Artist of the Week: Art Painted on Stacks of Books by Mike Stilkey

Written and visual art go hand in hand perfectly, and the lines between the two are constantly being blurred by calligraphers or people who do book covers.

Books have been around in one form or another since ancient times, but it was not until Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 15th century, that books really began to spread. In fact, Gutenberg’s printing press remained virtually unchanged for another 5 centuries, and is still the basis of all printing presses everywhere.

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Painting, on the other hand, is even more ancient than books. Humans have been painting for tens of thousands of years, so there is something almost instinctual about it.

In today’s article, we will be taking a look at an artist that uses books as canvases for his paintings. The artist’s name is Mike Stilkey, and let us tell you a little more about him.

Mike was born in 1975, in Tarzana, California. He turned to painting as a way to express himself, after suffering a series of injuries left him unable to skateboard at the age of 20. His dream was to become a professional skateboarder.

Skateboarding was where I let out my emotions, but since I couldn’t skate anymore, I picked up a pencil and expressed what was inside…the good, the bad and the unknown. This was the only way I could let it out.

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He spent the next 4 years painting and doing odd jobs, and after his father attempted suicide in 2000, Stilkey fell into a depression, and suffered what he calls a “mental breakdown”, which lead to him donating his car, quitting his job, and promising himself never to work for anyone ever again.

Why would I struggle doing something I hated. I’d rather struggle doing something I love.

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After only a week, he met Markus Brandley, the owner of the Artpiece Gallery in Los Angeles, who invited him to use the gallery as a studio space. It was at the Artpiece Gallery that he produced the works for one of his first solo exhibitions, called 100 Portraits, comprising of -as the title suggests- 100 portraits done on book pages. These portraits were also published as a limited edition book.

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In 2006, his woks got him noticed by Jana DesForges and Dave Kinsey, owners of the BLK/MRKT Gallery, who invited him to showcase some of his works at a group exhibition at their gallery. At this show, he debuted his first book sculpture.

It was sort of an accident. I was painting on book pages for forever. 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.

The next day after the show, Rice University asked him if he would do a large installation, and within a week, Mike was in Houston, Texas working on it.

The piece was made up of 5,000 books, and was showcased at the Rice Gallery in 2007. Since then, it has become a permanent display at the Rice University, being bought by the institution.

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2007 marked Stilkey’s rise to fame, and he has went on to exhibit at many prestigious galleries and museums, like the Bristol City Museum in the UK, Mesa Contemporary Art Museum in Mesa, Arizona, the Andrea Schwartz Gallery in San Francisco, Gilman Contemporary Museum in Ketchum, Idaho, and LeBasse Projects in Culver City, California.

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Aside from shows in the US and UK, Mike has also made installations in Bordeaux, France; Hong Kong, China; Turin, Italy, Manila, Philippines; and Bern, Switzerland. In fact, his largest work to date, entitled Discarded Romance, debuted in Hong Kong Times Square in 2012. The installation was 24 foot high by 14 foot wide, and it consisted of over 5,000 books. Discarded Romance was the centerpiece of his solo exhibition Full of Smiles and Soft Attentions.

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Last year, in 2013, the Washington Post approached the artist to commission a piece for the 50th Anniversary of the Death of John F. Kennedy. Stilkey made a portrait of the much-beloved US president on books written about him -the president-. The piece became the front page of the October 27th issue of the Washington Post.

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His works are a touch surreal, a touch expressionist, and two spoon-fulls unique. Andrew Hosner describes his works particularly well, stating:

Utilizing a mix of ink, colored pencil, paint and lacquer, Stilkey’s work features a melancholic and at times whimsical cast of characters, with an aesthetic reminiscent of Weimer-era German expressionism. Inhabiting an ambiguous environment, his subjects convey a lingering sense of loss and longing. Stilkey reaches beyond the formal confines of painting and drawing, using such materials as record covers, book pages and book covers to create the spaces in which his characters exist. The artists work melds the visual world with the literal. Examining the limitations and interchangeability of the communicative process, Stilkey’s work reinvents the canvas to push boundaries between words, visual art and music.

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You can read Hosner’s whole article for Arrested Motion (which also includes an interview with Stilkey) here.

The artist calls his works “book sculptures”, and it is a really aptly chosen name. The paintings themselves are beautiful in their own right, there is no doubt about it, but it is the fact they are painted on books, and that the books are arranged in a certain way, that make Mike’s works really stand out.

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We love watching Mike’s wonderful works, and we are sure that you do to, so we will just let you scroll on down, and see a few more of our favorites. If you want to see more of his works, be sure to visit his website here, and don’t forget to tell us which are your favorite, or share any other thoughts you might have, in the comment section below.

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