Several months ago, I had the honor to attend a VIP art weekend with Park West Gallery, and there I was introduced to the work of Michael Romero. He rapidly impressed me with his unique style and humble demeanor, and I was lucky enough to collect a work of his. Michael is a Santa Fe native and when he found out I was coming to town, he quickly agreed to sit down with me to talk about his career, art, and the city that created him.
The Royal Tour: Thank you so much for agreeing to meet with me and to be part of this. It is an honor! Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
Michael Romero: Growing up I always seemed to gravitate toward drawing, just taking a pencil or a crayon and doodling on a piece of paper.
TRT: Were you any good?
MR: Each person in my family has their own story about it. My mom says I was about three years old, and she was hanging out with her friends. She put me under her chair and gave me a pencil and paper, and I was just fine. She says that she looked at the paper when she was done and she was amazed. I had drawn the perspective of her legs and the chair from underneath. That was weird to them because I was so young.
TRT: Do you still have that?
MR: No, I don’t. My mom doesn’t even have pictures of me from when I was young! My grandma has a couple of things I did at an early age. She told me that when I was about four we were on a train and everyone around was watching me because I was drawing the train. And my uncle, who also draws, says that when I was young and drawing animals, that I would start from the tail, where most people start from the head. I don’t know why I did that. So everyone was really supportive of me pursuing art from a young age, which is amazing. Not everyone has that.
TRT: So you’ve always been drawn – haha get it – to art, but when did you realize that you could do this professionally?
MR: That took a long time. I always doodled, but it was never something I thought I could do for a job. And I would only use pencil and pen, never paint. I would rarely finish my drawings, but any time I did, my family would all tell me I was going to be a famous artist. It just made me laugh. Who becomes a famous artist? I think the first time I thought it might happen was when I went to high school. My art teacher treated me differently than everyone else in class. They all had to do a drawing a day, and class assignments, and everything. I just had to do one drawing a week. So she saw something in me. At the end of the year, we had an art show, and everything – everything – in my portfolio sold. I thought it was just my family, or friends, or even my teacher, but it wasn’t. People were willing to pay money for my drawings. But even then I still didn’t think I could be an artist. Maybe an architect, but not an artist. So I was living in Vegas, and just working. I worked at a gas station, for T-Mobile as a sales rep, and other stuff like that. I was 21. But when I would get off work, I would go home and write down all my ideas for life outside of my job.
TRT: And art was one of those?
MR: Yes, but in a weird way. It came from Santa Fe, actually. I remember coming home to visit and my family took me to all the galleries around town. It kind of felt like an intervention. They took me into a ton of places, and we looked at all the art, and how much it was selling for, and they told me that I could do that. Things were going for like $2,000, which was a huge amount for me to think about at the time. (Editor’s note: today, five years after this, Michael routinely has works sell for $10-20,000 and more.) I had never painted before, but I guess I thought I could do it. So they told me to try it.
TRT: That’s amazing! I feel like most parents, when hearing that their child wants to be an artist, would tell them to pursue something safer, not encourage it.
MR: And here I was, not even considering doing it, and they pushed me to give it a try. I had just been happy doing art on the side and working my way up in the world. But I went back to Vegas and added “be an artist” to my list of ideas. I gave myself the goal to produce ten pieces, and create a portfolio to take to a gallery. What ended up happening, as I was painting, is I had to learn what paint was. I didn’t know what acrylic paint and oil paint were. I didn’t know the brushes. Heck, I still don’t know the brushes since I don’t use one. So I actually googled all of this. They said oil paint was harder, so I figured I would try that.
TRT: So you had never painted before, found out one style is harder, and something made you think to start there?
MR: Yeah. So I went to all my old art sets, and took the paint out. Do you know those art sets you get and they have watercolors and pencils and paint and everything? I had only used the pencils before, so I grabbed the paint and started. I didn’t have money to buy paint, so this was my start. The first piece I created was just a landscape, and then I painted The Last Supper, and my aunt even paid me for that one and still has it up in her house, so that was a big deal. She said she wanted it because I was going to be famous one day.
TRT: So everyone else saw it except for you.
MR: All the way growing up. Everyone around me thought so, but I didn’t. I wish I could go back and thank everyone for that faith, since now I have made it.
(Editor’s note: Michael is such a humble guy that even this small admission makes him blush. It is refreshing to talk to someone who is so sincerely grateful for the life he has.)
TRT: Ok, so you went from painting a simple landscape from paint from these art sets to today, painting some of the most elaborate drip art the world has ever seen. For those who aren’t familiar, your work has been described as Jackson Pollock meets Claude Monet. How does that process happen? How do you go from a simple landscape to drip art?
MR: In the first week, I went from painting The Last Supper to discovering oil paintings and hyper-realism, which looks like a photograph. I thought that was the best you can be, so I tried it. It was fun, but I kind of got bored. So then I googled the most expensive paintings and that’s when I discovered Jackson Pollock and Monet and some of the others. I thought, I can do this. It was so arrogant in a way, and so naive, and only someone as inexperienced as I was would ever think that way. Well, I looked on YouTube and found a series called Forgers Master Class, where a famous art forger reproduced some of these works. So this is now about three weeks in for my painting career, and I remember having this dream where I was in one of these amazing landscapes produced in this series, but the painting was moving with all these squiggles. So I woke up and drew it. There was a pine tree, and a village and mountains, and whatever else, and I just sketched it. And I thought, hey, this is something new, and this is how I could be part of that group, by inventing a new style.
TRT: That competitive side of you really gets going, huh?
MR: Oh yeah. I wanted people to forge MY stuff! So I devoted my energy to creating my own style. I was like a mad scientist. So this is all in one night, and I remember looking at Jackson Pollock thinking that I could replicate that, and it’s kind of the squiggles, and when I look at a Monet and stand back it is beautiful, so I thought maybe if I combined those, I could have something that was recognizable from far away and just squiggles up close. I wanted something that everyone would love, not just critics, something people would find beautiful, but something that would show much more skill and be harder to forge.
TRT: So how did you teach yourself how to drip?
MR: Once I had the idea, the hardest part was figuring out the materials, and how to translate what was in my head to canvas. I tried adding things to the paint to make it thinner, but that didn’t work. Water didn’t either; it was too drippy. I needed a large quantity of paint and didn’t have a lot of money. Then I remembered house paint. I had some off-white in my laundry room, and it had the right consistency. This is all in one night. I couldn’t sleep; I had to figure this out. So I dipped the brush in there and it was dripping, but not like I imagined. So I tried a spoon, then chopsticks. I tried all sorts of stuff around the house. Then I remembered a thing I had watched on YouTube way back about electromagnetism. And then I remembered Tesla’s coil, and I thought that a coil would be perfect. So I grabbed some wire and made it into a coil, and dipped it into the paint, and when it dripped it just kept going and going and I got goose bumps. This was it!
TRT: And this was all in a single night?
MR: Yeah. So the next day I wanted to start, and I didn’t have money for canvas so I just took some paper, and I looked up an image of a waterfall on google, and started to drip it. I had gotten some different color paints from Home Depot after work, so I tried to mix my colors and make it work. Let me back up a minute. The day before all of this I had put some of my drawings up on Craig’s List, to be commissioned at $40 each, just to see if I could make some money. I had gotten an email from this guy, David Smith, saying that he was looking for some artists to help support some of the famous artists he worked with, like Chris DeRubis and Michael Goddard – though I had never heard of them. He asked me if I could paint, so I told him that I had started a few weeks ago. I sent him some pencil concepts of my new style, and he thought it was really cool. He was going to be in Vegas, so we met. So then I did that first piece and emailed it to him, and it had come out really well, and he was so excited to meet me. So he came down, we shook hands, and he asked me to be his next artist. So overnight I was in all sorts of galleries, and I hadn’t even created any pieces yet! It is just amazing and lucky.
TRT: You mentioned earlier that you sort of got your start by your family taking you around to the galleries here in Santa Fe. Do you think growing up here in this environment, with so many amazing artists and galleries, played a role in your development?
MR: I think that’s part of the reason I never expected to make it as an artist. Everyone here draws or paints, and everyone is good. So I knew that if I was going to do this, and to truly make it, I was going to have to work incredibly hard. There is just so much talent.
TRT: Growing up here, did you go to the galleries and museums?
MR: Not really, actually. My mom tried to get me to do some of this, but I just never did. I still don’t to an extent, but it’s something I want to be better with. One day I want to have my own gallery here, and to really be part of this amazing art world. It’s one of my goals, to integrate more into Santa Fe. I feel an obligation to have my art here. This is home, and I want to be part of it.
TRT: I talk to a lot of people about who inspired them growing up, but it sounds like there weren’t really any artists that hold that sway for you. It seems as if it is just you, your innate ability, and the environment here in Santa Fe.
MR: Exactly. If anything inspired me growing up, it would be someone like Leonardo, a painter and inventor like that.
TRT: How about today? If you could own a work by any artist, who would it be?
MR: That’s a tough one. I do want a Patrick Guyton. I love his art, but man they are getting way too expensive! There is just so much that I’ve seen by people I don’t even know. I collect more at local art shows than by famous artists.
TRT: So just walk around downtown, pop into a gallery or two, and see what inspires you?
MR: Yes, that’s what I do, and this is the best place to do that. I recently bought a watercolor at one of the galleries. It was incredible, clean, a great color palate, and I actually got to meet the artist there. You can do that here.
TRT: I can imagine that being a meaningful experience. You still talk about how humbling it is that people spend money on your art.
MR: I am just a normal guy. It amazes me that I can make a living doing this, and that people pay for my work. I can’t even describe the feeling. I am just so grateful. People think this will change me, but I think I will always be just as grateful.
TRT: That was one of the most refreshing things about you when we first met in Marina Del Rey. You have confidence without the ego.
MR: I mean, the only reason I am here is because of people like you who like my art. I am no better than anyone else, no more entitled to success. Like I said, I am just grateful. Those people who have spent their hard earned money on my art, you are my family. I hope you feel the same way.
TRT: So this is a travel blog, and while I could talk about art forever, we are here in Santa Fe, your home. So if someone is reading this and thinking about coming here, what would you tell someone to do here?
MR: Definitely you have to check out the art scene. Go downtown to the Square, see a festival if there is one going on, and then go to Canyon Road to the galleries there. But most of the culture here comes from the food. The restaurants are all amazing, and New Mexico food is unique! And someone will come up to you and ask you, “Red or green?” That means red chile or green chile, and you have to have an answer.
TRT: I was going to close with this, but let’s do it now. Red or green?
MR: I love green chile, green all the time. Well, most of the time. Occasionally I crave red. Red in Frito pie. And you should all try that here! (Editor’s note: I didn’t, and my stomach is probably grateful, though my upcoming chile article is not.) But make sure you try both red and green here.
TRT: Any specific galleries, spots, restaurants or anything that are must-dos in your mind?
MR: Of course as soon as you ask that my mind goes blank. Del Charro downtown for a restaurant. It is amazing! There really isn’t a particular gallery. Just wander through and find the ones that speak to you. Canyon Road for sure.
TRT: For those readers who are on the fence about whether or not to come to Santa Fe, what would you say? Travel, like art, is a luxury expense, and there are so many destinations to choose from. So why here?
MR: This is a place that really feels like a different and unique culture, so if you like discovering new things like that, this is an amazing place to be. It is a place you can relax, but has so much to do! It is a combination of Mexican and native and American all at the same time. And there are so many outdoor adventures to have!
TRT: You hit it on the head for me. Santa Fe is like New Orleans or Hawaii. You come here and you’re in the US but it feels like a different country.
MR: Oh, and visit Hyde Park if you come here.
TRT: I didn’t get there but I went to Bandelier National Monument.
MR: Also an awesome place! There is just so much here. Mild weather, nice people, seasons. Good food. This is a great place to live, to visit, just to be.
TRT: So until the Michael Romero Gallery opens here, where should people go to see and purchase your art?
MR: Go to my website, www.romerofineart.com. Check out my videos of my early dripping on YouTube. I am going to be revamping that soon. I am in some galleries around the country, and soon I will be on every cruise ship through Park West Galleries, which is super exciting!
TRT: Thank you so much for meeting with me! This has truly been a pleasure. (Editor’s note: Michael invited me to come back and drip a painting with him. I am so geeking out on this!) You should all go get a Romero now while they are still remotely affordable!
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