Mike Michlig was a first-round draft choice in the eyes of Sears, Roebuck, & Co. And for 20 years, as an executive there, he fulfilled every expectation of the iconic retail merchandiser. But then one day in 1989, he treated himself to a movie, “Dead Poets Society” starring Robin Williams. And taken with the movie’s theme, “Carpé diem,” Latin for “seize the day,” Mike did just that. The very next day, in the ultimate of symbolic gestures, Mike literally burned his suit in the Sears parking lot to the sounds of Jim Morrison’s “Come on Baby, Light My Fire,” and immediately left town.
For the 20 years with Sears, Mike had lived a secret life. In his spare time, he made intricate, artistic wooden animal puzzles. On the weekends, he sold them at art festivals, displaying his work at as many as 25 festivals a year. But feeling the need for a sense of place when he left Sears, he elected not to make the road his home and instead opened a gallery in Sonoma, Calif., to display his works and those of others he’d met on the festival circuit.
In 2001 he moved to Bigfork, meeting Bridget, the woman who was to become his best friend and wife, on the plane as he came here. Bridget, a communications executive at the time working for a California-based real estate strategy firm, was also ready for a change. Settling in Bigfork, they opened the Artisans Gallery together.
Bridget characterizes the gallery as a kind of art festival under a roof. “Yeah, I think that really captures it,” agrees Mike. “I did the festival circuit for 20 years and really liked the feeling and the friends I met there. But, frankly, it was a lot of work, a lot of stress to be in a different city every weekend hauling all my art there and all my art home. I thought if I could collect all the different artists in one shop, that would be the best of both worlds.”
“We have about 85 artists who display their work in our shop,” says Bridget, “and we try to give advice and coaching, regarding their work, to each of them. These artists form kind of a cottage industry doing what they love and we feel it’s our job to champion their dreams.”
Mike echoes the sentiment. “Our artists have entrusted us with presenting their work to the public. We feel an almost sacred responsibility to present their work in the best way possible.”
I look around the gallery and see wide ranging arts and crafts. Sculptured graphite drawing sticks, etched rocks, relatively high-end jewelry and watches, signs, prints, and poetry. “We select the items we’re passionate about,” offers Bridget. “Sometimes it’s the item, sometimes it’s the artist.”
“Yes,” confirms Mike. “The things you see in our gallery, they reflect our personalities. And we just hope people like us.”
Do they enjoy their work? “I don’t think it really qualifies as work,” says Mike. “For me, every day is fun. Always has been, in that I’ve always enjoyed what I do. See that jacket on the wall?” He points to a black Jacket hanging on the wall, sort of a letterman jacket with an inscription on it. “I’d been in business about six months in Sonoma when this fellow walked into my store, collar pulled up and hat pulled down. As I started to address him and discovered he was Robin Williams, I suddenly found myself speechless. But it turned out he was a really nice guy and I explained how it was his movie that got me started in the business. ‘So how’s it going,’ he asked, with a degree of trepidation. Oh, fine, I said. He seemed relieved and bought a bunch of stuff.”
“But then the next day he came back,” Mike continued. “And he had this jacket from the movie with ‘Dead Poets Society’ embroidered on it. ‘This is for you,’ he said. I looked at him, gushing, Oh Mr. Williams, you don’t know what this means to me.”
Robin Williams, as Mike tells it, responded simply with a twinkle in his eye and a slight smile on his lips: “Yes Mike, I do.”
Artisans Gallery is located in Twin Birch Square in Bigfork Village and has a website at BigforkArt.net.
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