Michael DeFeo is one of the featured artists in the Jonathan LeVine Pop-Up Gallery‘s 10 Years of Wooster Collective 2003-2013 (curated by Marc & Sara Schiller). Best known for his iconic flower, Michael DeFeo is currently displaying three new pieces, including a one-of-a-kind manhole cover.
Since the early 1990s, Michael DeFeo has painted his flower in dozens of cities around the world, including New York, Los Angeles, Amsterdam, Hong Kong, Paris, Buenos Aires and Cabo San Lucas, De Feo also uses his flowers on maps to help “plant” and spread smiles around the world.
Check out my interview with Michael DeFeo below:
MCB: When you initially began painting, did you paint art intended for the street or did you primarily paint on canvas?
DeFeo: During my first year at the School of Visusal Arts in New York, painting was part of my study but not really an area I expected to pursue. I wasn’t all too sure what I was going to end up doing in the arts but I enjoyed playing and experimenting with all areas of art making. When I was painting it was mostly just during my class studio time and for assignments. I soon fell in love with paint and began using it to complete assignments for other classes one wouldn’t expect to find it like my communications and graphics classes. More and more paint was the vehicle to help me express my rebellion as well as solve aesthetic issues. I started to work on paper because I worked quickly and painted frequently. It was also free. I began to dumpster dive and regularly found rolls of blueprint paper in a dumpster near school. Conceptually, the blueprints gained an importance in my work but that’s another topic.
MCB: What compelled you to take your work to the street?
DeFeo: Around 1992 I realized rather quickly that galleries weren’t interested in reviewing the work of a young art student so I took my work to the streets. It dawned on me that I could have this incredibly broad audience of everyone in the city of which the gallery system simply couldn’t provide. After gluing paintings up in the streets for some time, I stumbled upon creating the flower.
MCB: In the 80s and early 90s, graffiti and street art gained a lot of traction and attention. Could you name some street artists that you were inspired by and/or aligned yourself with when you were starting out?
DeFeo: When I began to get up in New York there were very few people doing the same thing. Likewise, the internet wasn’t really being used so there was no way to link in with others unless you knew them personally. Cost and Revs were all over town back then, you couldn’t walk ten paces without encountering their handiwork. Phil Frost was up in Soho and Shepard Fairey was just starting to hit New York. There was also Richard Hambleton, Pam Butler, and a guy who painted these terrific little expressionistic walking dogs on walls at ground level… I don’t know his name but I loved how his brushwork blended into the landscape and in that way, the dogs were somewhat camouflaged. They were little surprises, gifts for passers by.
MCB: Before exploring and expanding on your iconic flower paintings, what other images were you known for painting? What were your intentions in painting these images?
DeFeo: The flowers were what brought me recognition. People certainly saw my large paintings on blueprint paper all over Soho but as far as I know, there wasn’t any media attention for them.
MCB: You’ve previously talked about your flower symbolizing the cycle of life, in which all living things sprout, grow, live then wither to die. Have you seen a cycle in which your flower “dies”?
DeFeo: The decay and disappearance of the work is perhaps the most beautiful and important time of its life cycle. It happens in a multitude of ways: torn down, painted over, rained on, covered with other art or posters, scribbled or tagged on, dogs can even pee on them. It’s art “off the pedestal”, raw and unprotected.
MCB: Have you ever noticed random or anonymous postings of your flowers (not created by you personally)?
DeFeo: Sometimes people email photos of flower graffiti along with a sentiment that those artists are biting my work. I don’t claim to have ownership over painting or drawing flowers in public spaces and people can do anything they want. I have seen, however, blatant rip-offs almost exactly like what I do stylistically. What can I say, I suppose copying is a form of flattery.
MCB: What kind of social impact have you noticed your that flowers create?
DeFeo: That’s a tough one to answer since the nature of what I do is walking away after I do it. Since my street art is sometimes illegal, I usually I don’t stick around to see the impact. But during the install I often do get responses. It’s mostly smiles and a thumbs up. Sometimes people honk their horns as they pass, it’s a positive response. Even from some people you wouldn’t expect it from. It’s incredibly fun to share with others and very addictive, as well.
In another way, once you start looking at and noticing street art, it begins to make you more aware of your environment. And not necessarily with the intention to look for more art. I think it’s a practice of being more engaged with your surroundings. It certainly does that for me but I’m always noticing spots that could use some art, as well.
MCB: What is your favorite story about your flowers as it relates to your audience? Have your flower paintings sparked a surprising reaction or conversation?
DeFeo: Children tend to notice me installing my work more than adults do. Adults are too focused on the task at hand, they’re not really looking. It’s this idea that helped spark the concept of my children’s book street art book for all ages, Alphabet City: Out on the Streets, published by Gingko Press.
MCB: After the Wooster Collective show, what is next for you? What are some upcoming projects that you are embarking on?
DeFeo: I’m busy with a variety of commissions and things for my collectors. I may have a solo show in New York this coming Spring… stay tuned.
The show closes August 24, 2013 in Chelsea (525 W. 22nd Street. NY, NY). Visit the Jonathan Levine Gallery for more information.