THOM BENNETT PHOTOGRAPH
As a master realist painter, award-winning illustrator, authority on Edgar Allan Poe and 20-year French Quarter resident who is fascinated by New Orleans and its “sense of antiquity,” Michael J. Deas has an obvious love of history. After viewing Deas’s impressive body of work, it’s clear that he possesses an innate talent as well.
“Early on, I had a knack for rendering things realistically, in two dimensions,” says Deas. “It’s a way of seeing. The key is to learn to see things abstractly; shapes, shadows, etcetera.”
In a time when abstract, minimalist and conceptual art forms were preferred over realism, art classes and art schools left the aspiring artist unsatisfied. “I wanted to be a fine artist, to create my own work,” says Deas, who describes himself as largely self-taught. To pay for his tuition, he took illustration assignments for textbooks and products, a path that led to an illustrious career as an illustrator. Over the years, he has created 21 U.S. postage stamps of famous persons, including Tennessee Williams, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean (the latter two are among the post office’s bestselling stamps of all time).
He also counts another iconic image among his accomplishments: In 1991, he redesigned the radiant, torch-bearing lady known to generations of movie-goers as the Columbia Pictures logo. Other works include covers for Time Magazine, covers for novels, portraits, and representational paintings, through which Deas expresses such concepts as doubt and friendship. His 1989 book, The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe, is considered a standard reference work.
Deas begins each of his paintings using a combination of 19th-century grisaille and imprimatura techniques, then painstakingly applies layers of oil paints and glazes. The interplay of transparency and opacity yields, among other things, extraordinary chiaroscuro and luminous, lifelike skin.
Raised in New Orleans until the age of 5 when his family moved to Long Island, Deas returned to visit his grandparents during vacations and developed a lasting connection to the city. Today he lives and works here fulltime, finding inspiration in local sites and themes and in the “cross-pollination” of artists, writers, musicians and other creative types. “Artists are more gregarious and generous here,” he says.
“There’s a mutual respect that I’ve not found elsewhere.” In 2012-2013, Deas’s works were exhibited at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, where four are now in the permanent collection.
Find his work at michaeldeas.com