Tuesday, November 3, 2009
The Colorful World of STANKO!
Have you ever looked at a painting and get filled with so much joy that you can't help but smile? Artist Mike Stanko creates works of art that do just that to you! His unique paintings quickly remind you of visual pop artist Andy Warhol and the warm Americana artwork of Norman Rockwell. Vibrant colors jump off the canvas but not shockingly as the simplicity of Stanko's subjects are familiar to us all. I spoke to Mike recently about his artwork, his lovely wife Karin and they're deep love for the Beatles!
MICK: Where did you grow up?
MIKE: I grew up and Valley Stream and that's where we still live. I'm the youngest of three and Karin [Mike's wife] is the youngest of four. Our parents still lived here and for some reason we never moved. My sisters moved to other towns in Suffolk County and Karin's sisters and brothers moved all over the area. We stayed here long enough and figured "why move now"! People say "how long have you lived there?" and I say 50 years! Valley Stream is great! Everything is 20 minutes away. We went to high school with Steve Buscemi.
MICK: Do you keep in contact with him?
MIKE: No, I keep in contact with his brothers Michael and Kenneth. Steven moved into the city many years ago. I was actually in his video, even though he cut me out of it, for his movie "Trees Lounge" which is about a local bar, an old man's bar. Not a great movie. Karin's cousin actually owned the bar and Steven used to hang out there. When he was filming the video for the film, I went over and he asked me if I wanted to be in the video. I had a walk on part. Then he cut me out! But he's cool.
His brothers come to my art shows occasionally. Michael is trying to be an actor. Kenneth comes when he's in town. Jim Breuer from "Saturday Night Live" is from Valley Stream too. So is Fred Armisen from "Saturday Night Live" now!
MICK: Do you work full time as an artist?
MIKE: No. When I got out of college, I wanted to find a wonderful job in this type of field or writing. I went to college for creative writing. I used to be in a band and I would write songs and poetry. My father had a Boar's Head route and he said
"You need money so until you find your job, why don't you work with me". So thirty years later, here I am! I paint a lot but not full time.
MICK: It's been written that your artwork is a cross between Andy Warhol and Norman Rockwell. How do you feel about this comparison and how did you develop your style?
MIKE: I developed my style by chance. When I first started painting seriously, I did this abstract painting and for some reason, it didn't pop for whatever reason. This was like twenty years ago. I got black ink and I outlined all of the separate colors to the best of my ability. Then everything just popped! From that point on, I outlined everything I do. Every single painting! Some people say "Do you think you'll never not outline?" and I say "I'm not sure". This is my style now! Every once in a while, I say to myself 'should I not outline". And the I quickly say " No!" I just do it and I like it! People come up to me and say "Please don't take this as an insult, I really love your work, but is your work a little bit like a coloring book or a paint by numbers?" I tell them yes, it really is!! Sometimes I'll just draw the image on the canvas and just paint that. As I'm painting, I add more detail which eventually will all get outlined. I could really make a coloring book of my paintings and somebody who paints could fill in the colors! But it wouldn't be a Stanko because it wouldn't be the colors I choose. My paintings are bright. I always liked bright paintings. I like being vibrant. I like alive! I'm not putting down any other artists dark works because there's a time and place for me in that area too. In my house, every wall is a different color but it all works! When we first painted the rooms, we told our families and they said "Oh my God!". But when they came over, they said "Wow, it really works!". It's done very tastefully! I have rock and roll memorabilia all over the place, a lot of art work. We have our Presidential room because Karin is very much into the Presidents.
MICK: How much time does it take for you to do a typical painting?
MIKE: It varies but it usually takes about a week or two. In the winter time I paint a lot more. I paint almost everyday whether it's half an hour or more. I really like the winter and I like the fall obviously for the colors. You just walk outside and you see yellow trees! We all grew up in a Yellow Submarine and walked through Pepperland! We are all influenced by everything that touched our life whether we are aware of it or not. Things that influence me are just things that I like. Whether consciously or subconsciously it comes out in my artwork..the colors,the happiness. I'm a happy type guy, very positive.
MICK: Do you work on more than one painting at a time?
MIKE: No I don't. A lot of times I will take a color and paint it where it has to go on the painting. I can't continue until the paint dries because I don't want to smear it or getting it all over my hands. So I will stop, check my email, etc.. I paint in acrylics only so it dries in minutes. I paint in a small room also but it works. If I had a bigger studio, I could have a couple paintings going at the same time. I don't know if that would work because I like to be totally focused. Most of my paintings are things I have a passion for. Something as simple in life as a grilled cheese sandwich! When I'm painting my grilled cheese sandwich, I'm really into the sandwich! Then I will paint a fantasy like an Autumn scene with a blue house type of thing. Even though it came out of my head, it's a place I might want to be! I couldn't paint something that I really didn't feel for. I really like Rockwell stuff. I love the down home feeling. Edward Hopper has that every day American life in his paintings. I love that stuff. A picture can say a thousand words. Wayne Thiebaud is another influence of mine. Very simple paintings of things like a cake sitting in a bakery or a gumball machine. It's beautiful! The colors he uses and the simplicity is fantastic. I'm also a fan of Tiffany glass. When you look at my work you can see the Tiffany stained glass influence. I'm not a religious person but I love going into churches to look at the glass. The colors and jewel tones are just beautiful!
MICK: I've also read that you actually met three of the four Beatles!
MIKE: Yes! In 1974, we were walking through Central Park with a bunch of friends. It was right around the time that John Lennon was being deported out of the United States. I'm a major, major Beatles fan as I said before. As we were walking, it was like "Oh my God, is that John Lennon walking towards us?" It was John and Harry Nilsson! Being a huge Beatles fan, I was in shock! I think it was March 12, 1974. John was going to speak at the March of Dimes Walkathon with Harry Nilsson. We stopped to talk to him. He was very personable. He wasn't get out of here, get away from me. I told him I couldn't believe they wanted to throw you out of the country! I asked him what could we do to help? He said get in touch with my lawyer Leon Wiles and discuss it with him. So I organized a committee to save John Lennon! It was a grass roots fan based committee to keep John in the country. I never knew it was this whole political thing whether is was Richard Nixon, john Mitchell or J. Edgar Hoover trying to get him out of the country. You can't throw John out of the country! It was all politically motivated. John was anti war and he was very vocal with the young people so they wanted him out. So I started this committee and through that I met John four other times. One day I got a phone call from his secretary saying John would like to give you some tee shirts to hand out to you and your helpers. We got a petition up, we put out bumper stickers with my own money. We were asking for donations through Rolling Stone Magazine and we got around 60,000 signatures! We were telling people to mail the White House on June 12, 1975. Flood the White House with support for John Lennon. They actually admitted to getting 30,000 letters that day! So John's secretary said "it's a really big box, can you come to the Dakota to pick it up?". So I go there figuring they'd be out on the curb and I go up to the little office there. The person there said "They're expecting you". Every step was another 'what?" I couldn't believe it! So we went into this elevator up to his apartment. The doors open up and you're right inside John's apartment. The first room you walk into is a huge living room or parlor. They had about 15 mannequins of Yoko Ono standing in a party atmosphere! It was so bizarre! Meanwhile, I'm like 19 years old and I'm trying to act very professional. It was unbelievable. Later on, John thanked me over at WNEW radio station when they won the court case.
Being a big Beatles fan, when Paul McCartney would be in New York City, we were like the local Apple Scruffs. We knew where he was staying and we'd wait outside for him.
I've lived a very pop life. I've always carried a camera so in my house, there's pictures of Karin and I on the Howard Stern Show, Bill Clinton, John John Kennedy, Muhammad Ali , Joe Namath. I think I attribute that growing up a Beatles fan. We grew up just waiting for the next Beatles record to come out! And that didn't suck!!
We met Ringo when he was playing at the Concord. That's a very strange place. When we went up there, it was Jewish singles weekend so there was a couple dozen of us Beatles fans and the rest Jewish singles trying to hook up! It was general admission so I was able to get us a front table! Ringo came over to our table and I shook his hand. Karin actually jumped up on the stage and handed him flowers! It was great!
George Harrison, who was one of my favorite Beatles, passed away before I could meet him. We always gave George his privacy. When he'd slip into town, it was hard to find him.
MICK: On your website, while browsing your photographs, that you visit the graves of many famous people.
MIKE: Yes. As I told you, Karin is a big Presidential person so we've been to like 17 Presidential birth places. Obviously, we have a lot to catch up on! LBJ had one of the nicest ones. He's buried under this big tree in Texas on his property. What really turned me on to this, and it's just like Wayne's World, we went to Mount Vernon which is George Washington's home. Him and Martha Washington are buried in crypts outside. It is gated and there's bars around the crypts but you can actually stick your hand in and touch the actual cement coffin. So I was standing outside of this thing and it just hit me..."Oh my God, George Washington is right in that box!" Not like its my grandfather or grandmother, it's freakin George Washington! I was like dumbfounded and Karin was getting such a kick out of this! So that probably started the whole thing. Then we went to London and they have this really famous, old cemetery which is very ornate and overgrown. If I was a rock band I would love to shoot my album cover there! Then we went to the one in Paris where Oscar Wilde is buried, Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf..many many famous people. So I just get this fascination that "wow, they're right here!". People I've read about, loved and respected whether they're an author, a singer, whatever. I love it!!
To see more on Stanko: http://www.stankoart.com/
Stanko's next show: November 7th, 2009
7-10PM Running Through December 1st, 2009
Ripe Art Gallery
Greenlawn, New York