Mike Maydak: Find Your Tribe by Tamera Lenz Muente

Artist Interview with Mike Maydak

The Blackbeard Legacy illustration by Mike Maydak

Maydak started his career as a comic book illustrator. This is the design for page one of issue three of “The Blackbeard Legacy,” which features the adventures of the imaginary daughter of Blackbeard the pirate.

Finding your niche and putting yourself and your artwork “out there” can be two of the most challenging aspects of starting your creative career. That’s one of the reasons I love our 2012 Artist’s & Graphic Designer’s Market interview with artist Mike Maydak. Read the art interview excerpt below to find out how Maydak experimented with several art forms before he found his niche. Learn how he became confident showing his work and how he deals with art criticism. Read the entire Mike Maydak interview here on ArtistsMarketOnline.com.

Keep creating and good luck!

Mary

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Mike Maydak: Find Your Tribe by Tamera Lenz Muente

Like many American boys, Mike Maydak grew up reading comic books. When he was very young, he even invented his own illustrated narratives. “I created these fuzzy circles with tails, eyes and teeth and called them Tigerheads,” he says. “I made up a whole story about how pirates captured and sold them.” Maydak, who was born and raised in Northern Kentucky and is still based there, has turned his childhood attraction to the world of comics into a successful career as an independent artist.

Mike Maydak has discovered a niche for his comic book inspired paintings.

Beginnings

Maydak began college as a journalism major. “I didn’t always want to be an artist. I actually wanted to be a writer when I was eighteen or nineteen,” says the twenty-nine-year-old artist. “Looking back, I wasn’t a very good writer, but I could draw a little bit. Comics created a bridge for me between writing and pictures.” He had gained valuable experience writing and illustrating an original weekly comic strip called Slimbone, which ran for two years in the student newspaper at Northern Kentucky University, where he studied. After completing his bachelor of fine arts in drawing in 2004, Maydak plunged into the world of comic book publishing.
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Trying to succeed as a comic book artist, Maydak soon discovered that the field was fiercely competitive. “I tried to make it in the comic industry, but it is practically a slave market,” he says. “I love comics, but I wasn’t able to make a living from them. There are so many other entertainment options for people now, but a lot of pop culture is driven by comics even though a lot of people don’t realize it. To try to make a living off selling a $3 book was just too difficult. It’s become a licensing industry. The real money now is in licensing characters—putting them on other products.”

cottage painting by Mike Maydak

In his early “cottage paintings,” Maydak painted houses with skewed roofs, curving walls and towering chimneys.

While he struggled as an emerging comic book artist, he was also teaching part-time at the Baker Hunt Cultural Arts Center in Covington, Kentucky, a gig that led him to try his hand at painting. “I started painting by accident,” says Maydak. “I was teaching comics, and a faculty exhibition was coming up. I was getting tired of putting page after page in frames to display them. I had been helping a friend paint his kitchen, and I had sketched this crude house on the wall with the paintbrush. I thought, ‘Hey, that’s kind of interesting.’ So, I spent a week doing five paintings of houses for the show, and they sold within an hour. The bottom line is, it’s just as hard to sell a $550 painting as a $3 comic book. People may not know what to do with a comic book, but they understand that a painting can be hung on their wall.” He’s been making paintings ever since.

Imaginative architecture

Most of Maydak’s paintings incorporate architectural imagery ranging from cottages to industrial complexes and machinery. But, influenced by his comic book roots, they are never straightforward. In an early series he refers to as “cottage paintings,” he created a world of houses that lean this way and that, sometimes nestled by a creek or a grove of blossoming trees. What could be a quaint and cliché subject in the hands of another artist becomes strangely animated and original under Maydak’s invention. Roofs slant and walls curve. Towering chimneys rise into the sky, belching smoke into the air. It’s like the house and the landscape around it are alive, swaying and creaking to some fantastical force.
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Cincinnati skyline painting by Mike Maydak

The Cincinnati skyline comes alive with Maydak’s comic-book inspired style in this monumental 48×60 acrylic painting.

In his most recent work, Maydak has turned to the industrial world, in part inspired by his background. “My dad grew up in Pittsburgh, around all these power plants, and every time we’d visit his family there I’d look at those structures and think they were awesome. There’s just something beautiful about them.” A painting of a building on 28th and Broadway in New York is a sprawling conglomeration of water towers, seeming to grow out of the roof of a strip mall. “This was a random, non-descript place, where they sell knock-off watches and perfume,” he says. “The water towers caught my eye, and Broadway runs on an angle so you get these interesting perspectives you don’t get elsewhere. I took some photos and made some sketches, and this became one of two paintings I made from that trip to New York.”

Each of Maydak’s paintings begins with an idea, photographs and many sketches. A shelf in his studio is filled with black, hard-bound sketchbooks. Many pages have extra sheets taped onto the edge, where he’s run out of room while drawing. When working out a composition, he often photocopies a sketch, cuts out elements such as buildings or figures, and moves them around manually. For this process, he prefers not to use a computer. “I did use Photoshop® when I started out, but it felt so remote, just clicking the mouse,” he says. “Using your hands is such a tactile experience. I make a lot of mockups using photocopies. It encourages me to think differently. Using your hands stimulates your brain in a new way.”
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Building a business

Maydak quickly realized that he could make his work more affordable by offering prints and giclées on canvas. And, he found an avid audience for his original paintings and prints at comic book and pop culture conventions.

Because of the burgeoning popularity of his work, Maydak quickly outgrew the studio he set up in a bedroom of his apartment. Now, his living room displays many of his original paintings. Crates of wrapped prints stand atop the bookshelves that house his extensive comic book collection. Portable walls for hanging work at comic and art shows lean against the wall near the sofa. His bedroom has become a staging area for shipping prints purchased over the Internet, with boxes of canvas giclées and huge rolls of bubble wrap stacked in the corner. It’s obvious his business is bursting at the seams. “My business has been expanding pretty fast,” he says, “but fast enough to manage.”
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Marketing to the people

Maydak loves selling his work in person. Annually, he sets up booths at about twenty art fairs and comic book conventions, and believes that to sell your art, you have to get it in front of people—lots of them. While he does a few art fairs a year, he focuses on comic conventions, traveling to cities like Boston, Pittsburgh, Seattle and San Diego for popular shows, where he makes an effort to make his work accessible to a wide variety of people. “There are a ton of people who would never step a foot in a gallery,” he says. “People often tell me, ‘I don’t know a lot about art, but I know what I like.’ It’s that market that I’m trying to reach. When I look at price points, I try to keep them accessible to a wide audience.”

“I like talking to people,” he says about the comic show circuit. “It blows my mind when an artist wants to hide, or get a manager and give them a cut, because that’s all your hard work. I was really shy when I was a kid, but when you’re an artist you get a chance to step out in front of a crowd and show off what you do best. You’re in your limelight, at your most secure. I’m very sociable when I’m in front of my work at a show. I’m confident. This is what I do. This is me. You learn a lot about human behavior and interactions and socializing. I get to travel all over the country. It’s a great experience.”
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In addition to traveling to art fairs and conventions, Maydak exhibits his work locally. A neighborhood mall converted an empty store location into a gallery, and he rents a wall there for a modest monthly fee. It’s constantly manned with a cashier, so when someone wants to buy something, they can do it instantly. A busy nearby eatery also displays several giclées, and interested parties can either purchase the work there, visit the mall or check out his online shop.

Maydak and a few of his colleagues also offer “live art” events, a trend in which artists gather at a bar or other venue and draw or paint spontaneous, large works of art while people watch and socialize. “Anyone can participate, and we invite people to join in so it becomes a real community project,” he says. “It’s a fun way to promote yourself. At a typical event, maybe forty people show up. But, as long as you get photographs, you can post them on your website or Facebook so the impact goes a long way.” Maydak’s advice to other artists is to think outside the box and not necessarily depend on the conventional gallery arrangement. “Whatever you do, show your work to a lot of people, in places with a lot of traffic. Show it to people who would never step into a gallery. Find your tribe.”

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Tamera Lenz Muente is assistant curator at the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati, Ohio. She regularly contributes articles on the visual arts to Cincinnati CityBeat, as well as The Artist’s Magazine, The Pastel Journal and Watercolor Artist.

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