The Face Stealer
Mike Frick is a painter who lives in Flagstaff, Arizona and has been embracing oblivion since 1959
What’s your background?
I went to art school in the early ’80’s after getting out of the army. I worked in graphic design. I worked in New York, Philadelphia and Austin. I started painting full-time in 1999 and I’ve been doing it off and on since then, supplemented by occasional graphic design work. I’ve also done some gallery shows.
Why do you do portraits?
I have always been fascinated by the face. I was doing more whimsical stuff, with people drinking coffee, but I whittled it down so people are doing nothing but confronting you now in the portraits. It’s powerful but a harder sell. People don’t like strangers staring at them. It’s okay if it’s a family member, but otherwise the people in the paintings freak you out. My emotions come out on the canvas. I work with a live model or from photographs. I alter the emotional gestures on the face so they look weirder, more thought-provoking.
Are you trying to create visual confrontations with your work?
Yes, it’s more interesting if it disturbs you. If it’s confrontational, you can’t just dismiss it. I’m trying to get people’s attention. Some of my paintings have enough confrontation to draw you in.
Where do you paint?
In my cabin in Flagstaff, Arizona. My walls are covered with portraits. There’s always a party at my house. I wake up to people staring at me.
Is it disturbing to have all those portraits looking at you?
I like being disturbed. Life’s disturbing. People are disturbed. Everyone’s experiencing a crazy time right now.
Are you going to expand to different subject matter?
I’m going to stick with portraits. I was just painting the face and hands but now I’m getting away from the hands. I don’t see anything more important than the human face. I’m a die-hard romantic. It’s all about relationships and love. A lot of my paintings are of old girlfriends. My paintings are a way to express my emotions. I’ve tried landscapes and whimsical, vintage stuff. Nothing is more enjoyable than the portraits. If I were a photographer, I would do the same thing, but I have free reign to create my own emotional state in a painting.
Are your paintings a sort of diary?
I was a writer for a while. I worked at a weekly paper. I always enjoyed writing stories about people and now I can do that in a painting.
Did you feel like you “hit the mother lode” when you developed your current style of painting?
Maybe I found fool’s gold.
I’ve been in a lot of galleries … in New York, San Francisco … but now I can’t really move the portraits I do. It’s become difficult to sell paintings but the work is more rewarding on my end. I do get plenty of commission work that keeps me busy. Sometimes people will hire me to paint their children, with frightful results—the parents end up being shocked by what I do.
What other painters influenced you?
Classic painters: Alice Neel, Lucian Freud, all those portrait painters. Locally, I’ve been influenced by some really good friends that have moved on, but I really love this town and I’ve been in a big city, so I don’t feel the need to move.
Joe Soren is a huge influence in my life. I shared a studio with him and got a lot of the need for emotional connections in painting from him but eventually you have to go off on your own.
Do you have an agenda when you paint or do you paint intuitively?
I try to paint a nice painting and then fuck it all up. There are a lot of great painters that can do a human face with lots of emotion and make it beautiful but I like to mess it up because it adds a lot to it. I don’t know if I could do a normal face. I’m trying.
So you start out trying to paint something beautiful but it comes out messed-up?
It’s about what’s going on in your life at the time you’re painting. If you read too much bad news, it’s totally going to change how you paint. I have a friend who won’t read unpleasant news stories so he can make beautiful “Norman Rockwell” paintings that will sell well.
Do you have a vision of where you’re going to go next with your art?
I have a lot of series that I plan to do but I’m just having fun painting portraits right now. They are confrontational and people have fun viewing them.
As you delve deeper into self-exploration with your painting, is your work becoming more challenging for the average viewer?
I had a show in a restaurant and they ended up taking some of the paintings down because people had to eat in there. They had to take down the paintings of women with blood coming out of their mouths.
Occasionally, I’ll go over to someone’s house and they’ll show me that they have one of my paintings in their bedroom. It’s the first thing they see in the morning. The stranger the paintings are, the more people enjoy them. People are weird. You never know what they’re going to like.
Not everyone likes my portraits. I do have old girlfriends e-mailing me and chewing me out for making them look horrendous.
Do you name your portraits after your subjects?
The name of the painting usually ties in with the subject. It’s usually something about despair.
What was the project you did in Tucson?
I worked with David Aguirre from Dinnerware Gallery. There was a fence on Congress Street that was blocking off an area where they were putting in rails for a trolley. People started hanging pictures, so I sent a bunch of sketches and they hung them on the fence. People wrote on the pictures. Then the monsoons came and destroyed a lot of the work.
Did doing art change your life?
Yes, though I’m not sure if it was for better or worse. If I wasn’t a painter, I would probably be a writer. I thought being a writer would be easier than painting but it’s not.
Do you ever regret your choice to do art for a living?
What could be more grand than being a starving artist? I don’t regret it. It sets you apart from the rest of the people in the muck. It helps you get out of it.
By choosing to live as an artist, are you sending a message to people?
This lifestyle wouldn’t work for most people.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to be an artist?
Be a lawyer instead. People always want comfort and security.
If you really want to be a painter, first paint a hundred paintings, then decide if it’s really what you want to do.
My dad steered me towards graphic design, which is an easier way to make money, but the creative side will eat at you until everything seems ridiculous unless you’re pursuing that creative dream. It took me a while to get here. It makes you believe in God … destiny … fate.
Where do you find your subjects?
I’ve found a lot of faces on Facebook and twitter, because there’s so much reference material there of people you would normally never see. It used to be that people would have to look at yearbooks, or maybe mug shots, but now I can get a face or emotion just by hanging out on twitter. I can totally steal someone’s face and they have no idea.
Has the fact that you use people’s images without their permission ever upset anyone?
People have said, “Don’t use my face. It’s copyrighted.” I’m going to use it anyway.
Is your work political?
It is a bit social of commentary, when you’re stealing people’s faces off the Internet. I’m all about stealing souls. Don’t put your picture on the Internet unless you want your soul stole.
I’m just painting and everything in my life comes into it. It’s fun doing a big, six-foot painting of someone’s face, all fucked up, and people are disturbed by it. It’s power.
How do you promote your work?
I keep painting and people notice once in a while.
Are there any collections of your work in book form?
No, I’ve done everything wrong as far as an art career goes. I’ll leave self-promotion and books for others to do after I’m dead.
What do you hope people will say about your work when you’re dead?
I’m not sure I care because I’ll be dead. I hope they find good deals on the stuff at garage sales. Hopefully, my son will benefit. He’s got a good collection already.
You’re not concerned about your legacy?
No, you can’t pursue that. For me, to be singled out for notoriety is crazy. Every painter thinks that what he does will last forever. I did a series on cardboard and then I made paper drawings that were hit by a monsoon. Nothing lasts. Musicians never last but the music does.
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Visit Mike Frick’s Website
Click on the images below to see examples of Mike’s work.