One could say that sculptor Michael McGinnis has the looks of a wizard. A ring of gray hair encircles his head and he sports a fuzzy, salt and pepper beard that extends down his thin neck. Frameless, untinted glasses highlight the curious twinkle in his eye as he enthusiastically fields all the questions I hurl at him over coffee. It is as if Michael always has more to say than there is time to answer. He has been this way since the day I met him seven years ago at Santa Rosa Junior College, where he was my instructor. Now he is my mentor. Michael is tireless in his problem solving and has taught me there is never a problem too large or too small to dig into.
Squeezing every second out of every minute, Michael sometimes sleeps only four hours a night. He is as complex and methodical as the global Perplexus labyrinths he has created. His is a technical art replete with math and physics. It is also an emotional and personal practice which is evident in his thirty-six inch Superplexus, Megan’s Maze, a tribute to the life of a young teenager.
Encased in acrylic spheres that range in size from three inches to four feet across Perplexus and Superplexus are three-dimensional puzzles made of winding paths with low side rails and goading twists and turns. A small, metal ball is moved along by gravity and controlled by players using delicate hand movements. The goal is to follow a path, often a hundred steps or more, and no one achieves it easily. Light colored woods, shiny metals or colorful plastic labyrinths entreat more than gamers to play.
Michael’s complex creations have been taking the game industry by storm since 2002. They have even infiltrated popular culture, appearing in the hit sitcom Silicon Valley as a makeshift bong! Perplexus is more than a plaything, it’s Michael’s language. It’s how he communicated at 17 when he was asked to create something for an art assignment. It’s also how he communicates now with his audience both domestically and globally. After 38 years of refinement, Michael’s spatial lexicon has become universal.
Megan Segre: So, you’ve been teaching in Sonoma County at the Junior College for a really long time and you’ve become successful both financially and artistically. Why continue to teach?
Michael McGinnis: Yes, it’s coming up on 30 years now. It’s strange because I’ve been thinking a lot about that. I still feel like I’m learning something new, and it’s fun. It feels good to be involved with people, and I really enjoy the student-teacher relationship. It’s creative.
MS: It sounds like you were at least partially driven to create out of need?
MM: Yeah. There are two kinds of creativity. One is when you’re purely being inspired to communicate something. The other is when you’re trying to solve a problem. And I’m definitely a problem-solver.
MS: A lot of artists have incorporated technology, science, medicine, or social issues in their work, can you talk a little bit about that?
MM: If you boiled it down… I’m trying to figure out why things are the way they are in the physical world. Why do things look the way they do? Why is a form shaped the way it is? For me, it’s a study of the physical aspect of an object, the beauty of something like a landscape, as opposed to the emotion it evokes. This is a kind of scientific observation that communicates in a visual way.
MS: Are you leading the viewer to a deeper meaning?
MM: Definitely. It’s about my desire to understand industrial aesthetics as an artist, and to communicate those observations to others. You can crop a million different ways and still find perfection because it is natural. The physical world, the way that chemical reactions happen, the way that energy flows, all of that balances out perfectly but you have to examine it.
MS: Tell me a little bit more about your Superplexus, Megan’s Maze …
MM: Well, Megan was a 12-year-old girl and she was killed in a tragic accident. The family wanted to honor her by donating something to The Children’s Museum in Oak Lawn, near Chicago. Megan loved mazes. So they said, “We want you to create a maze.” My initial thought was “What were her favorite colors? What kinds of things did she like to do? What were the things that meant the most to her?” One of her favorite things was softball so I created a life-sized 12-year-old girl’s softball bat and a left-handed glove. She also loved sea life, nature, storms and weather. It was an emotional experience to produce it, and I felt honored.
MS: You continued with her tribute on your video Megan’s Maze. It was as if you were going through the years of her life…
MM: In fact, there is that aspect. You start at the batter’s box and eventually you head through all of the base positions until you get to home plate. There’s a little dot drilled into the surface that represents the diameter of one day of her life. If you trace through the entire thing to the end that’s how many days she lived. When people see it hopefully they will recognize that she had a good life, she had life, and so … (choked up)
MS: Well, I think you did an incredible job and I was so thrilled to see it online, Michael.
MS: That leads me to Perplexus. It’s not only a local game but also a national game and art, too. You’re also a man of the globalization process, how does that affect your work?
MM: If it wasn’t for that fact, I’d have to be doing bathroom and kitchen remodels. I can’t survive on creating my artwork to sell to people who live in Santa Rosa. You need a global audience to build the kind of network that will allow you to be successful financially or to produce work. I rely on foreign countries, museums in foreign countries, to want Superplexus works.
MS: So, you’re doing some commissions now? You said Perth?
MM: I just received a commission for a museum in Perth which is called SCITECH. It’s an Exploratorium kind of place. Somehow they found out about my work. I never advertise.
MS: It has that science and education thread but you’re also in private collections?
MM: It’s not often that you can have work simultaneously in a fine art gallery, an art museum, a science museum, a private residence and a corporate office. This is one of the odd features that makes Perplexus unusual as a concept, it’s a scalable idea. That’s what keeps me interested in producing. I don’t feel like I have fully tapped into what it’s about. (laughs) I feel my core contribution to the language of the world is to have created a new visual idea, this spatial idea.
Perplexus is a visual experience, but it is also something that helps people develop their spatial reasoning which fine art does, too. We need expressive things just as much as we need a chair. It is exactly the same process for me, mechanical problem-solving or creative problem-solving.
MS: So do you have people who influence you today Michael?
My friend John Watrous (http://jwatrous.org/) has always been an inspiration to me because he is a true thinker and problem-solver. He just simply enjoys life and finds joy in figuring things out. His visual elements have influenced me because that’s what got me to think, “Okay, machine is a way of thinking about visual form as opposed to figurative form” because when I was a kid, figurative work was what I thought sculpture was. When I took John’s class, suddenly I realized screws, nuts and bolts meant something aesthetically. And that has been a major influence on me.
Michael’s relentless perseverance has paid off. Perplexus has grown from a single sculpture into a diverse series of works that has won Michael international recognition and over twenty awards . Interactive and enticing, his colorful labyrinths engage the young and old. This wizard’s magical art is created in a garage studio in Santa Rosa, California. His work can be found in galleries, science museums, and personal collections throughout the world, including the United States, Australia, England, Poland, Sweden and Germany.