Have you met Mike? Mike Levy is my assistant. What’s an assistant do? Good question, best answered by telling the whole story. As Lou said introducing Sister Ray, “This is going to go on for a while.” Way back in 1999, I had been making art for about a year when Aaron Rose invited me to be in a group show in the (new) Alleged Gallery on Washington Street in the meatpacking district. This was when the meatpacking district was still the meatpacking district, greasy sidewalks and all. I was painting a wall with phrases, some overheard, some said myself. Of course I was painting up until the opening, and of course I was running out of time, when Mike appeared with a brush and started helping me finish the wall. That was it, I had an assistant.
An assistant is usually a beginner artist that works with a more established artist to see how it’s done and then gets fired when he hands out his showcards at the established artist’s opening. Mike worked in reverse. He got a job handling art at a blue chip gallery (when asked for his resume, he said “I worked on Street Market” and that was enough), and would help me when I had work. It might be months before he got a call, but in the meantime he had keys to my studio and he stayed in the loop with what I was doing. When I did call, I’d give him an update about brushes or the paint mix, and he’d get back into the groove. It was never a teacher/student relationship, we are strictly co-workers sharing techniques. For instance, wrapping a rag around the back of the brush to wipe off paint in a tight spot? That was his move. Mike wasn’t working with me to find a career, he was working with me to establish a trade.
ICY Signs was established in 2009, and Mike (with Dan Murphy) runs the Philadelphia shop in the Brewerytown section of the city. While Mike has been working with the paint and the tools of the trade for over 14 years, he had yet to clear the final boss level. I can remember when Mike wouldn’t take the lead on painting, preferring to defer to me for the final strokes that would make or break a work. In London in 2010, Mike, Dan and I were faced with finishing lettering several paintings. After a lot of discussion, I decided we each take turns stroking out each successive letter. Mike said, “perfect, like a firing squad, we wont know who fired the kill shot.” The work, of course, turned out great. Mike would argue that art is different than signs, that he can be more confident painting out a sign, but for me the confidence he brings to painting signs makes the best art.
2 weeks ago, in Breda, Mike cleared the final boss level. I had him letter “QUEENSDAY EVERYDAY, ANYDAY QUEENSDAY,” with only the barest suggestion of placement. He aced it, no problem. Then, at our next stop, in Charleroi, Belgium, he stepped past that level to not only lettering the phrase, but finding the phrase to letter. When we paint a Love Letter to a city, we’ll have a conversation with the locals and turn that conversation into visual communication. This time, it was Mike that asked Ben the magic question, “What do grandmothers say to their baby grandchildren?” The answer was the local and beautiful slang “BISOUS M’ CHOU” or “Kisses My Sweet” (It means that and so much more). So now he can do it all. And then some.
Within 24 hours of stepping into his new boots, he stepped right on my toes. “You’re slipping, you need to stop drinking beer and get 8 hours of sleep every night and stop being so tired.” Ouch. I accepted the judgement, got 8 hours of sleep and moonwalked all over his toes the next day with my old boots. We (Gerry and I) painted BISOUS and they (Ben and Mike) painted M’ CHOU. When we finished, I asked him if he was going to put a second coat on his letters as they were looking a little spotty next to ours . He was mad, jumping out of his lift to check my work against his. “They look the same” he announced. No way, but I let him off the hook; “It will look the same from the highway,” and it did. So here we are in 2014, pushing each other to do our best, and even if it’s not perfect, it will look perfect. Thats what an assistant does, and I’m only at my best if I’m assisting him assisting me.
Thank You Mike Levy, see you in Baltimore on Thursday. Oh and welcome back Dan Murphy, who was there as well for all these years and returns after paternity leave. Not a moment too soon.