American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives,” but Hamilton resident Howard Michaels is proving otherwise.
Since he retired in June from Lawrence Intermediate School, where he taught art for some 17 years, Michaels is launching what might be the fourth act of his life.
Just in the past couple of years, Michaels has found an artistic niche with his one-of-a-kind graphic portraits of rock music icons like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, George Harrison, David Bowie, Tina Turner, Bob Marley, Prince, and Amy Winehouse.
The Harrison piece, “When He Was Fab,” was created using hand-cut stencils and spray paint on a wood panel, and depicts a serene, somewhat mystical, young George Harrison.
The Winehouse work, “Body and Soul,” was crafted with hand-cut stencils, spray paint, and traditional acrylic paint and brush work on canvas.
These are just two examples of the art forms that had been percolating in Michaels’ imagination as he closed in on his retirement from LIS. He says if he’s not making something, he’s thinking about making something.
As the end of his teaching career approached, he also met and was encouraged by friends and connections he made within the Trenton mural arts/graffiti/activism community, folks such as Will “Kasso” Condry, Leon Rainbow, Dean “Ras” Innocenzi, and Jon “Lank” Conner. But more about those relationships later.
Michaels has gone from teaching to joining a handful of gifted local/regional artists who operate and exhibit at the Visual Stream Gallery Collective on North Main Street in Lambertville — where his portraits of music legends, as well as museum quality, giclee prints of his hand-tinted vintage Cape May beach scene, are currently on view.
Other gallery partners — connected through Trenton’s creative community — include Trenton-based sculptor Bruce Lindsay, artist and West Windsor Arts Council executive director Aylin Green, artist/jewelry maker Alia Benslimane, and mixed-media artist Kathleen Liao.
There is also the gallery’s first guest artist, Abelardo Montano, a Trenton resident whose digitally enhanced drawings and photography will be on exhibit through Friday, September 28.
Michaels says it was through Benslimane that he first heard about and got connected with Visual Stream.
“I went to an exhibit by women artists at a new gallery at the old Broad Street Bank (The BSB Gallery),” he says. “I heard some people, including Alia, talking about a co-op that was in the works, so I asked about it, asked them to keep me posted, and possibly included. Visual Stream opened during the Shad Fest in April.”
Michael was born in Paterson in 1951. His father owned the kind of urban general store you rarely see anymore.
“My dad had a 5 & 10 called Michaels Variety, and it was a real community store,” he says. “He had everything from toys to sewing and school supplies, and even a special Italian section with espresso cups and whatnot.”
“I used to work there, especially around Christmas time, up until my teens,” Michaels says, adding that his mom was a homemaker, but later worked in retail.
In addition, Michaels’ uncles in nearby Totowa had a drug store/consumer items store that was transformed into an art gallery in the late 1990s. Michaels eventually was invited to a show there and was surprised, “The gallery was in my uncles’ old pharmacy. I walked in, and I couldn’t believe it.”
Michaels says he didn’t come from an artistic family, but he always seemed to be drawing anyway and had a knack for it.
“Everyone knew I could draw, but I didn’t take extra classes or anything. I was actually more into sports,” he says, recalling games of stickball, softball, and basketball staged on the concrete playgrounds of Paterson.
To prove his point he shows a couple of drawings he did as a pre-teen, reflecting pop and sports culture of the early 1960s, as well as history.
In his collection there are drawings of Paul McCartney and the other Beatles, a dead-on depiction of his hero Mickey Mantle, and a thoughtful portrait of John F. Kennedy, which Michaels drew when he was in eighth grade, in 1964.
“I just had a knack for looking at photographs and drawing them, but Mickey Mantle really shows my passion,” Michaels says. He then tells a tale of childhood obsession with the Yankees.
“In the early 1960s it was the New York Yankees and Mantle that became my baseball passion,” he says. “I still remember 1961, when Rodger Maris and Mantle had one of the greatest historic seasons for hitting home runs.”
“I played all the sports but baseball was my favorite, from Little League through high school,” Michaels continues. “As a youngster I had many positions on the field: I pitched, played infield, and even caught as a (boy), then later in high school. Through all this, I always stayed creative, drawing and painting at home and school.”
Michaels’ skills and interest in art blossomed at William Paterson College, where he earned a BA in fine arts with a minor in art education in 1975.
After graduation, Michaels found himself Down Under, recruited to teach in a remote town in New South Wales, Australia, for two years.
He recalls having only about 10 students in a small classroom where, outside the windows, a herd of sheep might pass by at any time. He says some of his kids were partly Australian Aborigine in ethnicity, and he has maintained an interest in Aboriginal art and culture.
Sometimes he also uses Aboriginal design elements to accent his rock musician portraits, such as in his likeness of Prince.
On a hiatus from the classroom in the early 1980s, he and good friend Marsha Cudworth saw that Cape May was becoming a mecca for foodies and lovers of Victorian architecture, and the two artist/authors self-published two fully illustrated books about the town.
Then Michaels’ interest in historical scenes from the Garden State led him to develop a collection of original vintage Jersey Shore photographs, which he individually hand-tinted, using photo oils.
The hand-tinting work kept him quite busy for some time — with Michaels providing a 1991 cover for the Princeton Alumni Weekly commemorating the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Michaels’ art has also appeared on the cover and inside “Scholastic” magazine, “New Jersey Outdoors,” and “Victorian Homes.” A full-page example of his work was featured in the textbook, “The Marshall’s Hand Coloring Guide and Gallery Book” (Grace and George Schaub, 1995).
In addition to publications, Michaels has exhibited his hand-tinted works at locations such as the Noyes Museum at its former location in Oceanville, and elsewhere on the Jersey shore. And besides Visual Stream, Michaels also shows his hand-tinted pieces at venues in central Jersey, including the Brookwood Cafe in Hamilton.
He returned to the classroom in the 1990s, teaching art in the Ocean County school district, and was then hired by the Lawrence School District in 2001.
At LIS he discovered that cartooning (especially Sponge Bob) was an excellent way to relate with the fourth, fifth, and sixth grade art students.
Another venture into pop art he shared with his LIS students was “King Tut.” This dazzling and realistic sarcophagus began as a cardboard box and, through Michaels’ imagination and skill, grew to become a labor of love.
Then there was Michaels’ more recent “Funky Tut,” a custom x-ray (done by Michaels’ chiropractor) of the interior armature of Tut’s torso — the chicken wire, aluminum foil, screws, etc., that hold the thing together. Lit up with LED lights, it graced the window of Trenton Social bar and restaurant for a while. The multi-media construction is now on view at Visual Stream.
Returning to talk regarding Trenton, Michaels says there was something about the Trenton art scene that felt like home.
His connections with the Trenton art crowd began several years ago when he got involved with Artworks. There he met DJ/promoter/activist Jacque Howard, who drove him around the East Hanover neighborhood and brought him to the SAGE Coalition, just at the start of the Gandhi Garden.
“I met Kasso there when he was painting the Gandhi mural,” Michaels says. “That was when I recognized that the man in the SAGE logo was an Aborigine, and we connected over that.”
“That was the beginning of me hanging out in Trenton,” he says. “I met all the guys, but it was Jon Conner who really influenced me, his involvement with community activism and the ‘Windows of Soul’ project, I was part of that too.”
“I liked the young, energetic type of people I was meeting, and they didn’t judge me – I was their contemporary,” Michaels says. “All this energized me, helped me to focus on helping out as well as being part of the art scene, but I hadn’t started my own brand of art yet. I was more of an observer.”
Little by little, he experimented with painting on photography, showing some of this work at the Trenton Downtown Association’s now inactive Gallery 219 on East Hanover Street. Michaels also played with retro images of Twiggy and other fashion models from the 1960s, doing a combination of painting, photography and montage.
Michaels’ focus on musical superstars began after Prince died in 2016 and SAGE artists created a giant mural in tribute. Michaels was inspired to try and create a stencil of Prince, but didn’t quite know how it was done.
He says Conner gave him some artistic advice and moral support, telling him, “No matter what you do, it’ll be good.”
Michaels says he then “used the copy machine at school, made really big copies (of a Prince image) and pasted them on cardboard, then started cutting out around the lines. Leon Rainbow suggested I spray paint it. That was the beginning of me doing the music icons, spray painting around stencils.”
The Prince piece is titled “1999” and was crafted from hand-cut stencils, acrylic markers, and spray paint on fiber board. (The story of its creation is more complicated, but stop into Visual Stream and the artist will clue you in.)
Michaels later did an anti-violence poster featuring John Lennon, and followed that with Harrison, then David Bowie, Janis Joplin, etc., and then a self-portrait, showcasing his goatee, sunglasses, and headphones.
The artist has since shown his rock-related work at the Trenton Punk Rock Flea Market, Base Camp Trenton, Common Threads exhibitions at the Hopewell Valley Vineyard, Art All Night, Art All Day, and Verve restaurant in Somerville, among others. And coming up in November, he will exhibit a variety of prints and mixed media works at Sumo Sushi and Teppanyaki in Pennington.
Trenton’s new mayor, Reed Gusciora, is an admirer of Michaels’ work, and the artist’s graphic design/portrait of Jimi Hendrix hangs in a significant spot on the walls of City Hall.
“I had an art show at Base Camp Trenton where one room of the building is the Siegel-LaBate Realty Company (on Front Street),” he says. “The rest of this renovated townhouse is used to rent temporary office space. What I didn’t know was that a few months earlier, it was also the campaign headquarters for Reed Gusciora.”
The mayor, who had previously met Michaels during a Trenton Social bike ride through the city’s historic sites, saw Michaels’ work and was drawn to the Hendrix graphic design with the quote, “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.”
“While discussing my art work with him, I got a general sense of why this particular piece interested (the mayor),” Michaels says. “Besides liking my nostalgic rock legends series, I think this quote really resonated with the Mayor. It’s a very positive message for a politician and for the city as well.”
Visual Stream Gallery Collective, 7 North Main Street, Lambertville. Guest artist Abelardo Montano on exhibit through Friday, September 28. Hours: Fridays and Saturdays, 1 to 7 p.m., and Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. www.facebook.com/visualstream/
Michaels’ art will also be exhibited at Sumo Sushi and Teppanyaki, 12 South Main Street, Pennington in November. 609-737-8788. www.sumo12.com.
Howard Michaels on Facebook: www.facebook.com/hmichaelsart/