Lon Michels is a Wisconsin artist who has gained national recognition for his unique style of painting. Through repetition of intricate patterns in bright colors, Michels’ complex work explores history, culture and religion.
Michels has been painting since the age of nine. In the 1980s he moved to New York City and became the studio assistant to the international sculptor, Louise Nevelson. He later moved to Key West where he developed his own paintings and became a local TV host.
After suffering an infection in his optical nerves, Michels was blinded for nearly two years, but continued to paint floral patterns with the help of an assistant. Through specialized treatment, Michels regained his sight and continued his artistic pursuits by returning to school and receiving a MFA from UW-Madison. “If you are given a gift, it’s your responsibility to share it with the world,” says Michels. Finding beauty everywhere, whether painting a portrait, landscape or still life, Michels intense research, dedication and unique vision make for exceptional art. His paintings are in public and private collections across the country.
Life Lived Large, the painting and sculpture of Lon Michels, will be on exhibit and available for purchase at the Tory Folliard Gallery from June 2-30th. A portion of the artwork sales will be donated to ARCW Aids Resource Center and ABCD After Breast Cancer Diagnosis.
I sent him a few questions about his life and work, as well as the upcoming show. Here’s what I found out.
Were you born and raised here in Wisconsin?
Yes, I was born in Marquette, Wisconsin, on the shores of Lake Puckaway, and the population of that town is about 150 — very, very small. It’s near Ripon, Wisconsin.
Did the way you were raised have any influence on your creative life?
Absolutely. My mother is an artist. My father was a fifth generation stonemason, and my father’s work is very floral. My father actually taught me my line in my art. Also, because we lived in such a rural area and because I was painting at such an early age, the cold winters were a lot more conducive to painting indoors than to playing outside. One other thing – my mother, being born and raised in Milwaukee allowed us to spend a lot of time in the city of Milwaukee, and I was always fascinated by the Milwaukee Art Museum and the complexity and architecture of that city, which I believe added to the complexity of my work.
When and how did you realize that you had to pursue an artistic life?
I remember when I was a child – I think I was pretty smart or smarter than the other kids I went to school with – and they had a counselor or somebody come speak to me, but that counselor didn’t speak to any of the other children. This counselor asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I told her I wanted to be an artist. But, she said, you can’t make any money being an artist. And I told her, it’s not about the money; it’s about what I ‘m supposed to do, and I really realized at that point with all certainty that I was an artist. And I really didn’t understand what that meant, but I knew that’s what I was. And also, I knew that I wouldn’t have an easy life, but it was almost a pre-determined destiny.
The counselor asked me what my favorite color was, and I told her it was black. She told me I couldn’t be an artist because black isn’t a color, and I said, that just proves that I am. I was thinking outside of the box as to what is. That’s what artists do. We’re the eyes of the world. We show the world how to see in a different way.
And in all honesty, I was painting seriously from the time I was 7 years old.
Because of the cold winters, my toy – or the thing I did most before age 7 – was to do color books. I would completely fill up a color book. The black line fascinated me, and every time I filled up the page, I wanted to make my own. From a very early age, I knew it was okay to color outside of the line.
To what inspiration do you owe your particular style of painting?
I’ve been blessed. My style is my own. I had painters, sculptors, and artists in general, whose work I love and appreciate, and I guess I’ll say this: Once again, people see only what they want to see, in nature and in life. I see everything. It’s been a blessing and a curse. When you look out over a vista or a landscape, you take in only so little. I hope that my paintings show that I take in all of it, and thus try to duplicate that to my viewer. There’s so much more unseen than is seen by the human eye, and that’s where the magic occurs.
What do you enjoy the most, the preparation of a piece, the actual work on it, or the presentation to others of your vision?
Oh, gosh. If I didn’t enjoy all of those things, the process would be tedious, but I most enjoy – no I enjoy two things: the meditation and the serenity that I get out of painting. But if a singer sings a song and no one is there to hear it, it doesn’t have the same impact is if the singer has an audience. So, when I get to see how people react to my work, for example at an opening, it makes my heart sing. It makes all of the work so worthwhile.
If I can take a person out of their daily life, their worry, you know – whatever that might be – for even a minute and make them feel good, then I’ve accomplished what I set out to accomplish.
How do color and texture which are both so evident in your work, figure into your daily life and inspiration?
What a rich canvas the world is. There’s color everywhere. There’s texture everywhere and, you know, my paintings are just a reflection of the fact that I allow myself to see and feel those. That’s what painting’s taught me. A lot of people don’t allow themselves to see all the different colors that there are. They only see in black and white or in a limited palette, sometimes even gray. They also don’t allow themselves to feel the beauty that’s found in nature; for example, the petal of a flower or the softness of a kitten or puppy. People keep themselves very guarded. It’s a form of control. They only allow themselves to feel and see what is safe so that they don’t have to be uncomfortable.
Sometimes I’ll be speaking to my partner, Todd, we’ll see a sunset, and I’ll say, “That’s so beautiful; if I ever painted that nobody would believe it.” There’s so much beauty in nature, but it’s the artist’s job to show those things to people, to identify that richness, that beauty, in their everyday lives — to take the mundane and show how extraordinary it all really is.
While you were living and working in NYC, what did you learn from the art scene there that you brought back to your work here?
I learned some important truths, not all of them easy to swallow. I don’t want to jeopardize my career by telling you this. One of the first truths I learned was from Louise Nevelson, whom I was a studio assistant to. She taught me that the truth about the art world is that there is no truth to the art world.
Art, or the creation of art, must come from a true passion or drive that’s innate. And I learned this again in graduate school from someone who I highly respect, Fred Stonehouse, who quietly restated to me that this passion really couldn’t be taught. It had to be something that you were born with. And also, you know, there’s room for everyone. But it takes integrity of conviction and years of work. You’re only as good as your last painting or sculpture, and you never reach the finish line.
What shocked you about that scene that you would NEVER do?
Sell out; I would never sell out. I would never – let’s just say that sometimes art is like the Emperor’s New Clothes. People will tell you that they understand it so that they don’t have to go against what their peers might say or react to about it. I would never tell an untruth with my work. I believe in integrity. I believe in that conviction of trying to create magic, or as best as humanly possible, trying to create the impossible.
How did you get into the paintings on fur?
Oh gosh. Well, I had a lot of wealthy collectors in New York City and it was in the early ’80s when women would wear their furs to the Met, to the opera, and animal rights people would come and splash their fur coats with paint or spray paint them. For the record, I would like to say that the furs – that I don’t believe in killing beautiful, defenseless animals for fur. The furs that I paint are vintage furs that are going to be destroyed. Also, for thousands of years, American Indians have been painting fur. So it’s a tradition that I didn’t just stumble upon.
But going back to the paint-splattered furs, a lot of my patrons really loved their fur coats. I mean after all, they keep you warm and they’re glamorous. So I had some dear friends cry on my shoulder that their furs were ruined and i said, well, let me see what I can do with that — and the painted furs were invented. Now to give back, we give a percentage of the proceeds of the sales to charities – ABCD (After Breast Cancer Diagnosis) and ARCW (AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin). But just to restate, I don’t condone the killing of small animals for furs.
I like the wording of your biography that says in part, that you find beauty everywhere. Is that a requirement for an artist?
Well, it helps. And really, beauty is everywhere. Have you ever seen something so ugly that it was beautiful? Like a bulldog or a frog?
How long have you been showing at Tory Folliard Gallery?
I‘ve known Tory for about four years, and I believe I’ve been showing with her for three and a half.
Tell me a little about this special film that will be premiering in conjunction with your “Life Lived Large” exhibit.
My partner, Todd Olson, made the film “The Last Supper by Lon Michels.” In some ways the film is a personal love letter from Todd to me, which I’m very flattered and honored by. I couldn’t have done this show without his support as well as the support of my studio assistant Nicole Bresnick. But the film gives a little history of my life. It takes place in a time of painting the painting, “The Last Supper,” which is being unveiled at my opening. It deals with interviewing some of the models that sat for the painting. And the film is really about diversity, hope, integrity, and love. It’s about my journey and motivations to try to paint and create in order to give back, the only way that I know how. And hopefully it’s entertaining and thought-provoking. The film questions religious views but also concentrates on the essence of spirituality, rather than the constrictions of religion. You know what they say – religion is for people that are afraid to go to hell; spirituality is for people that have been there. It all starts at the Next Act Theater at 3 p.m. on June 2nd with opening cocktails and photo shoots, with the film to follow at 4 p.m.! The event will be first come first serve since it is gratis and the venue only has room for 200 people.
What is your advice to young artists, if any?My advice to every artist — I’d like to say for the record that everyone is an artist. You’re an artist if you say you are, whether you cook, garden; raise your children, or whatever. Everyone is an artist. People are born artists. The creation myth runs so strongly in every single person. In our lives, though, people are told, you know, stop singing, stop laughing, stop running, stop playing — stop being an artist So it makes them stop and think that they are not good enough. But, every child can paint and draw, like an angel. It’s just when an adult tells them not to that they stop being an artist.
The second advice that I have is something that my sister Lisa shared with me from Winston Churchill: “Never, never, never, never give up.” Being an artist is like being a flower, or even a piece of fruit, and it takes time for that fruit to ripen, or that flower to bloom. Sometimes it takes a lot of rainy days before that fruit or that flower are at the point where they blossom. Once you give up, you’re no longer an artist.
I’ve also experienced a great deal of adversity in my life. I am a healthy person living with HIV. Because of complications, I also went blind for two years in 2004-2005. I spent those two years in the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute in Miami. In between hospital visits, I continued to paint even though I couldn’t see anything. My friends joked with me. They said, what does it matter if you can’t see? Look at some of the abstract paintings hanging in museums! We laughed. But the truth of the matter is, even through great adversity, one cannot give up. Pain is the process of revelation, so for me, under times of great physical pain or duress, or emotional pain, I’ve grown and learned the most about mankind and myself. Never give up!
What can people expect from the Tory Folliard Gallery show?
Not to sound too egotistical, but hopefully, their jaw will hit the floor. Hopefully, they can expect to feel good, even great. Hopefully, they will feel happy and experience beauty. Hopefully, they may even feel sad. The point of art is to make you feel. If I can make anyone feel for even a couple of moments, I’ve done my job. But all in all, what I expect most people to feel is the joy and love that I feel.