In recent years, the Florida-based Israel, has become something of a performance art/public speaking phenom. His artwork is collected by celebrities, including Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Florida Gov. Jeb
Bush and Broadway star Liza Minnelli. He’s been featured in USA Today, performed and painted live on television and, like countless other rising stars in the art world, inspired both anger and awe among critics.
While the art blog Art Is Hard sniped recently that “the people that go to Michael Israel shows for the art are the same people that go to Medieval Times for the food,” ArtNet News countered with praise, describing Israel as “equal parts Jackson Pollock, Peter Max and Michael Flatley, Lord of the Dance,” before concluding: “This guy is going to be huge.”
More accurately, he already is. Just take a look at his burgeoning public speaking business. Israel has been hired to keynote events by such powerful firms as the Walt Disney Co., IBM and Absolute Vokda and has performed for numerous other charities and organiza- tions, all of whom seem to love him just as much for his artwork as for his stun- ning performances, which truly defy description.
“I know when people are feeling my energy level, and I know it when I feel the emotional level in the room,”
he says. “The audience is sitting there thinking, ‘Look at this guy, spinning around, throwing paint.’ Then they get a chill. Maybe it’s a patriotic piece, and all of a sudden they’re feeling pride. It can be very amazing. It’s really pretty cool.”
A Rebel with a Cause
So how exactly did he develop this act—this off-the-wall combination of paint, performance and public speaker?
According to Israel, 48, it all goes back to his childhood. He had always shown promise with a paintbrush— though, he points out, his mother didn’t necessarily appreciate it when he used her walls as his canvas; “There’s always been a bit of a rebellious nature in me, I guess,” he admits—but it wasn’t until he found himself enrolled in a school 40 miles from his home that the Michael Israel of today began to take shape.
There was no school bus, Israel remembers, and the commute to and from school was just long enough to make going back and forth every day not quite worth it. So, sometimes, Israel just stayed there.
He filled the long, lonely nights with exercise, working out until he was exhausted enough to sleep. The experience birthed Israel’s lifelong love for physical fitness and pushed him toward the martial arts, which he says have been a perfect physical complement to the more cerebral and emotional act of painting.
“The painting came forth from my need to express myself,” Israel says. “You wouldn’t want to see me dance.
I can’t play an instrument. But when I see a movie, or I hear music, I am very moved. I want to explode and do some- thing. The art has become my outlet in that respect. I really believe every individual needs some sort of creative out- let—whether it’s business or a hobby, or art or a sport. Without that, you keep yourself too bottled up.”
Still, Israel wasn’t quite sure how he was going to make an actual career in art until one particular day, and one singular moment, when he realized that, between the martial arts prowess and natural artistic ability, he had a unique performance-art talent—something that would make him stand out even in the eccentric world of art.
The moment arrived early his career. Like other young artists, Israel was hit- ting the art festival circuit hard. The days were long—often starting at 4 a.m.—and often not all that exciting.
But visitors soon discovered Israel’s special talent: He could paint really fast. They would ask him to paint their house, or their dog, and Israel would deliver exactly what they wanted. Amazingly, he was able to do so within minutes.
One day, Israel decided to try some- thing a little different.
“Being the impatient person that I am, I would put up three or four [canvases] at a time and do them all
at once,” he says. “I would crank up the tunes and pretty soon I’d be in
the zone. I guess it’s no different than somebody out at a club dancing or doing something else that you could just completely lose yourself in. But
for me, things got done. The paintings almost seemed like they just happened. And one day when I looked over my shoulder, there was a crowd back as far as I could see.”
Just like that, Israel says, something clicked. This was his act.
Empower the Audience
In the years since, he’s simply taken that festival experience and blown it up. He’s made it bigger and louder, more sensational and more moving. To see a Michael Israel presentation today is to see a Vegas-sized spectacle.
But Israel, who has one daughter from a previous marriage and is cur- rently engaged to marry again, insists it’s really not about the music, or the lights, or even the paint flying around the stage. It’s still about his message. With his shows, Israel wants to make his audience feel something.
He wants to empower them.
“It’s been a developmental process over the years,” he says. “I would do one thing and the crowd would enjoy it. So I started adding lights and bigger music systems, different kinds of music, dif- ferent kinds of painting, different feel- ings that can range from very emotional to very energetic. It’s pretty cool. I can bring the audience to an intellectual and emotional experience. I can empower people in a lot of ways. You take a group of scientists, or engineers or doctors— these are stiff crowds, supposedly, and you’re not going to move them, right? But then at the end they’re really getting into things. And that can really get them excited about what they do.”
In other words, Israel is a sort of motivational speaker—a unique one, of course. But an effective one, too, even though he doesn’t use words.
And Israel really doesn’t understand why anyone would question that. “I don’t see the difference between them [speaking and my act],” Israel says. “If you’re talking about [speak- ing] as a craft, I just use a different tool. It’s like painter vs. speaker vs. sculptor vs. writer—but the spirit underlying the goal of the craft is the same. You’re trying to communicate an idea and some emotion. At the end of the day, when you go to see a speaker, you’re going there for the purpose of getting some- thing—some knowledge or some com- munication. If there were no communication, if the speaker didn’t speak, it wouldn’t mean anything. But a stroke of paint or music, it’s the same thing. It really is.”
How fast is fast?
Michael Israel has been commissioned to do works by numerous corporations, non- profit groups and charitable organizations. But few of those commissions have gen- erated quite as much press as the portrait Israel completed of super-investor Warren Buffett this past spring in just 10 minutes.
The portrait of Buffett, renowned chairman of the Berkshire Hathaway Inc., will be auctioned off this fall to benefit the charity Girls Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to “inspiring all girls to be strong, smart and bold.”
Speed has long been a hallmark of Israel’s style, and is a key facet of his perfor- mances, in which he often manages to create several pieces at the same time. In a benefit for an elder services group this May, for instance, Israel raised $,000 by painting, in a single performance, portraits of John Lennon, The Beatles, Muhammad Ali, the Statue of Liberty, Bono, a fireman and American Eagle.
Israel credits his martial arts practice for helping him develop the stamina and speed to do his artwork very rapidly and yet very accurately.