Michael Dykehouse on the lead paint portrait of Rick Snyder that made him famous, and why it is that he thinks no one wants it in their home

I know this might be old news to some of you, as this story went international last week, but, as I was out of town, I didn’t have an opportunity to speak with local artist Michael Dykehouse until last night. Following is our conversation about his now famous lead paint portrait of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, how it came about, and what he thinks about all the attention.


MARK: Since you went public a few days ago with your painting of Rick Snyder, there’s been quite a bit of press. Has anything interesting come about as a result of the exposure?

MICHAEL: I’ve received some really nice emails from people… lots of very thoughtful and supportive messages. Those have made me very happy.

MARK: How about hate mail? Have any of our Governor’s supporters reached out to you yet?

MICHAEL: Ha… No, but people have left comments online, though, in response to the various articles… They say things like, “Typical liberal bullshit.”

MARK: I saw that the Washington Post picked the story up today. How many news outlets have run it now?

MICHAEL: I think the story was picked up by the Associated Press, so I believe close to a thousand different papers ran it.

MARK: And how did the the first story, the one that ran in the Detroit News, come about?

MICHAEL: Kevin Ransom (who is also a writer) shared the painting online, and Neal Rubin saw the image and contacted me with the idea of doing an interview.

MARK: I saw the idea floated online that maybe someone would purchase the portrait from you and donate it to the Flint Institute of Arts. Do you get the sense that might be a possibility?

MICHAEL: That would be amazing, but I have no idea how realistic it is. To be honest, I haven’t even had one offer for the painting yet… So, no, I don’t think it will happen, but it’s an awesome dream.

MARK: I find it hard to believe that the story ran in thousand different papers, and millions of people probably saw the image, with is really incredibly powerful, but not one single person reached out and made an offer. Why do you think that is?

MICHAEL: Because it definitely isn’t decorative art. It’s ugly art. There are museums the world over filled with objects that most folks wouldn’t display in their homes, even if you gave it to them, regardless of the perceived value. I haven’t lost faith yet about it selling, though. It’s still only been less than a week. But, if it doesn’t sell, I guess I could hold onto it myself. I actually sell most of the work that I make, and rarely keep anything for myself. I don’t like living with my own art.

199d7103-874b-4830-821d-e517128f71f4MARK: Why is is that you don’t like living with your own art?

MICHAEL: I tend to keep analyzing what I perceive as successes and failures. I just can’t stop working on them in my mind. I’d rather destroy a work and repurpose a canvas than have it fester in my possession.

MARK: When you and I traded emails a few days ago, we discussed the possibility of putting the piece up for auction with some percentage of the proceeds going toward a non-profit in Flint. Have you given that possibility any more thought?

MICHAEL: I have, but I’m not sure how I could make it happen. I guess I could start an Ebay auction, but I’m not sure how I’d go about alerting people to the fact that it was happening. But, yeah, it may still happen.

MARK: Had you painted with lead-based paint before, or was this something new for you?

MICHAEL: I have. It’s a warm paint compared to a modern white, like Titanium. It has different properties. You can make more subtle adjustments to the modeling of form and shape… When you see a Rembrandt nose or a Velasquez lace collar, it was made using a lead white.

MARK: When did you first start painting?

MICHAEL: Three years ago.

MARK: Seriously? Based on the work of yours that I’ve seen, I would have thought that you’d been at it a lot longer. Why’d you decide to take up painting?

MICHAEL: Thanks for the kind words. I’ve loved art a lot longer than that, and did dabble in high school and in college. But all of my serious attempts began in the last few years.

MARK: Am I correct that your dad taught art? If so, maybe you’ve just got the genes for it.

MICHAEL: Yes he did! My dad is a huge influence and has been very supportive of my attempts at becoming a “painter”. He is a fantastic artist himself, and has given me many great tips over the last few years which have aided me tremendously. I’m very grateful for that.

MARK: How did the idea for this portrait of Governor Snyder first come to you?

MICHAEL: I’ve been painting portraits of politicians that I don’t agree with for the last couple of years, and I’d actually created and sold a strange portrait of the Governor earlier… It was more cartoony – kind of Mad Magazine style… When I first learned of what was going on in Flint, I decided it might be time to do another one using cremnitz white, the lead paint that was used to create the greys in the portrait. So I just kind of made the connection and thought, “Hey, this might work.”

MARK: Why did you start painting politicians? And why just politicians that you disagree with?

MICHAEL: The act of painting subjects that I don’t particularly like is more satisfying than working on portraits of people I have reverence for. In a way, it’s like an act of revenge. It’s my way of exerting some sort of power in situations where I feel, and I’m sure many people will understand this, rather powerless. And there’s more tension, which, I’ve found, can come across in interesting ways on the canvas.


MARK: I’m curious as to the expression on Snyder’s face. Were you working from a photo, or is that expression something that you came up with on your own, took from another historical figure, or perhaps encountered somewhere else? It looks familiar, but I can’t quite place it.

MICHAEL: I used a reference photo with lighting that I really liked. As for the expression, a few people have told me that I’ve given him my eyes in this piece. And that may be true. I think that’s something artists do subconsciously sometimes, add their own features to the individual that they’re working on… which brings another level to the work, my own guilt.

MARK: You feel guilty about what happened in Flint?

MICHAEL: Not specifically, but sometimes a work about a particular situation can also be a mediation on more generalized culpability… We all have a hand in larger systems that I believe are deeply problematic and harmful to ourselves and our environment. We all play a role.

MARK: So, how did you decide on the color palate for this piece?

MICHAEL: I wanted to keep it almost entirely grey scale… Grisaille is the traditional term for this type of painting, the “dead layer” without color… But I wanted bits of the underpainting to show through, traces of humanity maybe?

MARK: I like that it’s subtle. Was it hard to rein yourself in and not go too far over the top with it? Were you tempted to show less empathy toward him, to leave out those “traces of humanity”?

MICHAEL: Yes, and that’s always a concern when painting. When to hold back is more difficult for many artists to gauge than when to proceed. I definitely go overboard on occasion.

6278aeaf-3b94-4861-8f35-fe43664712efMARK: If the Governor contacted you about purchasing the portrait, would you sell it to him?

MICHAEL: Yes, and I would do what I said, and contribute a large portion of the proceeds to the city of Flint.

MARK: So, what’s next for you, now that you’re internationally known political artist of note?

MICHAEL: Ha! I’m not sure if that’s the case, but these recent events have made me want to work even harder. I usually have a bunch things that I’m working on simultaneously, so that I don’t get too bored. I’m working on a large photo realistic oil painting of a compost pile right now that’s really driving me around the bend. But, as for what’s next, I’d like to do more portraits for sure. And more paintings of food. And more, I guess what you’d call, extreme deformations of reality. I just want to keep pushing myself. I want to learn how to keep learning, how to keep getting better as a painter.

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  1. Eel
    Posted February 23, 2016 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    It looks like Boehner has a secret.

  2. Hamilton
    Posted February 23, 2016 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    Is that mass on Trump’s face something that really happens to people? Is it a giant tumor? I don’t want to search “face tumor”.

  3. Wendy Williams
    Posted February 23, 2016 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    It should hang over the bar at The Old Town.

  4. Mr. X
    Posted February 23, 2016 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    Better yet, why not over the bar at the West End Grill?

  5. XXX
    Posted February 23, 2016 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Do they make lead icing for cakes? If so, I think I’ve got an idea.

  6. Stephen
    Posted February 24, 2016 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    “Inmates Paint and Draw the Rich People They Think Should Be Behind Bars”


  7. Posted June 19, 2016 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    Ive been trying to learn how to infuse lead into paint for a project i have.. Can you help me w that? Thanks Rick

3 Trackbacks

  1. […] at the at the top of the page of Rick Snyder was painted by local artist Michael Dykehouse, who I interviewed here a few days […]

  2. […] at the at the top of the page of Rick Snyder was painted by local artist Michael Dykehouse, who I interviewed here a few days […]

  3. […] [The lead paint portrait of Rick Snyder at the top of the page was painted by Michael Dykehouse.] […]

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