The Norwich Record, words

In Your Face: The making of artist Ted Mikulski

From a financial standpoint, taking a black paint pen to his 2003 Nissan 350Z was probably not the most sound decision artist Ted Mikulski M’07 ever made. But in the summer of 2010, Mikulski decided not to worry about resale value or insurance complications: he was “just going to do it.”

He had the clear coat removed from the silver two-door sedan and began drawing. With no preconceived ideas or plan for the finished product, Mikulski painted. Eleven days and 160 hours of painting later, he was done.

He dropped the car off at the body shop so they could put the clear coat back on. When he returned a few days later to pick it up, more than a dozen employees were waiting to talk to him.

“I showed up and they started asking me questions: ‘Were you on drugs when you made this?’ and I said, ‘No, no, I’m not on drugs’…Then the manager comes over and says, ‘I’m actually really happy this car is leaving, because all the employees take breaks and start finding things on the car to look at.’”

Indeed, the gas-powered art display turns heads wherever it goes.

“I’m not a very gaudy person. I don’t … necessarily want to get noticed. And I realized halfway through the project that that’s what was going to happen,” says Mikulski. “But part of the beauty of it is that you are putting art on something that people don’t expect. People unfortunately in today’s world go through the motions. They go to work and they drive home and they do their thing. It’s kind of nice to see something that’s not advertising—that’s just a beautiful piece of art right next to you that you didn’t expect. That can be pretty powerful.”

Some people are confused by the car. But that might be the point for Mikulski, whose artistic inclinations run the gamut from abstract expressionism to sculpture—he likes to get people talking.

With a master’s in architecture from Norwich, Mikulski’s background isn’t typical for the art world. He is also by no means the most famous—or even a representative—alumnus of the school of architecture. But what Mikulski lacks in art-specific education, he more than makes up for with self-promotion: part of a new generation of artists, he uses outside -the-box methods and digital technology to get noticed.

Instead of waiting around to be discovered, Mikulski has thrown himself into the world of cybermarketing: managing websites, Facebook pages, and Tweets galore. Captivated by the power of the Internet, Mikulski has channeled his knowledge of digital technology and big ideas to fuel his career as an artist.

And it seems to be working. In the last several months he’s had a solo exhibit, seen a project “Tweets in Real Life” go viral, been contracted to create customized sculptures, and picked up his second college teaching job.

AN ARTIST IS BORN

Growing up, Mikulski attended an all-boys Catholic high school, which he detested.

“I dreaded every morning. I was very quiet and reserved in that school, mostly because I disliked every moment of it. The structure, the pent-up hormonal aggression, but most of all the overbearing religious presence,” he writes on his blog.

To survive, Mikulski sought refuge in the art room, the only place he felt free enough to express his true self.

Ironically, after graduating, he chose another highly structured environment: Norwich.

“There were so many rules and control that I thought I would explode,” he continues on his blog.

His reaction to what he saw as inflexibility, however, helped shape his personality by forcing him to positively channel his energies.

“[The rigidity of the school] is exactly what made me who I am … I do not enjoy lots of rules and regulations, but that’s what turned me on to design and turned on my creativity, and you can’t fault that,” says Mikulski.

And in spite of the formal structure of the school, he did find ways to have some fun at Norwich. Moriah Gavrish ’07, a friend and fellow architecture student, describes how Mikulski organized creative events for the class—including bicycle jousting with cardboard weaponry and extreme sledding, where he attempted flight with a self-constructed hang glider.

“Ted’s a big guy—well over six feet—and he has a big personality that goes with [his height],” says Norwich architecture program director and professor David Woolf. “He’s not a quiet person … He’s not shy. If he has an opinion about something, he will let you know.”

Woolf served as Mikulski’s advisor during his thesis year in which his culminating project was the creation of an architecture school in the 3-D virtual world of “Second Life”—not typical for someone in the architecture program.

“Ted was really interested in digital technology,” says Woolf.  “He took a few art classes, but … I was surprised that he’s become so dedicated and exclusive to art.”

Many architects have “two lives” says Woolf, living in both the world of architecture and also the world of art. One reason may be that while architecture is a hierarchical profession with a very long learning curve and distant rungs up the professional ladder, art has the advantage of being immediately available for creation.

“It was never really my pursuit to be a full-time architect,” says Mikulski. “I wanted to use my architecture degree to do other things, which in my own mind included teaching and perhaps web design.”

So it wasn’t surprising that after graduation he opened a small web design company and eventually started teaching part-time at Tunxis Community College in Connecticut. And although the work suited him, staring at a computer screen day in and day out became tedious after a while, so he decided to set up a little art studio in the basement of his apartment.

“I started painting with no real experience and no real skill set, and I just absolutely loved it,” he says. “I never left that studio.”

THE NEXT GENERATION

He started by diving into the realm of abstract expressionism, which he describes as “essentially paintings of nothing,” both abstract and beautiful. But in the last year he’s moved toward more recognizable art.

“The one thing about abstract expressionism is that it is kind of humorless … I like putting humor into [my] work,” says Mikulski.

Part of the humor in his newer pieces is represented by colorful, robotic characters.

“When I was younger I always thought about how funny it was, that in the ’50s and that time period, they always thought that robots were going to be part of our everyday lives—that they were going to be cooking and cleaning and talking to us and hanging out with us—and yet they designed them to look like microwaves,” he says. “They are very rigid. I just thought that was a very funny aesthetic … and I use it as a metaphor for the possibility of us as humans to be programmed.”

Mikulski experimented with this idea during his solo exhibit, “Color for Color’s Sake,” at the Brother Kenneth Chapman Gallery of Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., last March.

“Ted’s a great communicator and he’s so nice. He’s organized and passionate about his work,” says Madalyn Barbero Jordan, gallery director. “Throughout the whole process it was a pleasure to work with him.”

Mikulski’s exhibit, which focused on the intertwining and interweaving of humanity and the loss of humanity, featured human-sized robots, disembodied human forms, and layered abstract expressionistic canvases, as well as painted sunglasses and sneakers. On top of that, in order to tie in the digital world, Mikulski included QR barcodes on his work that when scanned with an iPhone took viewers to information about the works of art online.

“I draw a lot of inspiration from my everyday world,” says Mikulski. “Van Gogh used to say that he was inspired by the hills and the landscape around him. The hills and landscape around me are billboards and cars and McDonald’s.”

This landscape, paired with Mikulski’s dynamic presence, were something the Iona College students connected with. After his talk he invited them to come back later if they were free and help him take down the show. Several accepted.

“In my six years here, I’ve never seen students come back to help,” recalls Barbero Jordan. “But they did. It’s a testament to him.”

As a thank you, Mikulski handed out free prints from the show. And the icing on the cake? He’s been invited back next year to curate.

Not bad for someone four years out of school with only one art class under his belt.

He’s accomplished it by working hard and creating opportunities for himself through connections and virtual self-promotion. Even the opportunity for the show at Iona came about through a tip from an online friend who works at the college but had never met Mikulski in person.

“You can’t be in your studio working diligently and expect some guy in a suit to show up and say, ‘I’m buying these works. You’re a genius. You are the next big thing.’ That just doesn’t happen anymore. The Internet has really changed the game,” says Mikulski. “You have to get [your art] in front of people and that’s a very difficult thing to do today with an oversaturation of artists and … art in our everyday lives in videos and com mercials …You have to kind of rise above.”

A recent project that has helped him do just that is the popular “Tweets in Real Life,” in which Mikulski affixes Twitter posts to objects in real-world settings and then shoots a photo of them, reposting them online. [http://www.tedmikulski.com/tweets.htm] The idea was so popular, it was blogged about on Wired.com.

Among other projects Mikulski has also self-published the book Art is Dead, creating his own publishing company, Artoholic Publishing, LLC, to market and sell it.

Gavrish describes her classmate as a “natural-born entrepreneur.” Mikulski, on the other hand, believes his skills have been born out of necessity.

“I could do without the marketing and all that stuff. I would prefer to have someone else do it for me. Most artists would,” says Mikulski. “As artists, we’re not marketers. We’re not salesmen. But you have to wear a number of different hats these days, and the best artists seem to be able to do that.”

That said, even if no one cared what TedMikulski.com was up to, he would still be obsessive about his work.

“I’m just trying to get people interested in visual art, even if it’s not my own. My passion is to spread that fever, that joy, that attraction to what visual arts can be. I have to say I’m never going to stop making art. I love it … I cannot stop and no matter what happens in the future, if people totally abandon me, I will still be making art, even if it is on cardboard.”