Mike McKee circles the 20-inch-tall wafer of rock called “Matrix”, watching the way it glows in the light of Waxlander’s front windows. It’s honeycomb calcite, but it looks like a giant slice of exotic fruit, with intricate veins weaving across its triangular surface and a sugary off-white color that seems to absorb and radiate the sunshine.
“This is how I found the rock at the quarry in Utah. It had a really weird slant on the bottom so I had to do something with that,” he says, inspecting the bronze base that he fabricated to fit the carving. Mike had a clear idea for the design before he started, but setting it in stone was another process entirely. “I didn’t go deep enough in the beginning, so when I was doing my undercuts it was starting to crack and shatter,” he says. If the finished product is any indication, Mike’s the kind of guy who can work through his mistakes.
For a moment, the sculptor stands very still and runs his eyes over “Matrix”. Over the last few months he has pushed and ground this design into the memory of every muscle in his arms. I ask him if he’s going to miss it after it’s been purchased, and it breaks the spell.
“I sure hope it sells!” says the artist with a grin, and disappears into the back room. He returns wearing a brown leather jacket and we head out into the chilly afternoon air. Two doors down at the Dish n’ Spoon, Mike gives the owner Sancho a firm hug and takes a seat. He fixes me with a warm, direct stare and starts talking.
“Collecting rocks and minerals was one of my first hobbies as a really little kid. I was always into how beautiful polished rocks were,” he says. Mike grew up in Santa Fe but had little exposure to art in school. He struggled with attention deficit disorder, and enrolled at Roswell’s New Mexico Military Institute at the start of high school. “It wasn’t all fun. It was military school, but I liked the discipline. Having the structure and having set guidelines made it easier for me to operate.
”After high school Mike lived in Hawaii for two years and returned to Santa Fe for college. He wanted to study acting, but as he flipped through the course catalog the visual arts classes caught his eye.
“I saw the heading ‘Bachelor of Fine Arts degree’ and I said, ‘I can get a degree in art?’” Mike recalls. He took a subtractive sculpture class his second semester and felt electrified. “I really excelled at the stone part. The teachers were like, ‘You need to keep doing this, you’re really good at it.’ Nobody else was doing it, so it was my thing.” The second carving Mike ever made took a full year to complete and already displayed the undulating undercuts and dimensional complexity that characterize his style. The medium was a perfect fit.
In college Mike found a mentor in Santa Fe sculptor Bill Weaver, who put him to work at his foundry business and taught him everything from waxwork to wielding to metal chasing. Mike worked there for almost eight years and developed many skills that he uses in his stonework. He also fell in love with Bill’s daughter, with whom he now has a 4-year-old girl.
Though he worked in casting for so many years, Mike’s artistic philosophy is all about crafting something unique. “Different rocks have different characteristics. The shapes really evolve while I’m working on it,” he says. The process is a vigorous dialogue with the stone, and Mike uses the time it takes to work through other problems as well. “If you can picture sanding on a stone for three hours, you can imagine thinking about a lot of stuff. If the rocks could talk, they would tell you about the whole three months of life that was going on while I was working that piece. There’s a relationship built with the rock.
“Matrix” diverges a bit from the rest of Mike’s oeuvre. This is the first time he’s started with a concept rather than letting the rock guide him. Even so, the artist left a line of raw rock that runs like a rhine along one edge of the stone as a tribute to the unpredictable process of carving.
As we lingered in front of the work, Mike reached out and traced his finger down that bumpy trail. It strongly contrasted with the polished expanse next to it, but it didn’t make the piece look unfinished. After all, without the rough edges Mike never could have created something so beautiful.“I’ve been carving my own path since I was 13, you know. The good, the bad and the ugly,” Mike says. “I’ve always done everything the hard way. But I learn from it, and it makes me better afterwards."