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Mike Lowery can trace his insomnia back to the Christmas morning he got a drafting table from his father.
“I went with him to pick it up. He said it was for this guy who we knew who was an artist,” Lowery says. This was technically true: Lowery’s father, a Baptist minister, had seen the then-13-year-old’s drawing habit pick up steadily and decided to equip his son with the proper tools.
A decade later, Lowery still has the table. It sits in the white-walled, brown-carpeted downstairs room of the Alexandria town house the 24-year-old shares with his wife. When he can’t sleep, he comes down and draws and draws and draws. “I was an insomniac through high school and most of college,” he admits.
It’s easy to swallow the notion that compulsiveness underlies Lowery’s work. The drawings focus on a set of recurring characters he calls Skeleton Kids. Mostly bone-thin prepubescent girls, the kids wear sad, droopy undergarments—what Lowery calls a “safe underwear set”—and crudely fashioned skull masks. Their arms dangle uncomfortably from sloped shoulders, resolving into three-fingered hands. Sometimes a floating crown hovers desultorily over their heads, doing a wry impersonation of a halo. Sometimes the religious iconography is more pronounced, with a Skeleton Girl outfitted with a fluffy pair of wings.
They dwell in a strange universe—a floating theater of the absurd populated by one-eyed ghosts, garbage-can robots, trees that look like forking arteries, church organs hooked up to carpeted ’70s-era speakers, and bubbles of empty thought that might pass for clouds of smoke. There’s plenty of text amid the imagistic cacophony, but the words serve to isolate moments here and there rather than tie together the threads of a narrative. The phrase “me sleepy” appears on a banner. A pair of tree stumps proclaim, “We’ve been here a very long time.” A solitary drum thinks to itself, “This new beat…”
Lowery paints, too—mostly for a series of 1-foot-by-1-foot pieces called Air Show Disasters. All are variations on the same basic theme: rudimentary renderings of paper airplanes made on gaudily printed bedsheets. The airplanes are bordered by a heavy black line and filled with a thin layer of white paint, so the pattern of the sheet is still visible through the fuselage and the wings. To date, Lowery has completed more than 214 pieces.
He says he started drawing planes before he came up with the notion of the series. His plan was to create a kind of visual taxonomy of the paper airplane. “It’s just taken totally from those old science diagrams,” he says, “or those long rows of cases in a museum that have bugs with pins through them.”
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Asked about other influences, Lowery mentions “diagrams of the circulatory system, simple drawings of food, the food pyramids” before moving on to “outsider artists like Henry Darger and those kind of people.” He throws in The Far Side’s Gary Larson, as well, for his “mix of surreal punch lines and crude drawings.” But he doesn’t really like to talk about what it all might mean aside from another night of lost sleep.
“I just bought trash bags full of old sheets and kind of started applying these airplanes to them,” he says of Air Show Disasters. “They’re all facing the same way and all about the same size, and there’s only so many versions that look aesthetically pleasing, so a lot of them are repeated.”
Then he allows that when he was younger, he witnessed a plane crash at an air show. But he doesn’t elaborate.
“I’ve always drawn,” he says. “I want to draw for the sake of drawing.”
Lowery is at once cagey and earnest, one moment enthusing about the film directors who inspire him more than any visual artists, the next complaining about the culture of the academy, then taking it all back, saying he doesn’t want to be “that guy.” “That guy,” presumably, is the artist who casually drops fully formed paragraphs on how his personal history finds subtle expression in his art as if he’s been preparing his whole life to be interviewed.
Lowery is not that guy. What guy he is he prefers to leave up in the air—or to the imagination. His was nearly born, as he tells it, aboard a ship at sea. His parents were touring Scandinavia as a two-piece electronic-music outfit called Jules and Jim when Lowery’s mother went into labor—six months early, Lowery says.
Doctors in Kristiansand, Norway, stopped the premature labor but admitted Lowery’s mother to a hospital in Oslo for a promised six-week stay. Lowery’s father rented a small apartment to store the couple’s belongings, but while he was visiting his wife in the hospital, thieves broke in and stole a Moog keyboard, several drum machines, a cello, and all their cash.
Lowery’s mother had to sell her jewelry to book passage back to the United States on a small ship called the Rygerfjord, where, “as the doctor predicted,” Lowery says, “she went into labor early again. She gave birth to my brother and an unexpected twin…so she called us both Thomas Michael Lowery, the name she’d been planning. I would go by my middle name.”
Though Lowery still goes by Mike, he now exhibits under his full name. He grew up in Upper Marlboro, Md., but, he says, “I could count on my hand how many times I went in [to D.C.] to see a gallery. I was really secluded from what was happening in the art world during my most formative years.”
He enjoyed early success in the world of alternative comics and literature, showing his work at Small Press Expo 2000 and in the Seattle-based magazine Little Engines. But Lowery claims he doesn’t like comics anymore. Indeed, he speaks of his decision to move beyond “sequential art,” as he says, to fine art as final and irrevocable. He currently makes a living as an illustrator, contributing carefully wrought drawings to magazines such as ReadyMade, and as a teacher of graphic design at Gibbs College in Vienna, Va., where he’s worked for the past three years.
He most recently showed his work in the 17th “ArtRomp” show at 7th Street NW’s Gallery at Warehouse. Gallery owner Molly Ruppert chose four of the Skeleton Kids drawings, a 6-foot-by-8-foot painting of a girl that Ruppert calls “spectacular,” and a number of smaller works—quite a large number for a first-time exhibitor.
Lowery had sought out Ruppert before “ArtRomp,” hoping to hang a few pieces from Air Show Disasters. Ruppert asked him then why he was interested in her gallery; he told her that he was approaching every exhibition space in town. “He’s kind of a go-getter,” she says. “Very serious about his art. Very confident about it.”
“We liked his stuff really well,” she adds. “I think he was the hit of the show.”
He honed his obsessive work habits as one of a handful of studio art students at Carson-Newman College, a Southern Baptist school in Jefferson City, Tenn. Rather than wait for faculty critiques, the students at Carson-Newman staged their own late-night workshops, at which the harshest critique imaginable was to tell a fellow artist that his work didn’t reflect his best effort. It was also among this group of polymorphously productive artists—painters, musicians, cartoonists, writers—that Lowery developed the conspicuously adaptable aesthetic that figures into his plans for the Skeleton Kids.
“It comes from having this group of friends that are really big in trading art artifacts,” he says. Whenever he would show his work, he would find many admirers who “couldn’t buy a drawing that was $1,400 but said, ‘Let me give you $2 for these buttons.’” So now there are not only Skeleton Kids buttons, but also books and prints. Soon, there may be T-shirts, too, Lowery says.
In some ways, it’s an inversion of Andy Warhol, he says, in a statement that takes him as close to being “that guy” as he’s willing to get. “Warhol was taking something accessible and turning it into something inaccessible,” he says. “Like taking a 69-cent tomato-soup label and selling it for thousands of dollars, rather than taking something that sells for thousands of dollars and turning it into a soup label you can sell for 69 cents.”
Not long after the drafting table arrived, Lowery remembers, his father got the family a subscription to the Washington Post. It was a natural progression from reading the comics every day to wanting to be a comic-strip artist himself. “So from the beginning,” he explains, “I had this need for humor underlying a lot of my work. It’s something I’ve stuck to. I’m drawn to humor.”
Although he’s left comics behind, his work is still funny. In one of his more elaborate drawings, a computer on a table utters cryptically, “Let’s figure out our sleeping arrangements.” A robot says, “What would you think about us not having kids?” to his robot bride. (Her reply: “I think I can pretend I didn’t hear that.”) An octopus in an eye patch and a sailor’s hat says, “I’ve made a decision. Mostly.”
Lowery sums up his artistic choices thus: “Eye patches are funny. Handlebar mustaches are funny.”
Yet the eye patches come from somewhere. Once, in a card game with his brother and a friend, an errantly tossed playing card scratched his eye. When he said he wanted to go to the hospital to get it looked at, his brother went out and got him a cosmetic eye patch. When that didn’t help—when his eye started oozing pus—his family finally got him to a doctor. To Lowery, it was just a thing that happened, that could have just as easily happened to someone else. “I don’t feel like anything that happened to me was actually traumatic. Even when I was in total pain, I didn’t feel like it was an actual event.”
And what about the Skeleton Boys—gangly sods clad in thin-tie, tight-shirt ensembles who show up very occasionally in Lowery’s work? The overall effect makes them suspiciously reminiscent of the artist himself.
Naturally, it’s something he’s not going to get into.
Except when he does. “As I started becoming more of a fine artist and realizing that was what I wanted to do, I started focusing more on these really terrible funny stories of my own personal preteen romances,” he says. “I was super-awkward.”
He immediately takes it back: “I wasn’t. But I remember myself as awkward, and as I started working on those themes, I found myself drifting more toward mishaps that seemed so huge at the time but aren’t so huge in the big picture.”
“Why do I draw robots?” he asks. “Why do I make them sad? I want to think it’s coming from nowhere.”CP
Lowery’s work will be on view from Monday, April 11, to Wednesday, April 20, at George Mason University’s Johnson Center Gallery, 4400 University Drive, Fairfax. For more information, call (703) 993-8865.