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Meet the Artist Behind Sweet July Oakland’s Black Icon Wall

Multimedia artist and painter Micheal J Lopez lets us in on his creative process and how he designed 17 portraits honoring African American female trailblazers for Sweet July’s Oakland flagship store.

Multidiscipinary artist and painter Micheal J Lopez. Courtesy of Michael J. Lopez.

Celebrating African American female trailblazers.

Multidisciplinary artist and self-taught painter Micheal J Lopez discovered his love for design at an early age, first experimenting with art while in grade school. “I was born and raised in the small town of Pittsburg in the Bay Area. I come from a very proud and hard working Mexican family where I was the youngest of five children. [Early on] I discovered the beauty and self-expression that came from art,” he says.

Legendary artists like Dali, Basquiat and Rockwell would later inform his exploration of the human form. “I felt a deep passion to capture [personal] expression on any level and discovered portraiture to be my instrument by which to deliver that to viewers,” he adds.

“I come from a very proud and hard working Mexican family where I was the youngest of five children. [Early on] I discovered the beauty and self-expression that came from art.”

Inspired by the community’s vibrancy, a move to Oakland infused new life into Lopez’s portraits, which are known for their unique use of line, shape and color. We tapped the visionary to create the Black Icon Wall at SJ’s flagship store, which features 17 portraits of female trailblazers like Meghan Markle, Iman and Vice President Kamala Harris. Here, he talks inspiration and the creative process.

Lopez’s portrait of politician, lawyer, and voting rights activist Stacey Abrams. Courtesy of Micheal J Lopez.
Actress, comedian, author and television personality Whoopi Goldberg as portrayed by artist Micheal J Lopez. Courtesy of Micheal J Lopez.

How has the spirit of Oakland informed your art?

Oakland was a turning point for me in my work. I began painting out of the kitchen of a small studio when I first moved to Oakland. With the window shades up and cool breeze from the lake pouring in, the space was filled with all the unique sounds of life in the city. From that vantage point I witnessed a city that was celebrating their hometown teams, mourning losses of community, championing equality and raging against hate and racism.

It was the noise and the spirit of the city that helped me leave my space and experience the world as a creator and artist–from sitting on the steps of the Oakland Art Museum on Friday nights and getting lost in the crowd during First Fridays, to exploring art displayed on buildings and street corners. Those experiences were all the inspiration I needed. The only struggle I had was ensuring that I did the city justice by capturing its essence and the emotion I felt experiencing it.

 

What should people take away from your work?

I’ve become less concerned about accuracy and more interested in capturing how we communicate with one another through subtleties in our posture and gesture. I want to put the viewer to work when they see my art. You can express fear, hate, love, sadness, and joy through a glance or a gesture. My portraits are a mechanism to frame those expressions and that’s what I hope the biggest takeaway can be.

How has your work evolved?

I used to work primarily in graphite, pastel, and charcoal. Although I had always had an interest in portraiture, I had a hard time making a leap to color. Now if you look at my work you can see the roots of my graphic design training, the discipline of portrait study and the abstract expression of my line work. All of the components of my early inspiration take root in the pieces you see today.

“These are women who have contributed so much to society and I wanted to do them justice.”

The Black Icon wall at Sweet July's Oakland flagship store features portraits by local artist Micheal J Lopez. Photographed by Seth Smoot.

What responsibility do you feel you hold to your community as an artist?

I always had a sense of pride being from the East Bay. My art is heavily influenced by my family, friends, and community. I grew up with a great sense of pride in those individuals and honed my skills creating early portraits of them. My responsibility is two-fold. I represent the essence and influence of those individuals through the diversity and intimacy of my work. Also, I seek to give back through teaching, mentoring, and donating to those in need.

What is the most rewarding part of your work?

I am privileged to even have the time, space, and means to create art. I owe it to every struggling artist and creator to produce and create the work itself. The process and the journey is the most rewarding aspect of my art. I recently had an opportunity to be a part of an amazing artist residency in Oakland where I met a wonderfully diverse group of [creatives] exploring through all kinds of mediums. It’s an experience I will never forget and reinvigorated my passion and drive. It reminded me that what you are seeing as a viewer is that journey and every brush stroke has a small story wrapped within it. Writing that story and expressing that narrative is the most rewarding part for me.

What keeps you inspired?

I [turn to] music for inspiration that triggers emotions that I translate into art pieces. In fact, I often utilize song lyrics to name my pieces. I’m also inspired by other artists in the community, from painters and crafters to illustrators and designers–artists like Ellen Lesperance, Cecily Brown, Bisa Butler, and Neo Rauch among others.

What did it mean to have your work commissioned for our flagship store?

I had found this particular art style while seeking to be inspired by the art and culture of the Oakland community, so being a Bay Area native I was thrilled to represent the region in a meaningful way. [After we] finalized the details [I felt] a sense of anxiety in wanting to represent these amazing women in the highest form. They have contributed so much to society and I wanted to do them justice. My hope is that the work is seen as a reflection of Ayesha’s goal and ethos of Sweet July in that it conveys love, gratitude and inspires others to care for themselves and those around them.

Walk us through the process of creating the Black Icon portraits.

My process is a mixed media variant of my oil portraiture. I start by sketching the portrait in freehand over a thin sheet of semi transparent paper. I then begin cutting shapes and contours from construction and textured papers to make up the color aspects of the portraits. There is a lot of trial and error involved at this stage but this is the fun part. The final pieces are multi-layered paper with a final pastel quick sketch creating a unique portrait style fitting of the amazing subjects I am representing.

 

“Of the 17 portraits my favorite is Ella Baker. She is a hero of the civil rights movement and her portrait conveys confidence, strength, trust, and empathy. It was a portrait that I created while our country was transitioning into our current administration and it was particularly fitting and inspiring to be working on it during this time.”

The first Black woman elected to Congress, in 1972 Shirley Chisholm also became the first African American to run for President. Here, a closer look at Lopez’s tribute. Courtesy of Micheal J Lopez.
Lopez’s portrait of award-winning actress Regina King. Courtesy of Micheal J Lopez.

The Sweet July ethos is all about finding those daily moments of joy. Where do you find yourself most at peace outside of your work?

My personal “Sweet July” ritual is without a doubt taking at least 5 minutes during the middle of a busy work day or painting session to step outside and let the sun touch my face. I put in my earphones and let music drown out the noise of the day and try to find peace in that brief moment. Taking this time to tune out keep me positive and focused.

 

Learn more about Michael J Lopez by following @mjlstudio or by visiting www.mjlstudio.art. If you’re in the Bay area, come check out our Black Icon Wall at the Sweet July flagship store at 455 23rd St, Oakland, CA 94612. 

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