Loss and longing: the art of Michael Huey

Michael Huey photo by Willy Kristen

By Sarah Bearup-Neal
Sun contributor

The sixth in a year-long series of articles about local art, culture and creativity.

Michael Huey spent the first decade of his life in an enchanted kingdom: The Leelanau School and Camp Leelanau for Boys. Huey, 52, grew up here with his grandparents and great aunt, who founded the school and camp, his parents, and two siblings. In his 2013 book Straight As the Pine, Sturdy As the Oak, a history of the school and camp, Michael Huey writes: “We lived on-site year ‘round … When thick, heavy snowflakes fell around The Homestead on quiet December afternoons … it simply intensified the feeling I always had anyway of being tucked in under the shelter of Prospect Hill. There, more or less alone, with the hill behind us, and the Crystal River, its dune, and Sleeping Bear Bay before us, our lives seemed as complete and as safe as they possibly could be.”

But in his 10th year, changes in the family business forced Huey, his parents and siblings to leave, reluctantly, this home of his heart. Years later, this loss supplied “a topic.” It gave Michael Huey a focus for creating a body of art — books, photographs and sculptural installations, based on archival and found materials — that became his life’s work. This “topic,” he said, “is one that has been important to me all my life: The questions of home, and belonging, and where does one belong,” he said. “I’m grateful to have a good topic. Not everyone gets one. This one was dropped in my lap, even though it almost crushed me.”

Since 2003, Michael Huey has summered in northern Leelanau County. He lives the other three seasons in Vienna, Austria, “part of an international group of visual artists who have helped earn Vienna a stronger foothold in the contemporary art world,” wrote J.S. Marcus in a 2012 Wall Street Journal profile. “He uses a wide range of archival images, especially photographs, as the basis for installation-like exhibitions that are mediations on personal history and public memory.” A graduate of Amherst College, Huey moved to Vienna in 1989, a graduate fellow in Germanic studies at the University of Vienna. This same year he met Viennese art historian Christian Witt-Dörring, now his husband; and received a master’s degree in art history in 1999.

In the last decade, Huey’s work has been the subject of 13 solo exhibitions in the United States and Europe, and an equal number of group exhibitions at international venues. Between 2001 and the present he has authored, co-authored or edited nine published books — from exhibition catalogs, to histories of Viennese design and interiors, to Straight As the Pine, a 500-plus page coffee table volume jam packed with 300 vintage photographic images documenting Camp Leelanau, the Leelanau School and The Homestead resort from 1921-1963.

“Now, with that basic work done, I can proceed to my next project, which is a much more belletristic memoir of my own first 12 years,” Huey said. “Straight As the Pine provides the setting, the backdrop for what will become that story.”

In order to understand the context for Michael Huey’s artmaking, one needs to frame his personal loss, which is bound up, inextricably, with his family’s former land holdings. The “backdrop” to which he refers is this: Huey’s great uncle, William M. “Skipper” Beals and his wife Cora founded Camp Leelanau in the early 1920s on 43 acres at the mouth of the Crystal River. They opened the Leelanau School in 1929. Next, in the early 1930s, came The Homestead, a school dormitory and, in summer, a guesthouse. In that same period, Cora’s sister, Helen, and her husband, Arthur S. “Major” Huey, partnered with the Bealses. Following Skipper Beals’s death in 1942, the Hueys purchased the camp, school and Homestead properties in 1944. Michael Huey’s father, Richard, was Arthur and Helen’s first child, born in 1937.

In Michael Huey’s youth, his grandparents owned about 1,300 acres in Leelanau County, he said. Of those acres, Arthur and Helen Huey were “called upon” by the federal government to sell 860, including 1,700 feet of Lake Michigan frontage, which became part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. In 1963, the Leelanau School became a nonprofit corporation, no longer under Huey family control or ownership although Arthur Huey remained as president until the 1970s, then president emeritus. Ultimately, the remaining acres comprising the camp and the resort were exempted from eminent domain; the park’s boundary lines were drawn around the enterprises because the government regarded them as a “compatible use.”

“In 1974, Robert A. Kuras, a savvy Harvard business school graduate and a veteran developer bought into the Huey family’s interest in the Homestead property. Initially Kuras was their partner but the Hueys soon found themselves on the losing side of a power struggle for control of the resort,” wrote Theodore J. Karamanski in A Nationalized Lakeshore, a history of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore published in 2000. The Huey family’s connection to The Homestead was officially severed. Michael Huey, his parents and siblings moved north to Dechow Farm, a National Park rental on M-22 opposite Port Oneida Road in Cleveland Township. Five years later, the family moved to a house north of Leland.

“The exiled gather a few portable valuables that … they are not forced to abandon along the way. But the last thing they clutch are the photograph albums,” Michael Huey wrote in Straight As the Pine. “And so, for me, too, the (family) photographs became the most important thing. I collected them, and explored them the way I had earlier surveyed the woods and the riverbanks, and they gradually relinquished their secrets.”

Michael Huey has become the go-to guy when family artifacts need re-homing, from a 1940s-era wool sweater hand knit by his grandmother, to old family snapshots. The latter fuel his artmaking. One example is “ASH, Inc., ” a 2009 show of conceptual compositions at the Viennese gallery Song Song. Michael Huey took a batch of mid-century, family Kodachromes, re-photographed and enlarged them, then paired a series of personal photos with anonymous photos in order to dig around some more in the archeological site that is his family history. The exhibition’s title comes from the initials of Huey’s grandfather, Arthur Sandmeyer Huey, and ASH, inc., his grandfather’s land company. In one photographic grouping, Michael Huey brings together a sepia photograph of Pompeii — an 1872 image of the smoking volcano, the granddaddy of all ash-makers — and a color photograph of a Huey relative standing on a Sleeping Bear Bay outlook. She holds a red snow-suited toddler in her arms, and the small child points to the bay. The viewer is left to fill in the connective tissue between the two images. The artist writes lyric, albeit detail-vague, narrative about this piece in the exhibition catalog.

“Within my larger family,” Michael Huey wrote in an email, “the loss of that (Glen Arbor) territory in a series of [to me] cataclysmic events had disruptive and wide-reaching consequences … Thus my allusion in ‘ASH, Inc.’ to that ‘other’ bay — the Gulf of Naples — where life as it had been known came to an abrupt end one day … The idea of ashes and Pompeii bound the seemingly disparate items together as a metaphor for things cataclysmically lost, long buried, later rediscovered, excavated, and put to new uses. And that kind of picking up pieces and reconsidering what they might now be good for is very much what I do in my work.”

Michael Huey’s driving need to excavate family history has taken him to “obscure parts of the country” in search of relatives’ gravesites. One result of these travels is the 2007 composition “Be A Nice Person,” a permanent installation based on four granite tombstones carved with those words. It’s located in the Cleveland Township cemetery. Again, Huey has created a public work based on private matters. About the tombstones’ geographic placement on National Park land, he writes, “It is both perplexing and somehow gratifying to be able to buy ‘land’ here.” The carved message references a slight he inflicted on a childhood companion, “someone I was very mean to.”

Huey doesn’t make art that one acquires in the hope its colors might match the couch. Using found and family materials, he casts deeply personal ideas into solid forms. It’s an abstract art, the comprehension of which is aided by a knowledge of the artist’s history; there’s a dearth of explicit, written explanation about Huey’s so-far oeuvre. He argues that humans are quite capable of entertaining abstract thoughts. “What is the (often fantastic) ‘value’ of many an Internet startup?” he asked in a recent email. “So why should we have such a hard time with it when it comes to conceptual art?”

What remains concrete is a childhood spent in an Arcadian place, in which — according to a 1930s-era Leelanau School brochure — “a boy is free to roam the hills, study the lessons which woods, clear streams and clean skies teach.” The joys and wounds of this childhood feed Huey’s artmaking. He looks back at these events “as a kind of blessing,” he wrote. “It forced me to go out into the world and to find and lay claim to my own life as I know it today.”

Today, The Homestead is a 500-acre condominium resort constrained by National Park boundaries. Camp Leelanau is in Port Oneida. And Vienna is Michael Huey’s “new ‘hometown’,” where he has now lived longer than any place he ever lived in the U.S.