When we think about a Renaissance man, most of us think of those great men of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, whose brilliant plays and poetry we’ve studied in books and whose breathtaking works of art we’ve seen on chapel ceilings. Centuries later though, right here in the year 2020, you still occasionally run across those rare individuals who seem to become an expert at every task they set their hands to. Michael Ulmer may be Texarkana’s very own version of a Renaissance Man, living as “a digital nomad,” and finding inspiration in the fascinating people, exotic food, and peculiar sights he experiences during his adventures around the world.
“Growing up in Texarkana I was involved in a little bit of everything; [that’s] a common theme my entire life,” he said. “My parents are pastors, so I was always at every church event, and by the time I was a senior in High School at Redwater, I played football, ran track, acted in the school play, was president of the National Honor Society, created a film study club, went to UIL state in photography, and started a weekly news show called Dragon Breath. I was fortunate that I was surrounded by amazing teachers and coaches who helped me pursue all my different interests and didn’t force me to stay in one lane. My parents, teachers, coaches, and everyone around me always believed in me more than I believed in myself and that drove me forward to achieve things I didn’t think I could. I don’t say all of that to brag, or to say ‘look at how much I did,’ but to show how all that set the stage for my path towards a very eclectic future where I let my passion and curiosity drive me forward into new ideas and new fields.”
For a short time after graduating from high school, acting was the focus of Michael’s pursuits. After gaining some experience and success in that arena, he wondered if he may be on the wrong road, headed in the wrong direction. “I had been doing videos and photos since I was in 7th grade, just playing around with the cameras and computers that were at church. After deciding to let all that go, and to pursue acting with full force, I realized that I wasn’t as passionate about acting as I was about creating. So, I started making videos again, short films and short documentaries, and over time people started contacting me wanting work, and it just took off.”
These days, you can find Michael spending his time traveling the world, looking for the inspiration to his next work of art that may come in the form of a photograph, a short film, a commercial, or a pyrography art piece. “I work as a freelance filmmaker and artist or a Visual Creator. In simple terms I create visuals, video, photos, and graphics for clients and for my personal artist portfolio. I’ve had the pleasure of doing video work with global brands like WD-40, National Geographic, Bissell, Green Giant, Melitta Coffee, and many more. It’s a fun blend of creative work and strategic marketing work that I love.” Though the world is Michael’s home, and he lives at no permanent location, Texarkana and Redwater remain a couple of Michael’s favorite backdrops for his filming and photos. “I filmed my entire WD-40 campaign in the Texarkana area, and I have taken most of my monthly photos in Texarkana, Redwater, and the surrounding area. I stay in the area often to visit family and to film because there are so many amazing spots that I never appreciated when I was growing up.” Though he may spend time in Paris and Vienna, Texarkana has that special way of drawing you back home. It’s a magnetism many of us have experienced. “Growing up in Texarkana specifically gave me a love of nature that I didn’t realize until later in life. Something I took for granted as a child is how beautiful East Texas is. There is so much varying terrain in the area. I didn’t realize how nice it was to always be surrounded by trees and to be able to disappear into a forest until I lived in Los Angeles for a few years, where there are barely any trees.”
The entire year of 2018, Michael worked on amazing commercial projects. On paper, the year appeared to be a complete success, but he noticed a feeling of dissatisfaction and an itch to do more. While he felt fortunate for the steady flow of work, something seemed to be missing. “I have a million ideas and stories inside me that fight to get out, and if I don’t explore those ideas, just for myself, I don’t feel complete. So, I made a New Year’s resolution of sorts to do a monthly photo series for all of 2019, to explore what I call my ‘On-Again Off-Again Relationship With my Brain.’” He spent time at the beginning of each month doing some “self-assessment” and exploring the areas within himself that needed some attention and work, then developed a visual to accompany it. “It’s been such a therapeutic process and feels like it’s given me a language to communicate these ideas in my head that I could never put into words. That’s why, when 2019 was over, I wrapped up that series, but continue to do monthly pieces and plan on continuing for the foreseeable future.” The reception of this project has been incredible by so many. What started out as an outlet for self-expression quickly became deeply relatable works of art that dig deep into the truths of our inner-struggle and bond people by the recognition of those shared human connections.
The On-Again, Off-Again Relationship With my Brain series tackles topics like “Self-Sabotage,” “Loss,” “Addiction,” and “Ego.” “While I don’t have a favorite, my very first piece ‘Grounded’ is really special to me. It was my leap into the unknown and I remember looking at it after I finished it and being like, ‘I made that?’ and feeling so accomplished. It has my child (dog), Aria, in it, who passed away a few months after the photo, so it’s even extra special.” Michael said. “I also love the piece ‘Comfort’ from this year, because the message is so much bigger than myself. It caused me to do a lot of self-reflection, and I had no clue if I could actually pull it off. It was a huge challenge.” On average, each piece takes Michael 12-20 hours to complete and they are all done entirely by himself. He works meticulously, using a tripod, to get each angle and pose just the way he wants them and then works the rest of his magic with his computer. “I always try my hardest to be true to myself and honest and pursue ideas that challenge me mentally and as an artist.”
As has been true of many of the Renaissance Men of the past, Michael’s skills have been self-taught. Besides a handful of graphic design classes in college, he’s never had formal training for photo, video, or editing. Life, exploration, and a willingness to try new things were all the ingredients necessary to set this high-tech mastermind on his way. “I learned how to shoot and edit videos by just playing around with the equipment at my church in 7th grade. Back then, YouTube didn’t exist, and the internet wasn’t anything like it is now, so I didn’t have too many resources or tutorials to help me learn. It was a long process. I’m continually learning new things and one of my mantras is to always be a student, humble and willing to learn; there are endless opportunities for everyone who is willing to take the time to learn these days.”
Inspired by Vincent Price’s old school horror movies, Michael says he’s most often drawn to projects that lean toward the darker side and describes his preferred work as “a touch macabre.” For the most part, he simply prefers any project that challenges him to do new things. “A project that I am really proud of is my one-man short film ‘Number 44.’ I wrote, shot, and edited it completely on my own, and it won some awards from different film festivals. I’m most proud of it because it was a moment in time where I put all my excuses aside and just made something. Watching it now would be a torture, cringe fest for me, and I was very naïve in my abilities back then, but I’m still proud of it because I didn’t just let another idea die. I actually went out and did it.”
When you are brave enough to try, and the entire world is your office, inspiration could be around any corner. Michael is that rare type of person who keeps his eyes and ears fine-tuned, staying connected to the people, nature, and conversations around him, waiting to come in contact with the inspiration for his next masterpiece. “That’s why travel is such a huge source of inspiration for me. When I visit a foreign country, everything is new and my brain begins to buzz and swirl with new sights, sounds and tastes and I’m always overwhelmed with ideas.” Though the fifteenth century doesn’t resemble the twenty-first century in many ways, our appreciation for creativity is still as keen. While Shakespeare had his stage, Michael has Social Media. While DaVinci had his paint brushes, Michael has Photoshop and while Michelangelo had the Sistine Chapel, Michael has Television and the World Wide Web. It’s a different world, but thankfully, The Renaissance Man didn’t die with the Renaissance. Michael and others like him are all the proof we need.
Click the photographs to view a timelapse video of Michael's process.
More examples of Michael's diverse projects...