The Unexamined Parts of Our Lives: The suburban landscape paintings of Michael Ward

The suburbs, usually spoken of in disdain or blame, are home to about 70% of the US population.

Place attachment, nostalgia, and memory are important aspects of finding our way through life. Can the suburbs offer these things to the many people who are growing up or have grown up in them? I’ve been curious about what the icon of the suburban house represents for people, particularly, realist artists who have selected the suburban home as their subject matter. They spend considerable amounts of time creating realistic works of this taken-for-granted architecture and have found a market for it.

What do the suburbs and suburban houses mean for them, and us? Can we all develop more place attachment with our most common cultural landscape? (Besides, I love the genre and want to learn more about the concepts that drive the artists). See the whole series of interviews (currently under construction).

The following is edited from an interview I had with T. Michael Ward.

The realist suburban landscape paintings of T. Michael Ward depict neighborhoods, both residential and commercial, that feel like places we all know.

The middle-class houses and Main Street shops of his paintings are presented in a way that blurs the lines between today and an earlier generation. The fluidity with which buildings sit in both time frames highlights the patina of our cultural landscape.

Ward explained that since he was a young boy, he has taken pictures of houses and aspects of the everyday landscape that interest him. That collection, from which he paints, continues to grow. Over the decades, his paintings reveal a layering of time.

I asked Ward how he selects from all those photographs. “It’s hard. I have my favorites I’m working through. I have a mixture of old and new. I’m constantly adding to that.”

M. Ward “Riviera Parking”. All images used with permission. Copyright M. Ward.

Ward explained that he likes “depicting the things that we see every day and usually we don’t pay much attention to – houses, also storefronts and urban scenes. They just appeal to me. I don’t particularly know why. It’s that unexamined part of our life rather than the big event that’s transitory. This is where we spend most of our lives, the vast majority of our time, just in our ordinary routine.”

“That’s it. That interests me. … You see something, and it catches your eye. If you’re a painter, you try to paint it.”

Drawn to suburban landscapes

Ward believes that the places he grew up (Montana and California, some summers in Maine) very much influence his subject choices. “It’s partly from growing up in houses of that era. …I grew up in a house that’s pretty typical of the ones that I paint”, he said. “Probably built in the late 40s, early 50s. A small two- or three-bedroom house. I literally grew up crawling around inside and outside. So, I think that informed my aesthetic quite a bit.”

His experience changed when he moved to California. “We lived in an apartment building. I was 11 at the time and that was a fairly traumatic transition. Probably, in the back of my consciousness was a longing for that sort of small single-family house. … But this is sort of psychologizing it after the fact.”

I think there’s a dignity to the small family house, the modest, middle class American house from that era that I grew up in. You know, the nuclear family, and all of that before it all started to fall apart.”

a white house in a suburban landscape painting by t michael ward
M. Ward “Traverse City #2” 2010

He explained that he grew up with his aunt and uncle. “They were always talking about the house that they built right after the war. You could buy a house for next to nothing, and you could buy it unfinished so that you put up the walls and put up the dry wall. You know, finish off the house. That was their way of getting something they could afford at the time, and they were always talking about that. It made a big impression on me. It was a lot of my upbringing, which may be why those houses are more interesting to me than newer houses.”

In our conversation about today’s suburban neighborhoods, Ward describes the garage door as too prominent on the front of much of what is built after 1960. That’s not as aesthetically interesting to him. He says he prefers the “classic portrait.” He explained that he likes to keep more of a human scale in the houses. Mid-century houses tend to a certain scale, by default.

M. Ward “Traverse City House #1”

Building his skills for suburban houses

Architectural drafting likely influenced Ward’s subject and approach. “From an early age, I thought I wanted to be an architect. When I was a little kid, I got my aunt and uncle to give me a doll house for Christmas one year, which must have been a little fraught for them. But, I threw away the dolls, and I kept the house. Then I studied architecture in high school. That’s where I learned to do rendering and perspective, and building models as well. So that’s where I came to the view that I paint, which is pretty much an elevation.”

“That frontal view sort of makes it a portrait, … and that determines the kind of house that I like to paint. The door and the windows sort of [make] a face, you know, the mouth and the eyes.”

Ward has been open about how he occasionally changes some of the scene. He explains that it’s mostly for composition. “I’m not trying to create a story that’s other than what’s in the scene itself, usually.  I might add things or take things out that are in the way. I painted a house that had a huge pine tree in front of it, but you couldn’t see the house. So, I ‘chopped down’ the pine tree, which kind of changed how it looked. But, I wanted to see the house. I didn’t want to see the tree.”

M. Ward “738 Randolph” 2016

“I look at these as sort of documentaries. If you were to compare them to film, it’s like depicting the way things are now the way we live now, because I think that it will have a value in the future to see what life was like, the way we lived it. That’s why I don’t make a lot of changes. It’s never a hundred percent. But, I definitely want that kernel of truth there.

Ward explained that one of the aspects of photorealism is that “you’re painting what you’re seeing in the moment. The artists that I like depicted their reality, as it was. They weren’t trying to come up with some fantasy image.” He speaks of Richard Estes and Rod Penner, but also reaching further back than the Photorealists to his favorites, Vermeer and Hopper.

I asked Ward whether a focus on older storefronts was merely an outcome of using images he took decades ago, or is it a reflection of his lack of interest in the contemporary built environment?

“We can’t stop change. It’s going to happen whether we want it to or not. The change is inevitable. So, I don’t mind including the newer stuff in with the old, especially when I’m doing street scenes or storefronts. I call it layers of time. Old and new. And sometimes the transformation makes the old thing more interesting.” He says he’s not going to paint a modern chain store that’s identical to every other MacDonald’s or 7-Eleven, though.

Living in California, Ward sees change all the time in the neighborhoods. He says he lives in an older neighborhood and sees it happening to some extent. But, not as bad as others. He recounts a beach town where almost every house has been torn down and replaced with a big lot-line to lot-line building. He misses the character that is lost in this process.

“I did a painting I call Million Dollar Tear Down. It was an apartment building in Corona del Mar, which is a very upscale neighborhood. It was right on the water. I took a picture, and then, a couple years later, I painted the house. Then I went back to that neighborhood, and walking down the street I recognized that low brick wall because I remembered I painted it. I look up and it’s been torn down.”

Ward contents that in the past he may have been a bit hostile to the idea of nostalgia. “A lot of times, people are nostalgic for stuff that never existed, you know. The generation before their time. It seems romantic and wasn’t that great. So, it’s misremembering the past. I’ve come to kind of temper that view a little bit.

“I think nostalgia has its own importance. Remembering where we came from and how we got to where we are. How the people that created us, got to where they were.  So yeah, I have an appreciation for that. I work from pictures that I’ve taken over the last 40 years. So, the early ones are now nostalgic to a lot of people. And it’s just inadvertent, because it took me so long to get around to actually making paintings of them. I don’t want to paint something just because it’s old-fashioned. ‘Oh, isn’t that neat’? That’s not my aim.”

M. Ward “Lanai Apts.” 2012

Viewer Reactions to suburbia

Before he started showing his work, Ward said he didn’t really expect the interesting reactions he gets, with many people thinking they know the house. “It reminds them of a grandparent’s house or a place they used to visit.”

He thinks many people might have lived in a house of this scale, and “they’ve moved on to bigger houses. ‘This is where it all began’, and that’s meaningful to people.” He thinks for viewers, the paintings represent “more of a feeling of an architectural style than an actual house. They get from it what they want.”

Part of what I’m trying to understand in my interviews with artists is how the public views the house (why it resonates with them) and also, how they view fine art paintings of this ordinary, everyday subject matter that we all take for granted.

So, I ask if viewers ever question “Why do you paint this?”

Ward explained that people don’t ask me “Why did you paint that? I think they just walk away [if they don’t appreciate the work]. So, they don’t ask the question. I ask the question myself sometimes. Just because it seemed like fun to do. You paint for yourself. If you take your art seriously, I mean. If you’re an illustrator, obviously you paint for somebody else.”

Ward is transitioning into full time painting, putting aside much of his graphic design work in which he says you have to worry about the client and devote a lot of creative energy to other people’s needs. “Painting has always been an outlet for me to do what I wanted to do. … If you’re doing it for yourself, you’re just painting what you like. You throw it out there. And you hope somebody else, one other person, likes it.”

If you’re in California, make sure to see Ward’s work at the

Laguna Beach Festival of Arts July 3 – August 30, 2024

See other featured artists Ericka Sobrack, Leah Giberson and Terry Leness

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