materials, all of those are concepts that can be mapped and put together in order to solve complex problems. Hanging out in a school of fine arts can give you everything to come up with a way of working.

When you paint, you may have an idea of what you want to paint, but at the end it doesn’t end up the way you imagine. It can be frustrating, or it can be great because it morphed into something better. Likewise, you can start and not know what you want to paint, but in the process of play and experimentation, you end up with something fascinating. Sometimes you don’t even look at the canvas, and yet wonderful things happen.

It’s okay to be where you are, and it’s okay to move somewhere else. Both paths are totally okay, you pick what is best for you right now. Make something, try it out, if you like it, try it again. Whatever you learn and acquire along the way will make you a better person, a better creative.

Michael Parenteau Doodles

Advice for the starving artists with kids

Don’t stop making art, man. It’s hard, sure, but by making art you will retain your skill and it will be there to help you along the way. Having a kid is a ridiculously motivating. Believing in yourself and your skill of making art is another.  Surround yourself with people who will encourage you. Also, go outside and get some fresh air.

Show Notes:

Michael Parenteau - The starving artist. Michele Russo — The other starving artist :) A famous Portland artist who got extremely motivated to turn art into money when he had a child. Mount St. Helens - An active volcano which Michael and his daughter summited, when she was 10. It was all her idea.

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