Beneath the Surface

A Milwaukee inventor has created a tool for artists that is changing the way they work.

Steven Kaishian sports dark-rimmed glasses with salt-and-pepper hair. On this mid-July day, he also dons a protective smock smeared with white paint, and has orange scissors that peek out from a pocket. It’s a drastically different look for the former Rockwell Automation engineer, who was laid off in 2012. But after being booted from cubicle life, he delved into a new line of work that has Milwaukee artists clamoring for what they believe is an industry-altering canvas design.

“It’s like the difference between a beeper and a cell phone,” says local artist Reginald Baylor, who is known for his graphic paintings of city life. “There haven’t been any advancements in canvas for centuries.”

The idea for the new canvas came from Kaishian’s wife, Pamela Anderson, who is an abstract artist. She had long used traditional open-frame canvases, but they frustrated her because the canvas moved as she painted with heavy brushes and tools. Another downside: A traditional canvas can create a shadow effect when it makes contact with the frame’s wood supports. So Kaishian tapped his engineering expertise and developed a cotton canvas that is stretched over a hand-crafted frame, which is supported by lightweight, rigid foam. “It’s a hybrid between a traditional canvas and a wood panel,” he says from his cramped workroom in the Third Ward’s Marshall Building. It’s a space he shares with artists, including his wife.

Kaishian at work. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.
Kaishian at work. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.

Kaishian formed Infrastructure Canvas in May 2013 around the new design, which recently received a U.S. patent. The business, he says, has 2015 revenues that have already surpassed those of 2014. Beyond the cash infusion, his wife sees another major benefit to using Kaishian’s invention. “Easy access,” she says, smiling.

Some of the other Marshall Building artists would likely agree. After all, the building has become the source for much of his repeat business, including artist Melissa Dorn Richards, who creates paintings that feature heavy layering done with a palette knife. She, too, is a convert to the new canvas. “It’s easier to control the lines,” she says.

Baylor, who works from the same shared space as Kaishian, says the new canvas “doesn’t warp and is virtually puncture resistant.” For an artist who usually sketches in pencil first, the surface’s rigidity allows his pencil to move better. All of this makes Baylor “a little giddy,” he says.

“It has saved me hours of work.”

‘Beneath the Surface’ appears in the September 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.