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Home BLOGS Guest Blog Mike Stilkey Studio Visit

Mike Stilkey Studio Visit
Written by Dave Kinsey   
Thursday, 12 February 2009 08:54
Check out that 5,000 book installation!... Dave Kinsey heads over to Altadena, CA near LA for a quick interview and studio tour.
I thought I'd check in with my good friend (and artist) Mike Stilkey, so I headed over to his studio in Alta Dena, California, just outside Pasadena—Mike's admiration for cats, storytelling and drinking always makes for a good visit. After letting loose for a few hours, this interview came together... please join me on a journey into Stilkey's world. Enjoy. -Dave Kinsey

Age?

33

Location?

Los Angeles

Beverage of choice?

I'll give you a hint: it starts with "b" and ends with "eer."

So tell me Mike, what's your work all about? I see sexy women, bearded men drinking, horses and lots of books. Is there a narrative that can explain this?

I'm a bearded man who likes to drink. Wait, is this a trick question? Hahaha. No, seriously, I like to think of my artwork as one giant poem. I never really have a concrete idea of what I'm going to do. I just kind of feel my way through it and it comes out in a way that I don't always expect. I really try not to edit myself too much. I think the horses are reminiscent of my dad. He was a beer drinking cowboy. And, I love animals. I think they're amazing. I think they are overlooked pretty often. Sometimes I can see the feelings and emotions in animals when I can't see them in humans, so it's easier for me to express the feelings in a lot of my animal characters. What a hippy.

Ok, then who are all these woman, the love of your life, Elizabeth?

Why, of course. Are you kidding me, I was drawing her before I even met her. What can I say, I'm a romantic dude.

Why did you choose to paint on books? It seems like it would have been a challenge to go from working on paper to painting on something so dimensional. What was that transition like?

It was sort of an accident. I was painting on book pages for forever, and actually published a book in 2005 titled "100 Portraits" in which I drew one hundred portraits on old book pages. At the time, I was drawing on books, records or anything else I could find at a thrift store. Eventually, I started drawing on the books themselves. I was going to do a project where I just drew on the covers of the books, and as I finished them I would stack them against the wall. It dawned on me that it might be a good idea to paint down the spines of the books instead of just on the covers. The first one I did I didn't really think much of, but I brought it down to BLK/MRKT, and I remember Jana going crazy over it. We showed it at the second Artists' Annual group show where it got quite a bit of attention, including attention from Kim Davenport, the director of Rice Gallery in Houston.

Do you read any of them? Some of these titles are amazing.

As I did the smaller book sculptures, I would choose books based solely on the title. I wouldn't read the entire book, but I would read random sentences in them. I'm always interested in the notes or messages left in the books by people who used to own them. I would look for discarded or forgotten items left in the books. One time I found two unused plane tickets to New York from 1967.

Yeah, I guess if you read them all you'd still be at Rice Gallery to this day... How many books were in that installation, like 10,000? How long did that installation take to accomplish?

Well, at the time it seemed like 10,000, but I think it was closer to 5,000 books. The complete installation took me ten days, from start to finish. When I arrived at the gallery on the first day, I looked at the 16' by 44' wall and wondered what I had gotten myself into. I guess I needed that sort of anxiety to propel me through the next week and a half.

Crazy—so where did you get all those books?

The majority of the books were donated by the libraries at Rice University and several bookstores in the Houston area. We ran short as I was almost done with the installation and had to buy more so I could finish the piece. But you'd be amazed at how many books are thrown out. I like the idea of reusing all of these discarded items as canvases for my work. I even asked the library up the street from my house if they had any books that they were getting rid of, and they said no. When I explained to them how I use them, they gave me access to a huge dumpster in the back parking lot of the library. The dumpster was filled with thousands and thousands of books. I spent the afternoon fighting with some homeless guy over who got which book from the dumpster.

Your recent solo at Kinsey/DesForges got a lot of critical acclaim—how does this make you feel? Does it inspire you or put pressure on you?

It makes me feel great! It's a huge motivator and it inspires me to keep moving forward with my work. I think it's important to continually grow as an artist. I'm constantly experimenting with different mediums so it will be interesting to see how my work evolves over the next several years . Keep your fingers crossed.

Is this Charles Bukowski below?

Oh, that's a book sculpture that I did of him for a show that is scheduled to happen this spring. I was invited to be a guest artist at a show commemorating Bukowski's old house on De Longpre Ave. in Hollywood, celebrating the city's decision to designate it as a historical monument. It will be a gathering of Bukowski's close friends and colleagues, and somehow I snuck into the mix. I'm a huge fan of his work, so this is quite an honor.

I remember you telling me some crazy stories about your past— do you feel his prose relates to what you've experienced in life?

Whooo, touchy subject. Yeah, I grew up in a pretty wild environment. My parents were both drug addicts. I was raised in Malibu Lake in a little wooden cabin on a hill. My parents threw huge cocaine parties. I used to watch my dad and his friends do coke off a Jeep mirror when I was only five or six years old. At first it was all about the fun and then it turned into a downward spiral. That time of my life was insane. I think that this led to me being pretty depressed when I was a teenager and following directly in their footsteps. This is about the time I started doing art. I would drop all these feelings and anxiety on the paper and truly escape into my work. The good news is that my parents are in recovery and are better parents now than they ever have been. It gets worse but I'm gonna save that for my novel.

Fuck, that's insane. Art really saved your life. Tell me a bit about your studio, it has quite an array of artwork from other artists and knick-knacks. Are you just a packrat or a connoisseur of unique things?

Maybe a bit of both. This is nothing compared to how bad I used to be. My woman has domesticated me, hahaha. I'm a huge collector of random artwork, knick-knacks, records, books, furniture left on the street, well, you get the idea. I might live under a bridge one day.

I've been collecting pieces of original art and prints over the years. This one in particular is one of my favorites. It's a Jay Howell piece from a few years back entitled "Seven Dudes on a Negative Trip", ha ha, makes me laugh every time I look at it. I'm still mad I didn't buy the boner pentagram piece he did.

I also have practically a whole room of work by this guy who calls himself "Kinsey." You ever heard of that dude?

Hah, yeah, isn't he that sex Doctor? So what about this? Is this your rich relative?

This is a photo of a relative of Ernest Hemingway. I wish I had a relative as wealthy or established as this. I had a gallery show at Gilman Contemporary in Ketchum, Idaho, and took a trip out there to do an installation. This Hemingway saw one of my book sculptures and invited me to her home – which is considered to be her "summer getaway". Their house was unbelievable. It was like visiting a museum. The house was filled with the most massive collection of Cuban artwork I've ever seen, tons of fishing rods attached to the ceiling, photos of this Hemingway relative with Castro and Hemingway memorabilia. It was absolutely amazing.

I noticed some newer works you're doing on panel where you've glued old newspaper pages and painted on top on them. Is this a new direction?

Actually, I hate drawing in a sketch book. I found this old book filled with headline pages from the New York Times and started drawing on them. I think it's eventually going to turn into an installation piece, but I'm not sure.

Are you going to continue painting on the books?

Maybe for a little while, but I may get bored and move on at some point.

So why did you choose to move to Altadena? I know Mark Dean Veca and Cleon Peterson also live here. Do you know these guys?

We were living in Silver Lake and wanted to buy a house. We wanted to get out of the city, and Altadena seemed like a happy medium – just far enough away from the chaos and you can have a beautiful house in the mountains.

Yeah, I know Mark Dean Veca but I haven't met Cleon Peterson yet. I'm glad they're close. Maybe we can all start a bowling team up here soon.

What's up with the graff piece in your backyard? Did you used to write?

I didn't actually get into art until later in life. Before art, I was a skateboarder. (Big Surprise). When I was a teenager, I had a friend who lived in a group home. He ran away from the home and my parents let him live in our garage. We would skate together all the time and we made pipe bombs, listened to metal and collected dead animal bones – you know, typical dude stuff. He was in AWR and MSK. I started to hang out with a lot of graffiti writers at the time, and ended up filming a lot of graffiti. I was so amazed that these guys would spend all hours of the night painting all over the city for no reason other than that they wanted to do that – I wanted to be a part of it. I would go to the train yards with them and got into the usual trouble. My graffiti bout lasted only a short while, but was a lot of fun. I stuck the board in the backyard so people can come over and let out there inner angst.

I also noticed a miniature doghouse when we walked into your backyard—is that for miniature dogs or is it some sort of squirrel chateau?

No, actually that is a cat resort. Little did I know that Altadena is home to hundreds of feral cats. We have three inside cats – Harold, Bella and Barney – but when we moved here, we inherited a family of stray cats (about 8 adults and kittens in total). We've even named all of them: we have Momma cat, Piglet, Hisser, Hitler (he has a Hitler mustache, hence the name), Domino, Heathcliff, Half Tail, and Flop Ear. They live in our backyard. We felt bad for them when it started getting really cold, so I built them their own little chateau. Next I'm going to build them a jacuzzi.

What's next for Mr. Stilkey?

Selling oranges on freeway off-ramps in East LA. Oh, and I'm getting married in May!

Next time I come over, I'm going to hope we don't run out of beer, because ten cans of Guinness doesn't quite cut it. You need to get a pool table as well, I heard you're pretty damn good.

Well, I wanted to keep it mellow because I didn't want Jana to bust you again – she's getting the wrong idea about me! Professional artist or professional pool player... hmmmm... that's a tough decision. I've never won a trophy from doing art....

Thanks Mike.

Thanks, Dr. Kinsey.

External links:
http://www.mikestilkey.com
http://www.kinseydesforges.com/
http://www.ricegallery.org/new/exhibition/whentheanimalsrebel.html

Interview and photos by Dave Kinsey - kinseyvisual.com {moscomment}

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