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Mason Alum Goes from Curating to Creating Art

SEEN HERE painting in Lacanau, France is former Mustang, Smithsonian employee and now artist, Michael B. Pierce. (Photo: Courtesy Mona Johnston)

From art classes at George Mason High School to working as a conservator for the National Gallery of Art, Falls Church artist Michael Pierce has luxuriated in travel around the world, clocking 50,000, sometimes 100,000 miles a year pursuing his love of art.

Now, in retirement, the 1972 Mason grad applies the paint brush full-time to the canvas and paints and draws whatever he fancies, which are often landscapes.

Last week, the News-Press caught up with him by phone in France where Pierce was opening a show in Bordeaux at the Galerie Premiere Ligne. He met the gallery owner, an octogenarian poet, at an art show in Bordeaux a year ago while he spent the summer painting on the French shoreline.

After the gallery owner saw his landscapes, she invited him to present his portfolio to her patrons.

Throughout the year, Pierce’s time is split between the U.S. and France. For someone who specializes in landscapes, the conditions are just right for an artist follows the light.

“I love [France], but winters are brutal. The sun rises at 10 in the morning, it gets dark at 3 and then it rains. But the other seasons are glorious,” he said.  

His time in France is spent in the company of his sister Christine — the home of their mother. Christine is an architect like their father, Harold Pierce, who designed Falls Church’s Community Center among other structures.

Before high school, Pierce was drawing sailboats, horses, houses and “all the goofy stuff that kids obsess over.”

After taking classes at Mason under Robert Dunburg, he attended James Madison University.

“I started in political studies but that grew old quickly. I fell in love with my art classes.”

He went on to major in art history and fine arts before the Smithsonian hired him to help restore wooden airplanes.

Then it was off to Paris for a year at a gilding job in gold leaf before Pierce landed back at the Smithsonian. This time, he worked at the National Gallery of Art where he worked for 27 years and experienced “some of the best art history courses I’ve ever had in my life.”

His job entailed traveling to legendary museums around the globe, examining art works from Europe to Japan to be loaned for Gallery exhibitions, packing the pieces and traveling with them.

“I wasn’t a tourist.  I was immersed in art.  It was a fabulous job,” he said.

A long-time student of art from many different countries, Pierce cites a number of influences in his work. A principle influence is English landscape artist J.M.W. Turner.

Turner filled hundreds of sketch books of sky and light “because it’s ever changing,” Pierce explained. As a result, his approach is to paint moving landscapes “en plein air” (painting outdoors).

Other influences include Englishman John Constable, American George Inness and French painters Pierre-Henri Valenciennes and Charles-Francois Daubigny.  

Like the renowned artists who excelled at landscapes, they are Pierce’s oeuvre which he describes on his website: “Landscape has the ability to transport us to a moment or place that can [be] reflective and spiritual, giving us a brief respite from the calliope of sonic and visual noise that assaults in everyday modern life.”

Before he retired, Pierce painted after work and on weekends. He and his family used to live on Capitol Hill, but the cost of private school for two daughters drove the family to Falls Church for its schools.

He rarely accepts commissions for his work which includes photography and sculpture in addition to painting.

Pierce’s show closes Oct. 15. His website, mbp-studio.com, features his works which may also be seen at the studio he shares with two other artists at the Monroe Street Market in Brookland.