Symbolic Portraiture

Michael Fratangelo creates a compelling style with his painting.

I was honored to be welcomed into the studio of an artist to discuss his process & document his technique. People who whet their skills, persistence, talent & technique to create art define their own space. It is a place to be respected. Alone in a building on the third floor the work Michael Fratangelo does in his studio is primarily at night. Maybe Quincy Jones was on to something when he said “The muse come out at night.”

I first saw his work at Ketchup City Creative.  This powerful series was recognized & exhibited in Europe. The subject of the paintings was the War in Iraq. The series reflected photos from the NYT. I was taken back by the size of the paintings some as large as 6’ by 8’. My eyes welcomed the pallet of colors.  His style is such that the oil-on-canvas is thick & chunky giving an added element of form.  I was intrigued by how he defines his Symbolic Portraits. I was preparing my own Portraiture themed gallery show & his work was an unexpected perspective into defining a portrait. Classic portraits of people are not what he produces. The work I saw in his brochure gave me new eyes. Boldly, I asked if I could visit his studio to document his work.

My minds eye of a painter’s space is not what I found. From a photographers perspective the lighting was mixed & poorly distributed. Working at night the windows provided no source of naturally soft light. Mirror like, they only reflected glares. The primary light was florescent & he used 2 thrift-store-rejected pole lamps for the work in front of him. I quickly realized all Michael needed was illumination! The work was coming from his mind to his hands. Watching him work I began to understand his comment “Painting is stronger than me. It makes me do what it wants”. This is a place where the muse may visit.

 I’m not an art critic & lack their classic adjectives, adverbs & education to describe paintings. I can say that visually his paintings have strength. Since it is Michael’s work I accept his description of “using symbolism to create spiritually guided portraits”. Adjusting the viewer’s awareness to a different type of portrait resonated with me.

Some artists make sketches or drafts that play an important role in their work. For Michael, a critical step is interviewing & understand the person. What he learns becomes layers in the painting he creates. A common topic includes mentors & individuals that have inspired. Family snapshots showing decades of change in the person hang on the wall alongside of where he works. The favorite food in somebodies life can sneak into the symbolism coming from his brushes. The colors & forms Michael sees are a part of the spiritual aspects of the people he paints.

Allen Levine, who Michael has known for years, commissioned the project I photographed. Allen is an outgoing person with passion for sports. He hosts a local talk show calling himself the Talking Machine. The symbolism in his portrait reveals his character with forms & color from Michael.

Michael never started out to be an artist coming close to never recognizing his gift. As a student he was adrift. During our conversations he frequently discussed how John Bowman, one of his professors at Penn State, encouraged him to develop his own voice on the canvas using his intuitive sense of color. After that, he avoided academic probation & was on a path to understanding & developing his talent.

Michael has confidence he is where he needs to be with his art. His role as a Middle School teacher “inspiring his students to simply avoid being afraid to be creative” is part of his personality. He recognizes the value of ingenuity across all learning. Having found his talent he looks to help others discover theirs.  This provides motivation outside the studio. As a member of the board of Penn State’s College of Art & Architecture he gives back to the place where he found his gift.

I asked what artists inspired him. Of particular interest were sculptors Henry Moore from Britain & Michelangelo Buonarroti of Italy. I found it somewhat odd that sculptors influenced a painter working in a 2 dimensional medium until I researched their work. Both had a mystical view of their work, that the sculptors already lay in the marble they were uncovering. Michael considers himself more of a sculptor than a painter. Instead of using hammer chisel & stone, Michael has a similar belief he is uncovering his work like the sculptors but with brush, palette knife & oil paint.

 Michael daringly describes himself as a visionary artist. With early international recognition of his style, he now is earning commissions for his unique portraits. I do not doubt that his work may reach a new level. For now, he continues to produce his dynamic colorful symbolic portraits while trying to put a dent in the universe.

This new blog format I am using will allow you to click on the photographs to see them full frame. Feedback appreciated.


Humans of Cuba

My goal in Cuba was to meet & photograph people. Not only was it successful, but also I found Cubans to be some of the friendliest people I’ve ever encountered.

01-copyMy goal in Cuba was to meet & photograph people. Not only was it successful, but also I found Cubans to be some of the friendliest people I’ve ever encountered. On a tour thru a museum  in Camaguay I saw this young woman sitting beside an open window. Her natural beauty was accented with wonderful Tropical Sunlight. Despite the lack of a common language she easily understood how I wanted her to pose with the fan, the angle of her face & the tilt of her chin. The smile is all hers. No direction was needed.

02 I was observing workers & taking pictures not noticing I was standing beside a mud puddle. As I stepped to the side for a slightly better angle my foot went into the mud. Another group of workers had a great laugh at my mistake & I joined them in laughing at my miscue. One of the young men got a bucket of water for me to clean my foot. Soon we were all sitting around having some Havana Club & connecting with minimal vocabularies & collective pantomime. I learned these 2 were a father & son working to put a roof on the young mans grandparents home. The others were friends who were helping. Soon I was warmly welcomed into the “Familia”.

03My guide & interpreter Lidier was an unbelievable asset. He got me into a rehearsal for the Camaguey Ballet.  Showing respect for their space & work I was given almost unlimited access to incredible dancers. This was my 1st opportunity to capture the strength, beauty, grace & precision of this art. In a short period of time I learned a lot.  Hopefully I will get a chance to capture more ballet images in the future.

03aAlmost everywhere I went I saw piles of stone, sand & lime waiting to be mixed with cement & water for repair or new construction. Even with the proper tools this is hard work. Workers I saw lacked the simple equipment we take for granted. This particular crew only had 1 wheelbarrow so large buckets were used to move the sand. In Cuba where almost everything is built from concrete, strength & determination may be the most valuable tools a worker can depend on.

04The Valley of Sugar Mills outside of Trinidad had Spanish Plantations from the 1800’s in various stages of restoration. Next to one was a simple concrete home & small farm where a husband & wife lived. They showed me their display of slavery artifacts they had uncovered & welcomed me into their modest home. As we were leaving, she took a casual pose leaning against the door frame. The only distraction from her warm smile was the tropical colors of her eyes.

05On the tobacco farm of the Camejo family, Sergio was describing the work necessary to raise plants. One of the farm hands walked over & interrupted saying “When you are the bosses son you just tell others to do the hard work.” Sergio replied he “dreamed someday of having his friends job so he could wander around the fields all day.” The camaraderie & mutual respect they had for each other was evident in the joking banter they engaged in.

06The smile of a young child reaches my heart. Add a head full of curly hair, eyes filled with innocent joy & the results are an image igniting delightful memories in any parent’s soul.

07Wandering thru the old cities offered a different layer to “Street Photography”. The massive open windows & doors revealed environments inside but were an adjunct of street activity. I came across a math tutor working with students after school in a small room with a blackboard a few desks. No calculator in sight. In Cuba, they have universities specifically for teachers & it is considered a noble profession.

08When I approached people I randomly met on the street to take their picture, I made sure I had a smile on my face. In almost every interaction I was rewarded with an amplified expression of delight. Sharing the image I had captured with the people resulted in more than a few hugs.

09For some reason my eye is drawn to people on their phones as a subject to photograph. Many of the plazas in cities are Wi-Fi hot spots where Cubans & tourists go to get on the web. In these beautiful plazas where not that long ago people gathered to socialize with each other I found most with their heads tilted down & eyes glued to digital pacifiers. I’m not sure if this woman is a tourist or a native. Her long lean body in visual harmony with the light post really caught my eye.

10It took a while to get used to the ironwork on the substantial old & weathered wooden doors & windows in these centuries old cities. The craftsmanship is impressive. Residents would sit near the windows & carry on conversations with those passing by or sometimes just say hola.

11The pace of the day is one of the most significant differences I experienced. In a society where there is a need for activities to pass time, Dominoes is a wonderful diversion & a part of the social fabric of the Cuban culture. Few from this mans generation had many options to fill their day. It may also be why the slow game of Baseball is so popular here.

12This is one of the few sour faces I saw. Even with a pout this young man on his way to school brought a smile to my face.