The Art Of the Blues. The Karmic Canvas: An Interview with Michael Maness

Posted on 7/15/2010 by Maureen Elizabeth

Michael Maness paints a colorful picture – especially when he tells his life story. The 2009 winner of the “Keeping the Blues Alive” award for Art and Photography, whose friends and fans are a veritable palette of blues musicians, talked with me about his life, his art and the karmic canvas on which he paints.

Tell me about your evolution as an artist.

I sold my first drawing when I was 8 years old – although I didn’t know it at the time. I was flirting with my teacher who had great legs. I was a stutterer and nobody would talk to me. So I would send cartoons with funny captions up to her and what I later found out was that she was selling them to Jack and Jill Magazine. But my art truly came from the side effects of my stem cell transplant. I am a four time survivor of cancer and I died – I died on the table. I was lying on the bed while they were giving me my stem cells (after I was told by the nurse I had a 90% chance of dying on the table) when I knew I needed a new legacy. My legacy up to that point was that I was a bar whore who drank, picked up women and had lots of fun. And I also picked up the tab. I had a great job but I never worked in the town I lived in. So I came up with a marketing campaign because I had so little time to live. My marketing campaign was “give it all away”. I had been told I was not supposed to be around - I had 30 days to live, I had a week to live – and so I began my campaign.

When did you first pick up the paintbrush?

Right after my stem cell transplant! The drugs they had me on made me paranoid, violent and angry. They had me in isolation for two months. I snuck out and got arrested for assault and battery and I had no idea what I was doing. They were going to throw me in a home and put me on Prozac but I had a canvas and some paint from a job from years before so I painted this really bright picture of Santana and I didn’t yell at anybody. I didn’t yell at my mother - that is not my personality anyway - but on those drugs that’s how I was. I was nice again. So my sister literally ran out and bought me hundreds of dollars worth of paint. Suddenly I was in galleries all over the world.

How did that happen?

I gave it all away! I went to a charity tennis tournament and wanted to give them a portrait of Pete Sampras – long story short, they built me a gallery there and I sold 35 out of 40 paintings and I was on my way. Just like that.

On your website you have astonishing portraits of blues artists-what created that relationship?

How I got to the blues was I read a newspaper about the Blues Foundation needing about $10,000 dollars. So I pulled up to their offices and gave them 100 prints of BB King that I had drawn. I told them that if they sell them they could make a killing. I dropped them off, got in my car and left! So about a year later there I am hanging around with John Hahn, who is in the advertising Hall of Fame who became a songwriter/producer. I met John through Steve Cropper who is now one of my best friends. He was my idol growing up and as a kid I learned how to play guitar because I loved his riffs on Green Onion. And it’s all because I gave away a painting. Everything, everything is because I give. I just give it away. Now mind you, I have a $4000 a month medical insurance bill and I haven’t filed for bankruptcy yet. So, John Hahn was a member of the board of the Blues Foundation and they were all chatting in 2005 about having a special poster for the awards in 2006. “We want a special poster for '06 - we want something like a Mike Maness, can we get something like a Mike Maness?” And John goes I can get you Mike Maness. Eventually I got an email from John saying don’t be surprised if you are asked to do a poster for the BMA’s! I am the only artist in the history of the Handy awards and the BMA’s who didn’t charge them! And I gave them the original painting! It started an incredible relationship, so since 2005 and a half I donate to the IBC’s and the BMA’s. I was told when I won the award for Keeping the Blues Alive that when I give them my Stevie Ray Vaughn’s and my BB King’s it is like printing money. This year when I gave them my Stevie Ray Vaughn it went for more than my original paintings did. That’s how it all began.

How do you create your paintings?

I take whatever photo I can find and I draw it and then I project it on to the canvas. Then I draw in black and white. I never want to know what color it is going to be as I am drawing. I take the basic image and throw away the original picture and decide where the light is going to come from and then I decide how all my shadows are going to play. I project it in on the canvas to save time. Traditionally, you paint, then draw, paint, then draw, but if you have a template up there and you know you are not going to follow it anyway - just go for it – that’s what I do. I never know what it is going to be, I just paint until I am finished ,until I reach my “wow” factor- that’s when I can stand back and say ohh how the hell did I do that?

Where does that come from?

I have no idea. I am a trained illustrator, but this painting stuff just comes from the heart, the soul.

So tell me about Karma…

Karma is my entire life it’s 100 percent pay it forward and expect absolutely nothing in return.

You live without expecting a return.

It feels so good – it’s amazing when you hear that you have helped to raise $38,000 for a charity in one hour! In 2007 I was onstage with Steve Cropper. I had painted an actual guitar on the front and on the back. Steve wrote the lyrics to Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay on front and on the back he wrote the lyrics to In the Midnight Hour. The bidding started at $5,000 and then went to $10,000. It closed out at $22,500 and I got kissed full on the lips by Tanya Tucker. This is what happens when you give.

You’ve met some incredible blues musicians because of your work.

Pinetop Perkins was in my gallery Friday. I had met Pinetop in 2006. I had done a painting of him and I wanted to give it to him. We had just gotten a brand new baby grand piano on consignment for the gallery so when he walked in he was asked if he would like to play it. He smiled and gave an impromptu concert for us! We put my painting up on the piano in front of him like it was sheet music. I have some great photos of that moment. Do you know what he plays when he’s thinking about what to play next? Jingle Bells. It’s great. Then there’s Hubert Sumlin. He’s cool. He died once too. He flatlined and went to heaven. We had a great discussion in 2006 about dying. It was a spiritual discussion about death – very interesting. A few days later I saw Hubert pushing Pinetop in a wheelchair. A 94 year old pushing a 98 year old! Hubert said to me “I’m not good on names but I know you and I had a great talk once!”

I am interested in what I would call a transformative moment when you were in that awful space following your stem cell transplant and you picked up that paintbrush. You were obviously able to tap into to something and express it.

I only paint bright – people want me to paint dark but I won’t I won’t paint negative. Bill Nelson, one of the most incredible colored pencil pastel guys I know wrote me a letter and in it he said “Mike, I don’t know how you did it, I don’t know how you do it, but you make color breathe.” I framed that letter. Steve Cropper said that when I paint musicians, you can hear the note. When I paint music I want you to hear the note and feel it. Right now I am painting songs. I paint my vision of a song. When I am finished the songwriter writes his lyrics on it and the artist signs it and it sells for thousands of dollars for charity.

What do you hope for when you paint?

I want to create three things in people – I want them to say “Ahhh” or “Oooh” or just smile.

So you somehow infuse life into what could be two dimensional; you breathe life into it.

Eric Clapton’s production director saw a painting I did of Clapton and asked me how I knew that when Eric was really into it, his hair stands up on his arm. I said “huh?” He said “look what you did to his arm!” And somehow or other it looks like his hair is standing up on his arm and I remember when I did it – when I painted it - it was that “wow” moment for me.

So you are tapping int o something “other.”

My whole life is “other.” It is karma. I am lecturing to a college art class and I am supposed to tell them how I do it – how I paint. But I have no idea. I paint in the dark and I just grab color. Half the time you can’t see what the colors are – you are in such euphoria.

Like a zone of sorts.

Or else I’m a very big flop and I don’t know what I am grabbing! I don’t know where it comes from but it comes.

When you consider the original blues artists and you consider that their songs were born out of something tragic or harsh or painful and yet somehow they created this amazing music –do you feel that your own life has been born out of something painful and yet you have been able to create something very beautiful, very alive…

I decided that I am not going to be brought down. These wonderful things are happening to me and I don’t know why and I’m not asking. There is no bad and as long as you look at the world as if there is no bad – then there is none.

“I used to see the world in black and white, not a contrast of right and wrong, not in popular culture, but in life and shadow. Now because of changes in my life I see the world through a kaleidoscope. I see the colors that make up a color. I hope to show through my colors and tone that happy ending.” –Michael Maness on his website.

To view Michaels’ art go to his website at:

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