Rock Salt Plum Review interview with Mikey Welsh - Spring 2007
Interview with Outsider Artist Mikey Welsh
By Jalina Mhyana
Mikey Welsh is a self-taught artist based in Burlington, VT. His style is somewhat akin to Art Brut and the Cobra movement of the 1940's. Mikey's mother, who is a classically-trained painter, immersed him in art from a young age. Starting with watercolors and collage, Mikey continued to work on art until the age of 19, at which point he started his music career. At the age of 30, after suffering a nervous breakdown, he dedicated himself to painting full-time. Since 2001, Mikey has had several successful solo exhibitions, selling his work to collectors and working private commissions.
...I could never do figurative art, literal representations of trees and things. I have to get paint everywhere. I feel really good with paint in my hair and all over my hands, a cigarette hanging out of my mouth. I have to feel insane. For me that's the point of doing it. It's like sex - when you're completely out of your mind. like an animal, a mess... - Mikey Welsh
Weezer. One-man shows, wealthy patrons, a storage facility overflowing with oversized paintings, and now a lucrative contract with a high-profile sports company …the list goes on and on. A Boston Sunday Herald article (2/9/03) reads, “…if Welsh has the stuff to make him famous as an artist, he's not sure he wants it - having your picture on lunch boxes and being stalked by 15-year old girls was weird enough. The illusion of art success, he said, is appealing, but the reality might be as disappointing as rock stardom.” Mikey, it seems to me that you escaped into the country to avoid fame and fortune, but your success as an artist might sabotage your efforts. How will you maintain your privacy and quiet family life if you become famous as an artist? Do artists have 15-year old stalkers?Mikey, your exponential success with painting is likely to mirror your earlier success as former bassist of
I'm not sure whether or not most artists have 15-year old stalkers. I am sure that most artists weren’t in a famous pop band for a long time. I did have some of the neighborhood girls ask for autographs on Halloween, though. I think that moving up here [Vermont] was a conscious decision on my part to get away from the city, and most things associated with living in the city - ike maybe getting recognized by someone. Anyone, really. I knew I just wanted to be away from people in general, who I’m not particularly fond of. The human race makes me fairly sick.
I didn’t escape the fortune part though. That I took with me. Ha ha. As far as continuing success as a painter is concerned, my ideas about success with that are extremely different than those I had about being a musician. I love the isolation of being a painter. My studio is in my house, or is part of my house, so I never really have to go outside. Which I like. The more anonymity for me, the better.
In art circles you must sometimes run across people who don't know you as the ex-bassist from Weezer, people who just think you’re an up-and-coming artist from Vermont. How does it feel to be treated like you're not a celebrity? I mean, are you ever tempted to mention that you’ve been on Letterman and MTV? Or do you enjoy being a normal guy without the pressure of being famous?
Well, that's tricky. First of all, I'm not a celebrity.I played in a famous band for a while. TV shows, magazine covers - all the stuff I dreamt of as a kid. I loved it and hated it.
But one’s ego is a dirty little thing. On the one hand, I can get irritated when some kid, or kids on the street bug me. At the same time I don't like waiting in lines and so forth. Yeah, it does bug me when I don't get recognized. I can be kind of a brat. Such is the duality of man, I guess.
Boston’s Paradise Club exhibited over 40 of your paintings for their 25th anniversary celebration. The day of the Paradise opening, one of your pieces from the show was featured in a Rolling Stone article about musicians who paint. This is quite an honor for a neophyte artist. Do you think that your early success was catalyzed by your fame and celebrity connections, or do you feel that doors would have opened for you either way? Is it annoying that some people might attribute your visual arts success entirely to Weezer fame, when in fact it could be a combination of fame, talent, and determination?
I definetly think that my Weezer fame played a role in my early success. It probably always will. That used to really bother me, but I've seen how intensely my work has affected people over the years, and that's a beautiful thing. So the Weezer stuff doesn’t bother me anymore, I'm very proud of it. And I couldn’t care less what anyone else thinks. How can you? You'd never get anything done.
Your paintings headlined a group show entitled Between Rock and an Art Place at the Zeitgeist Gallery. The show featured paintings and sculptures by musicians Jonathan Richman, Juliana Hatfield, and Robin Lane. Why is it that today, artistic crossover is viewed with suspicion? Whatever happened to the glorification of the Renaissance Man? Would da Vinci the inventor be mocked for thinking he could paint?
Well, I think there's usually a good reason to be suspicious of crossover artists. They usually suck. Most of the art in that group show was fairly awful. But when you’re reading it from the point of view of some reviewer, they're probably just annoyed with artists that are already very successful at one thing, and then think they can probably be just as successful at whatever else they try.
On your website you cite a Boston Globe article (2/21/03) that describes your artwork as manic, edgy, and masculine. In that same review, we read of your work: “It’s gripping, but it’s raw - what an artist puts down when he’s exorcising his demons, and before he’s grown into his talent. Do you feel that you’ve grown into your talent now, like a new skin? How thick is your skin in reaction to this lukewarm review?
I don't think that review was lukewarm at all. First of all, yes I think I have definitely grown fully into my talent as a painter. I'll always be growing. But the very things that were mentioned in the article - "raw" and "exorcising his demons", are exactly the point. It's supposed to be raw. That's just the way my work looks, naturally. And of course I'm exorcising my demons. They usually win, but I have to do that every day, like purging, I suppose. All of the greatest artists in history (and obviously not just painters) have always been battling the voices in their heads, so to speak. It's the only way I know of maintaining my sanity.
Do you sense that other artists (especially formally trained, starving artists) may resent your success on the grounds that you’re self-taught? Is there a difference between being formally trained and being self-taught? What can one approach teach the other?
It's difficult for me to know whether or not artists who are trained resent me at all because I'm self-taught. What i do know is that I don't care. It's hard to imagine that anyone would. I guess if you’re not constantly thinking and obsessing about your own work, and spending your time being irritated that so-and-so doesn’t deserve to have whatever kind of success you have... then I suspect that those kind of people aren’t real artists. I think it was de Kooning who said, "Real artists are born, not taught." But really, I don't think it makes any difference. As long as the artist is putting everything they have inside them out there for everyone to see, that's all that matters. To be honest and brave with your emotions and translate that to the painting - that's really the bottom line for me.
You’ve written that your art is somewhat akin to the Art Brut and the Cobra movement of the 1940's. Would you describe these movements, and the influences they have on your work? You also mention being influenced by Basquiat and Robert Rauschenberg. What is it about their work and/or lives that inspire you?
This is a difficult one to answer, seeing that for a long time now I've isolated myself more and more from looking at any other art but my own. But obviously, we all have influences. I think I studied other, older artists I loved a long time ago. The idea being that you see all of the different things you love about other artists’ work, you absorb it, and you slowly turn it into something that belongs entirely to you. Your own language. The Cobra movement was something that was started in Europe in 1948. One of the founding members, and most famous one, was Karel Appel. He is someone that has had a major impact on me, and probably always will.
We’ve spoken about your inclination to let your art speak for itself, as opposed to explaining the intention or concept behind it. You give each painting a provocative, ambiguous title and then stand back and allow people to extrapolate meaning for themselves. I like this noncomittal, noninterventionist stance. The more the art speaks for itself, the more possibilities it offers. It can mean many things to many people. Why did you take this approach?
The kind of answer you don't like - I really don't know how to answer this one, because the way I work these days is the result of spending years alone in the studio, just working and figuring things out. I suppose I do like the end result to be a bit confusing to the viewer, or rather, to keep the images as open as possible so that one can let their mind go and dance around with itself. I do a bit of writing as well, and that's where I get my titles from. They're just an extension of the painting, I guess. More confusion.
But I think that the artist (I'm only speaking for myself here), should be completely removed from the process. The only thing that matters to me is the work. It should always be powerful enough to speak or scream at people. The artist shouldn’t have to stand there at the opening, explaining things to people. If they do, then I suspect the work is weak, flaccid and useless. One of my ideas about my future is to not even have to go to my own openings. Have some guys show up to the house, pick up my work, take it away, and send me the checks when it's all over. I don't want to be seen or involved in anything other than its creation. These so-called "outsider" artists on the other hand are pretty sad, myopic little whores. I don't need the attention. I've already had my fill.
If I’m not mistaken, it was during one of your many stints in a mental hospital that you first started to seriously paint. What were your thoughts at this time? You’ve said that painting is your exorcism. What is it that you needed to exorcise? What did you replace your demons with?
I'm unable to replace my demons with anything. It's impossible. I'm only able to hide from them for a few hours a day, more or less. When I was first living in a psychiatric hospital, I was in a coma for the first few days. After that, I don't really remember a lot of it. Only that I started to paint and fuck around with oil sticks, and that seemed to be a very healing experience, if only temporarily. I was dealing with too many other things with my band at the time, legal things and so forth that were dragging me down. I just remember that when I was making art, it felt really pure and beautiful... the opposite of what music had become for me.
Burlington's Seven Days newspaper called you a prodigious and prolific painter, producing several paintings in one day. How long do you find you can maintain this artistic high, and what are your days like during this frenetic apex?
When I have days in the studio where I'm working on several things at the same time, it's sort of like being in a trance. I completely lose track of time, or anything else that's really going on around me. I usually end up with paint in my hair, lighting cigarettes off of each other, and talking out loud to myself. Sort of like my own private mental institution.
You’re very candid about your experiences with bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and drug addiction. Would you describe the series of events that led you to seek help? Do you think artistic people are more susceptible to disorders and addiction than others?
Well, it's a long story. I'll try to slim it down a bit. Basically, a lifetime of doing drugs and being undiagnosed as having bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and borderline personality disorder finally caught up with me when I was 30 yrs old. At the beginning of a 3-month European tour with Weezer, i started slowly falling apart. Without getting too graphic, by the time the tour was winding up, my weight had gone down to about 140lbs [i'm 6'2"] and mentally completely wiped out. When I returned to the states, my family had made plans for me to see a psychiatrist in Boston. first though, we had to play a few dates around the U.S., and perform on the Tonight Show (which ended up being my last performance with Weezer).
By the time I got to Boston, i was having a complete nervous breakdown. It ended with a severe suicide attempt (an overdose). I was found and rushed to the hospital where I had come to within minutes of my heart completely stopping. I was in a coma for a few days, and woke up in a lockdown psychiatric ward. Uugghh. This is too much. To answer the rest of your question, it usually seems that artists are more likely to suffer from mental illness and addiction, at least the great ones. There is obviously a reason for this. The "tortured" artist really is the oldest cliché, but then again clichés are always based in truth. I'm a romantic, so I eat it all up.
There are dozens of articles about your drug addiction, your mental illness, and your unpredictable behavior. Isn’t this all just part and parcel of rock stardom? Rock stars and movie stars are our new gods of Mt. Olympus; modern-day archetypes acting out humanity’s darkest, most repressed impulses and desires. If we hold famous folk to the moral standards that society deems acceptable, onto whom shall we project our latent selves? Through whose eyes will we glimpse vicarious thrills? What are your thoughts about this?
The idol-worship of celebrities in this country is rather disgusting, yes. I was born the way I am, though. There was no act going on during my rock star days. It was all the real thing. But you can't continue living like that every day. I did, and you see where I ended up. I think as a painter, though, it's much easier to live a somewhat quiet life and just be able to work all day in the studio, without having to maintain some kind of ridiculous image. I prefer being invisible these days. The images in my paintings are my own world, the world I invent and the faces how I see myself on any given day. Representing moods. You mentioned Nietzsche before. My favorite quote of his, which I believe was written for me, is, "These born artists, who can find the enjoyment of life only with the intention of falsifying its image."
If you could magically eliminate all of the disorders from your life, including your feverish bouts of creativity and innate talent that have made you a successful artist, would you do it? Why or why not?
I absolutly would not. Why? Because all of those things make up who I am as a human being. I would never eliminate the panic attacks and suicidal depressions I go through - being hypersensitive to my emotions and surroundings - because coming through to the other side of those things is what produces my art.
What do you make of the term “disorder?” It sounds like a euphemism for being broken. Do you feel broken? What’s the glue that puts you back together?
I am broken. There's no question about that. I'm a walking car accident. But I don't mind. The only things that keep me going are especially my baby son, Jack, and, of course, my work. When I'm painting, and everything involved with it are just flowing, those are really the only times when anything makes sense to me.
Do you still have symptoms of these disorders, and if so, how do you take care of yourself so that you can be effective as a husband, father, and working artist?
Having all of these mental illnesses, of course I have symptoms with them. I have to take a ton of medication, and see my doctors frequently (very). The bottom line is that I am all over the place, and there are days where I simply can't function. I go catatonic. [I] literally lay in bed all day and stare at the wall. I, and my family, just have to ride these things out. That's all you can do.
Now that you’re 35 and more settled down than you’ve ever been, I’m interested in learning about how you’ve arranged your life and schedule to accommodate both art and parenthood. Do you ever find yourself having to prioritize your responsibilities as a new father over your needs as an artist? How do you organize your life so that you can continue to have space for your art?
Well, my wife and I bought a beautiful house back in September in a nice, quiet neighborhood. I have two studios on the ground floor. The nicest studio I've had by the way. So I really don't have any need to leave the house a lot of the time. We also had a baby in November. We hired a nanny, who comes to the house. She's great, and she's here during what are usually my peak hours of work, 9am to 3pm. After that, I take care of the baby. There are times, due to whatever circumstances, I will have to sacrifice the painting to take care of Jack. But there's nothing that makes me happier than hanging out with my son. It's also beneficial for me a lot of the time to hold off on work and let the energy build up. So by the time I get down to the studio, things really start tearing away. It's similar to when you haven’t had sex for a while, and when it happens....well, you know.
Kahlil Gibran wrote that the more deeply we’re carved, the more we can hold. Now that you’ve gone through hell and survived it, what do you most want to hold within you? What is worth keeping?
My family and whatever bits of sanity I've managed to hold on to.
- 2001 performance of "Island in the Sun" on The Tonight Show, referenced in the interview