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An Overview of the Work of Michelangelo Lovelace Sr.

By: Bill Schubert

For while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are de-
lighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always
must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, It’s the
only light we’ve got in all this darkness.
— James Baldwin (Sonny’s Blues)

Born in Cleveland , Ohio in 1960, Michelangelo Lovelace, like so many children, loved to draw from his earliest memories. He dreamed of one day becoming a famous artist. Kids dream. They dream of becoming star athletes and movie stars, of singing to stadiums full of screaming fans and of gazing back at the earth from the surface of Mars. These childhood dreams usually fade in the face of reality. Children, perhaps especially black children born in America’s struggling inner cities, must eventually let go of their big dreams and face a harsh reality.

Growing up in the impoverished inner city where decades of neglect and systemic racism had replaced real opportunity with drugs and crime, Michel found the strength to avoid these traps and hold onto his dream. At twenty-four years old, he took the bold step of enrolling at the Cleveland Institute of Art. But, reality always tests the dream, and the imperative to support his growing family made studying art impossible.

While Michel had to give up art school, he would not give up his dream. With the help of the non-profit Cleveland Works, at a time he describes himself as having “no job skills”, he was able to get valuable job training and found steady, fulfilling work as a nurses aid at a string of nursing homes, and then, in 2001, at Metro Hospital. He has been doing this important work at Metro forty hours a week for decades. Michel would bring his sketchbook to work and delight the patients with his portraits of them. He recalls that, even in their pain and infirmity, they always praised him and encouraged him to chase his dream of one day becoming a great artist.

After long days giving comfort to his patients, Michelangelo went home and nurtured his talent. He had begun to develop what is now a recognizable personal style and vision. In his distinct way, reminiscent of Folk or Outsider Art, Michel painted his immediate surroundings. In acrylic on canvas, he shined a light on the streets, neighborhoods and citizens of the overlooked city he knew so well. Typically, Michel used an intense two-point perspective and a bird’s-eye view to show block after block of city life. Cops and robbers, dealers and addicts, pimps and preachers, mothers and fathers and children fill the canvases. The paintings are also populated by words. Michelangelo uses storefront signs and billboards to directly confront the viewer with important messages about racism, law enforcement, crime and society’s continual failure to address the problems endemic to our city.

Exhibiters began to notice this young black artist whose eye was so relentlessly focussed on the streets. His work first began to appear in group shows in and around the city in the late 1980s and early 1990s. By the end of the 1990s, Michel had ridden
his talent to the doorstep of the dream. He had been in group exhibitions at Cleveland State (1993), The Cleveland Center for Contemporary Arts (1993), SPACES (1996), The William Busta Gallery (1998) and The Butler Institute of American Art (1999). By the end of the century, he had been the subject of solo shows at Progressive Insurance Corporate Headquarters (1997), The Cleveland Playhouse (1998), University Hospital/ Humphrey Atrium Gallery (1999) and The University of Illinois Chicago (1999). I met Michel and his mentor, the great Visionary Outsider Artist Reverend Albert Wagner, around the time I opened Headfooters Outsider Art Gallery in the Spring of 2002. I was thrilled to exhibit them side by side in my 2004 exhibition The Reverend and Michelangelo. I was instantly impressed with these two men’s talent, authenticity, passion and beaming love. The Reverend has passed, but my friendship with Michelangelo is the greatest thing that remains from my five years as a galleriest.

By the time he turned forty, at the dawning of the twenty-first century, Michelangelo had, through his hard work and well recognize talent, become a successful and established regional artist. His artistic mission had never wavered. He kept his eye on the neighborhoods of his home town and the people who suffered and triumphed in them. He continued to devote himself to painting truth in bold strokes of acrylic paint. The world beyond Cleveland was taking notice. Michel’s work, long included in major public collections in Northeast Ohio, was now being added to collections at The Figge Art Museum, Davenport, Iowa and The Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri. He was included in the Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness exhibition at The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore (2010). In 2012, The Artists Archive of the Western Reserve recognized Michelangelo’s career of excellence with a retrospective. Three years later, he was deservedly honored with the prestigious Cleveland Arts Prize (mid-career artist).

All of this validation was well-earned and led to an opportunity that had long been an essential part of Michel’s big dream. Michelangelo was contacted by Fort Gansevoort Gallery of Manhattan with an offer of a solo show, The Land, covering twenty-two years of his work. The exhibition was a smash success. They sold every painting they had, sixteen in all. Jillian Steinhauer wrote in The Times that Michelangelo “has a distinctive ability to dramatize the intractable social forces that threaten to drown us.” Andrea K Scott wrote in The New Yorker that his “trenchant depictions of local life [are] impressive.” Michel told me, “I have spent forty years dreaming of going to New York and making it big as an artist. It was just a dream come true.” Heights Arts is so pleased to welcome him home.

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