Mikey Welsh is a painter living in Burlington, Vermont. He worked in collage and watercolors until the age of 19, when he began his music career. By the age of 30, he had achieved international fame as the bassist for the alt-rock band Weezer.
The touring and drugs and stress of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle took their toll. He suffered a nervous breakdown in 2001, and left the band to recover. He dedicated himself to painting full-time and started a family. He is known for large-scale primitive figures and more recently, colorful abstracts deconstructing other figurative work. He is also well known for skate park murals and designing skate decks and snowboards.
We interviewed him as part of our month-long focus on art from unexpected places.
You didn’t attend art school and you didn’t attend music school, but you’ve found success at both. Are you of the mind that “classical training” is overrated, or can actually suppress an artist’s natural creativity?
I don’t think that it’s necessarily overrated, it just never would have worked for me. I also think that art school, whether it be music or painting, or whatever, is appropriate for some people; what I mean to say, is that some people can take the things they teach in those schools, and apply them to what they want to do. But in the end, I believe that most real artists are born that way, not taught in a school; that they have intense visions of what they want to create, what they need to create.
You come from an artistic family — your mother is a painter, and your godfather was the monologuist Spalding Gray. Do you consider your creativity to be inborn, environmental, or both?
As I said, the true artist is born that way. They may not realize it until later in life, but it’s always there, burning inside them. But i think that a lot of those things apply — your environment growing up can have a profound impact on you. I remember being my son’s age, around 4 or 5 years old, and looking up at the Led Zeppelin posters on my uncle’s wall … looking at Jimmy Page, and thinking to myself, “That is what I’m going to do.”
Speaking of Spalding, I remember when I was about 15 I was in a bar on the Lower East Side with him and my father. My father was upset with me because I had told him I’d started experimenting with drugs, and using them to fuel my creative impulses with music and writing. Spalding, on the other hand, was all in favor of what I was doing. He didn’t see anything wrong with it, even though I was just a kid.
So the three of us were arguing about this when my father got up to use the bathroom. Spalding watched him walk away and then he leaned over the booth to me, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “Michael, you’re an artist. And artists create their own moral universe.” And that was it. Needless to say, he made a bit of an impression on me.
You dropped out of Weezer at the height of success. There are some accounts out there, but in your own words, what happened?
Well … I left Weezer for a number of reasons, and naturally, most of them are complicated. Without getting too into it (or hurting anyone’s feelings, or getting anyone angry), the main reason is that I became very sick. I have bipolar disorder, or manic depression, as they used to call it. And I wasn’t diagnosed with it until after I had left the band. When medicated, like I am now, it’s a very difficult disease to live with. But when you’re not medicated, and you don’t even know you have it, life becomes a complete nightmare. I lived most of my life this way.
To complicate matters even more, I was doing an enormous amount of drugs on top of it. The kind of mega-success we were experiencing when our album came out didn’t exactly put anything in perspective for me. In one month, we had played on Saturday Night Live, the MTV Movie Award, had a private jet flying us around, and our album had sold over a million copies. But by the end of a sold-out European tour, I had lost about 70 pounds, and could barely function. One week later we played the Tonight Show.
A week later I tried to commit suicide, and was subsequently locked up in a psychiatric hospital. While I was recovering, I decided that I didn’t want that life anymore, that we had pretty much done it all, anyway. I had visions of painting, of being a real artist. So I went my own way and followed my vision.
Do you like the term “outsider art”? What does it mean to you?
I suppose it’s all right, that term. As far as placing self-taught artists in a certain context, I guess it works, although the few “outsider artists” I know of (myself included) more or less show their work at the same galleries as artists who have had formal training. So in that regard, it’s somewhat meaningless.
I can only speak for myself, and as someone who has bipolar disorder I do believe that the symptoms that make up the disease can contribute greatly to my work. On the mania end of things, I feel that it can definitely heighten my senses and keep me in touch with the bits of energy that are floating around — I’m able to grab them and use them when I’m painting. On the other hand, the severity of the depressions that I have to live with — debilitating depressions that leave me unable to function — completely destroy any chance I have of creating work. But when I come out of them, I feel again like my senses are heightened, that I “feel” more than other people. I believe that these things can contribute dramatically to creating art.
Your work has started moving into an abstract realm. What prompted the change?
I’ve been painting abstract for about two years now. I think that I got fed up with where my figurative paintings had ended up, and that I had pushed them as far as they were going to go. To me, there seemed to be too many limitations on painting the figure.
So I decided to deconstruct them down to the essence of what I cared about, which is primarily the colors and the shapes. That is all I have to deal with now, and that’s enough. It’s far more difficult for me to paint abstract than to paint the figure, and that’s how I like it. I need the constant challenge.
Who would you say your influences are? I know critics might see the influence of Basquiat or de Kooning in your earlier figurative work, and almost a cubist and American expressionist flavor in some of your newer abstracts. But of course, influences are not always detectable from the finished product. Who or what would you say are your biggest influences?
I would definitely say that both de Kooning and Basquiat have had a major impact on my work, particularly Basquiat. I was under his spell for a couple of years there. I still am, in some ways. He may not be a direct influence on me at times — it might be that I share a lot of the same influences with him: Cy Twombly, Jean Dubuffet, Franz Kline, to name a few. But some others I love include Joan Mitchell, Frank Stella, Robert Rauchenberg. Quite a bit of the literature I love impacts my work as well, such as Camus, Sarte, and Nietzsche.
Selling out? That’s pretty ridiculous. If companies want to pay me for making my art then that’s fine with me. If I cared at all what people thought of me, or what I do, I never would have achieved anything in my life. I’d still be hiding in a closet somewhere.
What’s your view on street art, such as Banksy, the Wooster Collective, Swoon, and the like?
I think Banksy is great. Quite a bit of the street art I see, I like.
Is there any music in your future? Think you’ll ever go back to that world?
There’s always music in my future … everyday, in my studio, on the stereo. It’s a huge part of my work day, and I always need it there.
But going back to “that world,” never. I have a family now, and that’s the most important thing in my life. I need to be here with them. Besides, with Weezer, I think we did everything you could possibly do. What else is left?
More of Mikey’s artwork can be seen in our Marginalized Art special section, including in the Eye of the Beholder Quiz and the Glossary where one of his paintings appears in the section titled Outsider Art.
UPDATE: Our friend Mikey Welsh died Oct. 8, 2011 in Chicago.