'Live Ink' recordings
December 31. 2013 12:25AM
By Rich Howells Weekender Editor
An art opening typically involves frames, walls, and a certain quiet reverence and decorum, but as Ted Michalowski describes his “Live Ink” solo exhibition at the AfA Gallery in Scranton, it sounds much more like an improvisational concert held in the middle of a classy party attended by bohemians.
That makes perfect sense if you've ever been to one of his Drawing Socials over the last eight years, held every Sunday at the AfA from 6-9 p.m. The 39-year-old artist invites anyone and everyone to check out live musicians as he draws them, and attendees are welcome to draw right along with him, listen to the tunes, or just socialize and stretch other creative muscles. The sessions have become an integral part in Michalowski's life, so the title of the exhibition of these weekly works has special meaning for the Scranton-based illustrator and educator.
“The title is 'Live Ink,' with 'live' being an adjective describing that it's drawn live, it's done right on the spot, just as 'live' often comes before music. And the drawings are about the music; they're drawings of the music while the music is being performed live and the drawings take place as the music is going. They're not prepared in advance and they're not finished after. The drawings start when the music starts and they stop when the music stops,” he began.
“However, a second interpretation, which I welcome and encourage, is it could be read as 'Live Ink' because the life passion of these musicians is music and their instruments and exploration of how to play their instruments in new ways; it really is something you live. Unlike many careers where you punch out of it, you live it, and most of the work I do is ink, so I live ink.”
Drawing Social began in February of 2006, stemming from one of Michalowski's unusual artistic habits.
“I always partook in as well as coordinated and directed and instructed figure drawing sessions and classes, and I had this really great motivational drive in my greatest teacher, Fred Brenner, who often went and drew live music performances. I had this opportunity at a gallery that existed in 2006, the Test Pattern gallery, to try out something new, where they wanted a weekly drawing session, but something other than just a model. So at that time, I was frequently going to live music performances and drawing the musicians as they played,” he recalled.
“I would take students from college classes that I was teaching, and students would naturally feel a little uncomfortable and self-conscious in a live music venue because you're not supposed to draw there; you're supposed to watch. I draw in the mosh pit because I think it's very challenging to draw live music to begin with.
“I sure as hell wasn't going to ask students to do that – quite the opposite. I thought instead of taking students into venues where there's live music, I'll bring the live music into a venue where they would feel more welcome – the gallery.”
He would often get approached and searched at concerts for bringing his large metal case full of art supplies, which people assumed was recording equipment. While it wasn't in the traditional sense, he felt that he was actually recording each show visually by hand, which is easy to see in each of the 30 pieces featured in the upcoming exhibition. Using no pencils or rough sketches, he takes an “unapologetic approach” to his subjects with black ink and splashes of watercolor, creating performance art unto itself.
“I don't erase, and I don't remove. As with a live music performance, there's no fixing it. Anything they do up there, people see. In furthering that, most of these guys play improvisationally. They're not sure where it's going to go, so when I do a drawing, I don't prepare or arrange it in advance. I draw extemporaneously, to do so naturally and instinctively,” he described.
“For three hours every Sunday night, I feel that as the musicians experiment with their instrument or new instruments or new ways to approach their instrument. I always like the immediacy and permanence of ink. It's a black mark and white paper, so it's a pure definition of drawing.”
The Drawing Socials moved just a few blocks down to the AfA in 2007 after Test Pattern closed, and while he assumed they wouldn't last long, they're still running strong to this day.
“The group attracted to the Drawing Social is not necessarily those who draw, but they're drawn to it, as Drawing Social is not only a social environment inviting people to draw, but it's also drawing in terms of pulling in a social element where there's a cultural interaction and artistic exchange, as well as friendship. People who go are those who love to draw and want to be in a very welcoming casual gallery setting, which might be uncommon in a gallery setting. It's very friendly as well as offering very adventurous live music from week to week, most of the time improvisational, always original,” he pointed out.
“Musicians really dig it because I make them feel as comfortable as can be and reassure them that the runway is clear and they can fly it however they want with no restrictions, reservations, or inhibitions.”
Inspired by musicians who “are constantly pushing what they do,” Michalowski has developed a distinct style highlighted with intriguing techniques, such as an eyedropper that blurs and smears elements of the drawings to give a further sense of live motion.
“I can achieve a very eccentric line and a lot of interesting mistakes as well as frustrating mistakes, but that's healthy. I don't have to keep dipping it like I would a brush, and I can get very thick lines as I could with a brush as well as very thin lines, perhaps even thinner than I would with a pen. So it has a very nice language to it. As with any language, once you become fluent in that language and find yourself able to communicate, it's a very exciting thing,” he enthused.
“The composition might be a little more intellectual, but the color is certainly more intuitive. … I might think about the intensity of the music, what kind of effect the music might have that could translate as a color.
“My work is representational. It represents what the band looks like at that time.”
While he says he owes much to the work of David Stone Martin, who illustrated jazz record and magazine covers throughout the '50s and '60s, Michalowski's style is all his own, as are the Drawing Socials themselves.
He personally selects bands “off the beaten path” that he feels have some artistic merit, allowing them to experiment, sometimes forming brand new ensembles. One such group, the Drawing Social Improvisational All-Stars – Jason Smeltzer on theremin, Jamie Orfanella on didgeridoo, Doug Smith on bass, and Matt Scola on drums – will appropriately be playing during the exhibition's opening reception on Friday, Jan. 3 from 6 p.m.-9 p.m., allowing the art to jump right off the walls and into the middle of the gallery.
“These guys play the most. They're very prominent. They're each professionals who make a living doing music. They love it and they live it,” Michalowski said of the All-Stars.
“How often is it that a gallery exhibition would represent potentially 50 people who could be in the room walking around on the floor as they're also represented in the work on the wall? So it should be cool, and it will also make a lot of photo opportunities.”
Attendees will be greeted by the “Love Ink Girls,” cocktail waitresses who will be serving complementary appetizers from Carl Von Luger Steak & Seafood, a restaurant that features one of Michalowski's murals. Offering a limited run of posters from the event, he also promised that some artwork would be “alive and moving” throughout the gallery, though he's letting people discover what that means for themselves.
“I really want to make it inviting for people to come, exciting for them to be there, and rewarding for them to have come. If they're going to make the trip to come and see my work, I want to make sure that I can make it the best time that I can for them.”
For those curious about his artistic process, Michalowski will host an artist's talk and demonstration an hour before the reception, drawing solo performances of the musicians.
Even on opening night, he just can't help but illustrate, noting that it would be uncommon to find any artist not inspired by music.
“It's become a bit of a fix, and I know that word is often used for drug use, but it becomes that in a very substantial way,” he said of his Drawing Socials.
“It brings people in who refuse to succumb to boredom. It requires you to look harder, and the music requires you to listen harder because it's not easily digestible music. Oftentimes questions are asked as to why they play the way they play, how they're playing what they're playing, just as one would ask about the drawing, and then things become really interesting and you start looking at things in different ways and listening to things in different ways.”