The son of a fifth-generation stone mason, Lon Michels learned perspective from his father’s work. Michels grew up in the small Midwestern town of Marquette, Wisconsin and followed his mother’s artistic lead early on. “I remember that she would throw flowers in a pattern across the floor and then make paintings of them.” After college, he moved to New York City as a working artist. Lon received his MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and was nominated for a Joan Mitchell grant in 2007. Along with his partner and fellow artist, Todd Olson, he recently launched the Lon Michels Gallery in the Uptown Design District in Palm Springs. Both artists have numerous works in museums and private collections.
KB: Lon, I first learned about you through meeting your charming partner and fellow artist, Todd Olson. I was fascinated by your story and wanted to learn more. I love that you’re the son of a fifth-generation stone mason. How did you chose painting as your genre of choice?
Lon Michels: I did not choose to be an artist, it’s just how I was born! My mother is an artist; every inch of her home is painted, so painting was all around me throughout my life. Stone masons are artists as well—I learned my lines from my father, and my color from mother.
KB: You got your introduction to the NYC Art World working as sculptor Louise Nevelson’s studio assistant. Why was that so important to your development as an artist? Have there been other artists who were instrumental to your growth?
LM: Louise Nevelson is a legend in the art world. Ms. Nevelson was the first working artist I had known besides my parents (my style has been my own since I started painting). But I have been influenced by many artists in my career—Picasso, Matisse, Dufy, Van Gogh, and I am continuously inspired by new artists every day.
KB: After New York, you moved to Key West. And then something happened. The worst thing that could ever happen to an artist: you lost your eyesight. What happened?
LM: I got an infection in my optic nerves, it was very serious and was told I would never see again. It was the most difficult thing that had happened in my life, but it also became the most beautiful thing because when you can no longer look outside of yourself, you are forced to look within and I gained new insight about myself and the world.
KB: And how did you regain your sight—and your spirits?
LM: Because of the nature of the infection and damage, I was told I would never see again, but I’ve always had a positive attitude about life—my parents taught me that life is not what happens to you but how you handle it. I also had many friends and other artists who loved me and supported me and did not give up me even when I wanted to give up. In fact they encouraged to keep painting even in blindness, which I did—and people tell me that some of those paintings make them so happy they want to dance. In the end, I regained my sight through many experimental procedures.
KB: You then moved back to Wisconsin to continue your education (earning a Master of Fine Arts degree in 2007 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison), and painted there for many years. Why the decision to open a gallery in Palm Springs?
LM: My partner Todd and I have a large studio on our little farm in Wisconsin where 100s paintings have been completed, but we’ve been wintering in Palm Springs for six years and love the people and history of the Coachella Valley. It’s always been my dream to open up my own gallery. Todd and I felt that Palm Springs—for so many reasons—would be the perfect place. Not to mention that the sun reflects off the sand and makes the colors even more intense for painting!
KB: And you and Todd have a unique vision for the Lon Michels Gallery—the art is both curated and created in an intimate French Salon-style studio setting. So does this mean that the public is invited to walk in and watch you create?
LM: Yes, every Tuesday through Sunday! Todd and I welcome the public and encourage them to visit and ask questions—and even come and see the creation of a painting from start to finish, spread out over weeks or months.
KB: Lon, what’s your mission statement as an artist?
LM: Painting has always been a second language. I also see painting as a social commentary on the world in which we live. I use religious and historical references to respond to the world in which we live today. I believe that not only is painting a form of prayer and meditation, but in the act of painting I am creating positive energy in the world. Basically my statement is this: “The world is a beautiful place, with beautiful color and imagery, my glass is half full not half empty.” Painting with integrity, love and passion is the way in which I give gratitude to God and the universe. I live to paint and paint to live.
KB: What’s your favorite subject matter? How did you come to develop your signature patterned style and bold palate?
LM: I love painting live models because there is an interaction there that is truly beautiful. My bold palate and patterned style comes from the world in which we live. All of my colors are found in nature. My patterns come from observing the complex world in which all of us live and share.
KB: Lon, you’ve been painting for over 45 years, and have created over 1,500 pieces of art—including squirrel skin ladies’ shoes! Do you have a favorite piece or series?
LM: All of my paintings are like children to me. Each piece is painted with an enormous amount of joy and love. In fact, our upcoming Grand Opening for the Lon Michels Gallery on Oct. 26th is titled “JOY.” I can not say that I have a favorite painting yet because my work is not done—there are many more paintings to paint!
KB: Tell me more about your Grand Opening, and your new location.
LM: The Grand Opening Party is Oct. 26th, 5 pm-9 pm, 1061 North Palm Canyon in Palm Springs. We’re excited about the location of our new gallery as it’s in the new noted destination space of the Palm Springs Uptown Design District, along with numerous other galleries and exciting venues. We plan to show a documentary about my life (directed and produced by my partner Todd Olson): ” The Last Supper by Lon Michels.” We invited all to come enjoy food, music, and film under the stars…and ART!
KB: When you’re not creating works of art, how do you and Todd spend a typical weekend in the beautiful village of Palm Springs?
LM: We love to float in our pool and take a nap! It’s said that the best things are in your own backyard—so true. The desert has some of the best weather in the world, so there is no better place to enjoy the outdoors with magical views, than in our own backyard with our little Maltese, Bazzy. We love the people of Palm Springs with all their warmth, and have many wonderful friends to spend quality time with. We also enjoy attending openings and events for other galleries and artists.
KB: Lon Michels, why do you and Todd feel so passionately about the community of Palm Springs?
LM: People in Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley are accepting of diversity and even celebrate that diversity. After living in many places around the world, to experience so many living so close (in almost a village setting) and all get along and help each other is truly a beautiful thing! Greater Palm Springs is stunning because of the desert with the mountains for a backdrop. Now we’d like to make Palm Springs a world-class destination known as the “Valley of Arts.”