The artist known as Mingering Mike first dreamed about joining D.C.’s pantheon of soul sensations. Back in the 1960s and ’70s, the D.C. native brought his fantasies to life through hand-painted cardboard records and sleeves. Lost for decades, those faux records eventually resurfaced to great acclaim. Now Mingering Mike’s work can be found in the Smithsonian American Art Museum‘s collection.
It appears that his surprising career has now taken a familiar Washington turn: He’s covering D.C. politics. In a group art show now on view at Hemphill Fine Arts, Mingering Mike contributes a portrait of each member of the D.C. Council.
D.C.’s elected representatives do not always take well to their depictions, at least as they’re offered by the press. Several councilmembers nevertheless spoke to Washington City Paper about Mingering Mike’s portrait series, and they seemed generally approving. None of them has made it out to the exhibit yet, according to the 14th Street NW gallery, which opened the show last week. But several councilmembers, when shown their portraits, pledged to stop by.
“I think it looks cool,” says Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans. “It looks like a pose I would pose, with my fingers like that, though I generally wear white shirts.”
At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds says the depictions of Evans were spot-on. She says Mingering Mike had also nailed Ward 8 Council member Marion Barry‘s tie. Note that the painting showing at Hemphill is not the only portrait of Barry out there: Another one—-a gift from artist Horace Crenshaw—-hangs in a place of pride in the councilmember’s office at the Wilson Building.
“Portraits are portraits,” says Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, who had no position one way or the other on his image. “They’re impressionistic. This is impressionistic. This is the way the artist sees me.”
Mingering Mike’s perspective is a unique one. Washington City Paper profiled Mike in 2008, and in a recent Washington Post profile of the artist, Smithsonian American Art Museum Folk Art Curator Leslie Umberger was quoted as saying that Mike’s work “comes from a completely different place than mainstream art comes from and touches people in ways that loftier pieces can’t.” The New Yorker has praised his “naïve charm.”
Not everyone was swayed by the artist’s credentials, though.
“Wow. Oh my God,” says Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander. “He paid attention to detail with the mole on the side of my face.”
Alexander laughs for at least a full minute into the telephone. She says she appreciates artists and their interpretation and commends Mingering Mike for his work. At the same time, she says, “I have to be fair and say it honestly it doesn’t look like me. I hope and pray to God it doesn’t.” She adds, “My hair stylist doesn’t like his color interpretation.”
The councilmember offers that a viewer certainly wouldn’t confuse her portrait with Cheh, Bonds, or Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser.
“I think I’m going to have to go buy this one—to get it off the street,” Alexander says. “I may have to purchase this before someone else does.”
See the rest of the D.C. Council portraits below.
All portraits courtesy Hemphill Fine Arts