The Art of Mike Ovios

Photos of Mike Ovios's artwork By Sam Moore
A very private collection

Michael Ovios, a Tisbury School industrial arts and art teacher known for his creative and often unorthodox classroom style and his biting humor, died in March 2011. He was felled at barely 65, unexpectedly, by an avalanche of complications following a rare adverse reaction to medication.

Mike Ovios

Mike Ovios

Mike left behind a legacy as rich and multi-faceted as this complex man himself. The intricate pieces he crafted with his students still brighten the Tisbury School walls, but represent only a fraction of his creative production, which includes an extensive body of work he kept mostly to himself. Few people outside his family and close friends were aware of the array of sculptures, the vibrant, whimsical pieces of art, a motley assemblage, that Mike created and left behind.

A Mike Ovios creation at The Tisbury School. Photos of Mike Ovios's work by Sam Moore

A Mike Ovios creation at The Tisbury School. Photos of Mike Ovios’s work by Sam Moore

Visitors walking through a side door of the Tisbury School might be caught breathless at the sight of a blue-jeaned, red-shirted youth, high in the air, hurtling headfirst toward the classrooms — a Mike creation, one of several he crafted, often with his students, still on display at the school. Kindergarteners remain enchanted by the mural outside their classrooms featuring three life-size children, and a majestic shovel he made stands by the school’s front door, ready for a giant’s hand.

Mike’s former colleagues at the Tisbury School remember him as an irrepressible, spontaneous, fun-loving, and sometimes aggravating co-worker; a passionately dedicated educator; deeply caring friend and family man; and prankster. Marci Nichols, the home economics teacher, worked closely with Mike. “He was my nemesis, but my heart broke when he died,” she said at a recent gathering to mark the fifth anniversary of his death. She recalls Mike stealing her lunches, borrowing her fancy fabric shears to cut wire, and parading through the halls in costumes she’d sewn for school plays.

One day statues of a camel and an elephant appeared in the school’s playground, thrilling the children, recalled Kerry Alley recently. Kerry was the guidance counselor when Mike arrived in 1974. The statues were Mike’s doing. He had told no one, sought neither permission nor funding. Kerry, who joined the Washington, D.C., field trips that Mike organized, recalled that there was never a dull moment on those trips. Mike would abandon the itinerary and lead students off on unplanned detours. “He was like the Pied Piper,” Kerry laughed.

Gene Baer, the art teacher when Mike began teaching at the school, recalled the day Mike loaded students into a school bus without asking permission. He took the wheel and drove off to pick up shop supplies, buying every youngster an ice cream cone on the way back.

Mike’s wife, Jan, sees two distinct parts to his creative life. “In his public life, he was an educator,” she said. “In his private life, he pursued the process and execution of many aspects of art simply for his own enjoyment.”
Jan still lives in the house they built soon after moving to the Island in 1974, down a dirt road in the West Tisbury woods. Here they raised two sons, Matthew and Aaron, and built a life in the community. Mike joined the fire department, was a building inspector, sat on the parks and recreation commission. Jan taught at the West Tisbury School.

The house is airy and uncluttered. Furnishings are sparse, but the artwork is everywhere, front and center. Some figures are graceful, serene, some downright risqué. They tug at the sleeve of your awareness, refusing to be ignored.

Just inside the door a figure waits — a torso, voluptuously curved, golden wood molded and polished, elegantly classical.

Two delicate wooden figures hover face to face on tiptoe, ready to twirl into the dance. Jan is especially fond of this one, believing it reflects the pleasure she and Mike shared in dancing: “Anywhere there was music, we would go.”
A massive discus thrower exudes strength and focus. His body coils in upon itself, poised to explode into movement, ample full-frontal manhood proudly displayed.

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According to Jan, Mike never saw an image that didn’t compel him, an unfamiliar art form or medium that didn’t intrigue him. Imagination piqued, he’d begin to experiment, and eventually come forth with a new piece. He found inspiration everywhere. Art was simply part of his life; making it was second nature to him.
A constant artist, he’d work on new creations every chance he got. He cut out pieces in the school shop, and brought them home to assemble and finish. With no home studio, he worked wherever he found space.

Very few have seen this collection except for family and a very few intimate friends. Aside from the Christmas-tree ornaments he crafted every holiday season — an elephant, seahorse, rhino, fish, an angel, which were treasured gifts for family and close friends — many of his colleagues did not know he created artwork outside of school. Most never saw it until after his death. The figure of a man holding a painted mask before his face is the only piece he ever exhibited, cajoled into submitting it for an Island educators’ art show.

“He loved to experiment,” Jan said. “He never got to the point where he felt the need to exhibit. It was not a burning drive to get things out. He just loved the process.”

Pat Waring is a regular contributor to The MV Times.

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