Michael Roberts is a Chicago South Side based artist, musican and lawyer who began drawing at an early age and even started live figure drawing in grammar school. Art and drawing was his focus throughout his childhood and he eventually majored in Art in college. Changing gears, he dropped out of college and pursued his other passion, music. Eventually, Michael graduated from law school and after years of absence from the art world, he has returned to his roots in the form of acrylic painting.
Inspired by urban street art and the abstracts of contemporary artists like Richter and the pop art of Warhol, Michael creates multi-layered works which he describes as “organic street art”. Subjects include well known pop figures as well as martial artists. Michael is also an avid practitioner of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and his paintings can be seen at TDC Mixed Martial Arts + Fitness in Chicago.
We took a minute to chat with Michael about his work, his practice and his upcoming show, Portraits by Michael Roberts at The Frame Shop in Bridgeport on September 15th.
Where did you grow up?
Michael: That’s a difficult question… I was born in Poland, grew up in Sweden and was raised in the United States. By the time I graduated from High School I had attended thirteen schools and lived everywhere from New Smyrna Beach, Florida to Baudette, Minnesota – Canada was on the other side of our backyard. So to answer your question; EVERYWHERE!
Who was your biggest musical influence growing up?
M: Now that’s an easy one. Anyone who knows me, knows my unhealthy fascination with Guns n’ Roses. I’m a huge 80’s rock fan. I recently, finally, got around to frame a five-foot original tour poster of Guns n’ Roses that I’ve toted around for almost 30 years. It hangs proudly in our living room (thanks to my sweetest little wife). But I was also hugely influenced by KISS, WASP, Motley Crue, the Stones and some pop icons of the 80s too like Michael Jackson, Prince, Tina Turner and David Bowie.
Where did you go to school?
M: That’s just as hard to answer as where I grew up. I graduated High School in Thief River Falls, Minnesota and after graduation I enrolled in college as an Art Major. I was quickly bored by the basics of figure drawing, grid work, art history and all the fundamental classes and became unfocused. My dream as a 17 year-old was to live fast and party hard, so I dropped out of college and joined a rock band as a singer for years. After a series of band break ups, run ins with the police, bad tattoos and many unmentionables; I had to get my life back on track. My parents were moving to Chicago in the mid-90s and offered to take me with them. I took them up on the offer and got a fresh start. I went back to school this time with a focus on law. I eventually graduated from law school in Chicago.
When did you first start painting?
M: I remember drawing as far back as I can remember. I went to elementary school in Stockholm, Sweden and the curriculum was very art focused for me. You could focus on sports, music or arts. I focused on art. I think I started live figure drawing when I was around 8 years old. I learned to draw using pencils and charcoal, later on water colors, acrylics and oils. I didn’t start painting until high school. In my junior year the theater department asked me to design and paint the stage set for a play. So my first acrylic paintings were these huge ten foot boards of landscapes and various settings. Painting and drawing was very important to me growing up. Since I moved around so much, I was always the new kid and as the new kid I was rarely accepted and bullied. But as soon as I drew the word spread around school fast and it became easier for me to be accepted or just left alone. Of course, the drawings were juvenile and at times vulgar depictions of teachers and naked girls, band logos and anything that came in my head. But it worked. The kids liked them and school became easier.
Who do you paint?
M: Currently my focus is on pop culture, martial arts and history but I’m sure that will change. I love experimenting with new techniques so the subjects change frequently.
Where is your studio?
M: I am lucky enough to have a studio in my house. My wife and I live in Oakwood which is on the south side of Chicago, right around 39th street and the lake front. It gets usually lumped under Bronzeville, similarly to how the neighborhoods get lumped under Lincoln Park on the north side. I turned one of the bedrooms in to my studio then an adjacent room as the varnishing station or if I need to paint large pieces. Then there is an other room that acts as the warehouse. I think I have the most patient and supportive wife in the world.
What is your favorite thing to paint?
M: I really enjoy painting dogs actually. I love capturing their essence and I can be a little looser with my style and have some fun with them.
When did you start painting again or did you never stop?
M: I started painting again four years ago but not seriously until we moved in to our current house. You can’t paint if you don’t have the space. One can only do so much in the kitchen and living room before it becomes burdensome on you and the family. You really need a dedicated space. Once we bought the house we had all this empty wall space to fill up and I thought, why go out and get expensive reprints from some furniture store when I can paint it myself. And the resurgence began there. It took me a while to get the motor skills back since I had not painted or sketched in 20 years but then I excitement for real paintings came back.
How do you think being an artist is different from being a musician? Or a lawyer?
M: I think all three are not so different actually. All three have a story they have to tell, certain rules that need to be followed and some that need to be stretched. They have the excitement when the final product turns out well and they have the boring grunt work that needs to be done too. The lawyer paints the picture with his words, the artist paints the words with his picture and the musician lets you hear that picture.
Why do you think people are drawn to your work?
M: Oh boy, I don’t know. I just hope people like what they see. I work on large pieces and want them to read well from a distance. I particularly like using dirty line work in my work which is the complete opposite of a tattoo artist. I like to see how dirty and at times, ugly, I can get the line but still produce a beautiful piece. I love pushing that boundary. I love that contrast. To me, that’s life and people. Even with all the nasty and dirty things in life, they can all add up to a beautiful life. Maybe that’s what people like about my works. When they step back they see a beautiful piece but if they get up close they see the nasty and ugly line work and shading.
Portraits by Michael Roberts opens at The Frame Shop in Bridgeport, 3520 S Morgan St. on September 15th from 7-10pm. The show will be accompanied with a complimentary tequila tasting by Spice Note Tequila and Scotch Night by Art&Company, Orland Park.