During the most difficult period of his life, when he wasn't sure how he would go on, Mike Schuster turned to art.
His wife, Christine, had just passed away, leaving Schuster as a young widower trying to raise two boys, ages 10 and 12, while keeping everything together. That first year without her passed as if in a haze, he said, attempting to balance work and the household. He noticed he was becoming short-tempered — and stressed.
"I was trying to be a solo parent, keep everything under control. How the boys and I made it through that …" Schuster said, trailing off. "I needed to slow down and take some time for myself."
So he returned to a passion he had as a young kid growing up in New York City. Two years ago, Schuster, 51, signed up for an art class at Mt. Hood Community College (MHCC). It turned out to be the medicine he needed to move on with his life.
"It continues to be a good outlet for me," he said.
The Community Education class at MHCC — ART 4FP "Exploring 2D Art for Fun and Practice" — instructs students in large collage scenes using acrylic paints and newspaper clippings
Schuster's pieces aren't politically charged and don't tackle social issues. Rather he is drawn to shapes and composition. The content of the news clippings and type isn't important to Schuster — he looks for text that creates a contrast with the splashes of color. He focuses on texture and perspective in the piece.
He paints scenes from photographs he finds in sources like National Geographic magazine and the internet. Usually one piece takes Schuster between 10 to 12 hours to complete. His studio is his kitchen table, which is covered with news clippings and paint. His current piece sits in the middle, surrounded by artistic chaos.
"I love art because it gets a part of your brain working that otherwise remains dormant," he said.
House of art
Growing up in New York, Schuster loved art. His parents had original pieces hanging in their home, which inspired him to create his own masterpieces.
His older sister was also creative and liked to draw with cartoons. Making comics became an early passion for Schuster. He and a friend would make different funny episodes starring characters they invented.
In high school, Schuster became more serious in his pursuit of art. There was a program in his school where students could explore a wide range of topics, allowing him to try out different mediums.
"I thought the only way I would get into college was through art," he said.
He was accepted into Purchase College, a state university in New York, and got a degree in art and design. He enjoyed graphic design, and pursued a career in that after graduating.
"I was always geared toward graphic design because I knew if I wanted to do art as a profession I would need something practical," he said.
It was in college that Schuster met Christine, his girlfriend and future wife. The pair loved to travel, once going on a hitchhiking summer road trip from Pennsylvania to Missouri.
"We loved camping and hiking, and had a plan to move out west after college," Schuster said.
Initially the plan was to move to Alaska, but eventually the couple — after hearing how beautiful the state was — decided on Oregon. So they relocated to Gresham while still in their 20s and never looked back.
Working in landscaping, Schuster soon started his own business, Orient Drive Landscaping.
"I realized I had the life experience and artistic eye for landscape design," he said, "so it was a good fit for me."
For a long period of his life, Schuster wasn't doing much painting.
Between his job and raising a family, art got pushed to the backburner for Schuster. Priorities shifted. And when Christine passed away three years ago, the thought of sitting down for art seemed even more like a ridiculous prospect.
Then he found the class.
"Mike has an innate ability to see beyond what others do for how he opts to interpret and execute his scenes," said teacher Ketty Miller. "He is an eager participant and is helpful and supportive to the others in class."
All of the people who are in the class work with a different medium. Each week there is an optional theme. Schuster likes to come prepared. He does a thumbnail sketch of what he plans to do, then draws it again slightly larger to serve as a guideline so he can expand it once more to his final canvas size while still maintaining perspective.
"His work is exemplary, current, masterful and tells a story," Miller said. "It has been my pleasure to know and work with him the last few years."
Schuster, who now lives in Boring, doesn't sell his pieces, instead keeping them for himself to enjoy.
His home is filled with his artwork, on the walls and tucked away in different corners, adding splashes of bright colors throughout the rooms. Eventually he is going to run out of space, and he admitted he will have to find a new system of storing his work.
For about the past year, he has displayed his work in the Gresham Visual Arts Gallery at City Hall, 1333 N.W. Eastman Parkway. He currently has a painting up as part of the "Mortal Loveliness" display.
"My advice for artists is to just do it, give it a try," Schuster said. "People get an idea that they aren't artistic, but that's not true.
"Everyone has something to say or contribute," he added, "but unless you put it down on a canvas it will never be out there."
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