Michael Kalish, “Beatlemania”, 2008

License plates on aluminum, 135″ x 60″ (triptych)

Once upon a time, back in my wild single days (gross exaggeration), I once lived with two incredibly (somewhat sickeningly) beautiful and (enviously) talented girls. Thankfully, they were both sweet and humble, too. They were driven, gifted, successful and constantly dating. I literally sat at home on Saturday nights watching them both get decked out to the nines and then proceeded to eat my singleness away in Ben & Jerry’s. Not very productive on my part.

One of them, was a southern belle and singer heralding from south Georgia. A rail-thin hot tamale, she was forever baking something like “chess pie”–an idea foreign to a Yankee girl– and brewing the sweet tea that I still blame that cavity on ten years later. “Sweet, southern singer,” we’ll call her, also had a steady who was one of the nicest fellas I’ve ever met. He was/is a contemporary American sculptor who was meeting with the beginning of his very successful art career. Oh, and he was color-blind.

Michael Kalish hadn’t planned on being an artist. Of course, how often do our plans take a turn in a different direction? His lofty dream was to play major league baseball, a dream he chased all the way to college (enter “sweet, southern singer”/roomie). For awhile it looked like Michael would make good on all those athletic aspirations. Scouts came to check out his mad skills at games, and he even had some private tryouts with the Yankees and the Braves.

While his skills were a-multiplyin’ on the field,  Michael was becoming a closet art fiend; most of his friends and teammates had no idea he was taking nude figure-drawing classes on the sly, which sometimes made him mysteriously late to baseball practice. Eventually, an injury struck his back (inciting incident much?), and Michael was faced with a conflict: his dreams of playing pro ball were dashed. What on earth would he do now?

Rather fortuitous for Michael was his growing passion for his art. He now threw his work ethic at his craft, only to be rejected as an art student when the higher-ups found out he couldn’t distinguish between sky-blue and navy blue. 

I never thought to ask him when I had the chance, but I wonder how he got through that kind of discouragement. Dream #1: think again. Dream #2: not so fast! It makes me wonder at the character of a person who faces two huge conflicts like that, one after the other. But he did, and for whatever reason, Michael knew he was on to something with his art, and he went for it full steam ahead.

And about the art: folks, it’s really fantastic. It’s amazing. Like the rest of us, Michael played license plate games when on road trips. Unlike the rest of us, those childhood games began a fascination that would lead Michael to collect them. Those plates would later become the foundation of a new medium of sculpting.

Thousands of license plates later, Michael began sculpting American pop culture icon images, including: Marilyn Monroe, Buddy Holly, Superman, the Beatles (I know they’re British!), portraits of American presidents, Frank Sinatra, and the list just goes on and on. His work now sells for tens of thousands of dollars and rests in the homes of David Arquette and Courtney  Cox Arquette, 50 Cent, Ringo Star, and Sharon Stone, to name a few.

The piece for Stone was actually sculpted during Michael’s time in Nashville when he rented a work space across from our apartment in order to be close to “sweet, southern singer.” I remember he brought it over to our place one night to get color suggestions (color-blind, remember) for this amazing dragon fly sculpture that would soon be in Stone’s home.

I don’t know why Michael’s story has stuck with me all these years. To be honest, I’m surrounded by incredibly talented people here in Nashville; the artistic community here is rich. But Michael was a visual artist, and he spent his days alone working on his craft, something that was so appealing to me. How rewarding would it be to work hard and see a completed product at the end of that effort? Yeah, it was an incredibly appealing idea to me.

By the way, did I mention how flat-out nice this guy is? Kinda makes you truly happy he’s been so successful. Whenever he came over to our place, he was so generous with his time, even encouraging me in my own art at the time. Maybe he took pity on the girl who was staying in every weekend (eating her own weight in ice cream), I don’t know, but I do remember his kindness toward me regardless.

One of my favorite memories of that time was when my roommate (his girlfriend, “sweet, southern, singer”) invited us all to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with Michael. It’s still crazy to me that he let a bunch of Christians navigate their way through that holiday with him. “Sweet, southern singer” was incredible with the whole thing, making the meal and even organizing the “taschlikh”, a ritual where Jews cast off pieces of bread into flowing water, symbolizing the washing away of their sins.

In order to practice the taschlikh, we headed over to our other roommate’s parents’ home in the ‘burbs, for they had a creek in their back yard. And in that creek we did throw our pieces of bread. Those bread bits in turn plopped in the low water and refused to “flow” away–not a good omen for a Jew, as far as I know. Michael was such a great sport about it all, and so appreciated the efforts of his girlfriend to make that holiday a special one.

He was gracious and open and endearing–the kind of humbled protagonist who doesn’t take his gifts and opportunities for granted. I knew him for only a short time, but his story and his stunning work (which is now compared to Warhol’s–holla!) made a big impact on me. Michael faced conflict head-on, and he overcame it to see a wild dream become a reality. Inspiring stuff.

“The Beatles” hanging out at our apartment back in the day. You know how we do: gallery-quality art on the floor. Classy.