Interviewsand Articles


Acrylic On Hardboard: Mike Lay

by Richard Whittaker, Apr 2, 2007



On a recent visit to Leslie Ceramic Supply in Berkeley, I noticed a small painting propped up near the counter. I took a closer look. Not bad, I thought. Then I noticed the little hand-scrawled note in front of the painting. It made me laugh. "Hey, look at this," I said to the two young women at the counter. "It’s marked down." They laughed, too. "Does he work here?" I asked. The affirmative nod was no surprise. John Toki, the owner, has a special appreciation for artists going their own ways and, with regard to his employees, especially for young artists going their own ways.

John was nearby so I asked him about the discount painter. "Mike’s his own man," John said. The two young women, who also work for John, nodded—a little tentatively, it seemed to me. There were a couple of beats of silence.

Then John said, "He mumbles." 

I wasn’t sure where the conversation was going and the two women weren’t saying anything either. John looked at them. "Don’t you think so?" he asked.

They nodded. But what are you going to do? This was the boss asking. Do you think anyone else would have a clerk who mumbles meeting the public?

I looked at John. He looked at me. A moment of silence. Then, turning to the women at the counter, he said, "Go on. Show Richard how he talks."

No takers. They weren't doing impersonations, at least not right then. So John demonstrated. It wasn’t very good. I knew that without even having met Mike Lay. The women were smiling again. One of them couldn't resist saying, "And he doesn’t give compliments, either!"

By now, I had a portrait of a sales clerk who mumbled and who didn’t hand out any strokes to customers. At this point, John still hadn’t cracked a smile, and I was beginning to feel perplexed. There had to be another side to this story.

Well, by God, I’d simply stand there until someone tipped their hand. John must have read me because he finally added, "But I like him."

It didn’t clear a lot up, but at least I got that there was a lot more to the story. By then I was really wondering "Who is this guy?"

I looked down again at the little portrait, and at the little note. The handscrawled "$48/obo" had been crossed out. "$37.50/obo" was written in beside it.

"John," I said, "do you think he’d take a little less?" It was my attempt at a joke.

"Why don’t you ask him?" John said with a straight face. "But you’ll have to come back. He’s not here today."

A couple of weeks later I was back. Mike was there. A slender young man came over and I introduced myself. He was reserved, true. Mumbled? Well… I could see why John and the others had said that. I told Mike I was interested in his painting. He was non-committal. "I see how you’ve marked the price down there," I said.

Maybe I gave something away with my expression, because this got a big laugh out of Mike. He could see that I got it: the subtext, the general pathos of the unenfranchised artists across the country, the pathetic impulse to become another marketeer.

It was a feeling I knew myself. Lay’s little handwritten sign: $48.00, and then its markdown to $37.50—was pure poetry, I thought—better than anything I had ever done in that benighted territory.

Lay used to sell his portraits on eBay when he lived in Maryland, he told me. The bidding started at one dollar. He got commissions sometimes, too. A painted 8 by 10 would go for between $20 and $60. But he’s not doing that anymore. "I’ve got a show at Boontling Gallery (4224 Telegraph Ave., Oakland) right now," he told me.

I went down to see it. It was my first visit to the gallery. Mike Simpson and Derek Weisberg, the owners, were both there. The place had a contagious energy I hadn’t felt for some time. Ten or twelve acrylic portraits by Lay took up two walls. "Not bad," I thought again and, at Lay’s prices, I couldn’t resist buying a second one.

A similar number of drawings and paintings by Vincent Perea took up the other two walls. I found myself lingering. The place was refreshing. While I was there, a young man, Obi Kaufmann, came in with issue #1 of a new visual arts magazine SWEE[t]ART. Looking through it, I couldn’t determine who the editors or publishers were. But there are more important things, right? That’s the beauty of it.


About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.


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