This is going to sound a bit weird, but Mike Brennan is here—in large part—because of the above photo.
I’m not exactly sure how it came to this, but I was scanning Twitter a few weeks ago when his profile crossed my field of vision. And (BAM!) it was eye catching. The paint-splattered glasses and white T-shirt. The striking hair, dancing this way and that. The brushes, pushing up an all-knowing grin.
I was hooked.
What followed was a deep dive into a remarkable, fascinating visual artist who has departed the ministry, faced crippling depression—and now finds himself here, bringing joy to the masses with dazzling pet portraits, one-of-a-kind paintings and a book, “Dear Snow,” that breaks down (happily) why one should do his all to avoid winter and its accompanying bullshit.
Mike Brennan, man of 1,000 colors, you are The Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Mike, so I’m just gonna start blunt—what the hell is a “Rockstar pet portrait”? And how did this come to be a thing for you?
MIKE BRENNAN: A “Rockstar pet portrait” is a custom pet portrait I create using vivid colors. It’s for when you know your pet rocks, and want everyone else to know, too. I started creating pet portraits as part of my coming back to my art after a 10 year absence. It was through experimenting and playing that I discovered my love for these portraits. And it just seemed right, given my love of animals, in particular dogs. I have two dogs myself (both rescues)—Biscuit, a golden retriever mix and Cooper, a Chihuahua mix. Pet portraits help celebrate those special relationships we have with our pets, and the art can come to symbolize the fond moments we share with them.
J.P.: You’re obviously a very talented artist. And I wonder—is that something you’re born with, or taught? Specifically, I guess I mean, well, I suck at art. Always have. But had I been born into an artist colony, with gifted parents and paintings everywhere, does that change? Or am I—artistically—who I am born to be?
M.B.: First, thank you for your kind words. I think some people are born with more of a natural ability, so it might come easier for them. But I believe it’s a learned skill. If you put in hours and hours you will get better and better like anything else.
Someone might be better at color theory and usage, while someone else might be more skilled at technical and precise type of drawing. We are drawn to certain types of art because of our experiences. And then we invest more time practicing and learning and growing because of that interest.
J.P.: I know of you because I recently Tweeted about my joy of living in warm weather, and you noted your book from last year, “Dear Snow: One Man’s Angry Rant Against Winter.” Which brings me great joy in title alone. So why this book? And what’s your beef with snow?
M.B.: OK, so my hatred of snow runs deep. It wasn’t always that way. When I was a kid I was able to enjoy sledding and building snow forts and the like. But once I became an adult and was the one responsible for snow removal the gloves came off. Snow is nothing but a hassle, stealing time and energy. It complicates life and at a moment’s notice.
The time that “Dear Snow” started to form was back in the winter of 2010. I was having a particularly difficult snow removal session. My earbuds broke while shoveling. I was freezing and frustrated. And when I was near done, the plow came and filled in the end of the driveway I had just finished.
Imagine Steve Martin’s character in “Trains, Planes and Automobiles.” Just a regular guy trying to get by and all of winter seems to be conspiring against him. So I did what any regular Joe today would do—I took to Twitter and ranted my first “Dear Snow” post.
Over the next few years as my angsty tweets grew, people began to follow along, wondering what I was going to post next. The snarky comments came freely.
In December, 2017 we had a surprise storm that got me riled up again. My friends all kept telling me how funny my posts were and I joked about making them into a book. But my friends were all really encouraging me to make it happen.
I thought about it but didn’t want to create this angry fortune cookie type book of page after page of just angry tweets. Then I had the idea to turn it into an illustrated book. I had always loved comic strips like Calvin and Hobbes and the Far Side, so I imagined my book like a cross between those two with some “Trains, Planes and Automobiles” and “Grumpy Old Men.” I, of course, was the main character along with my evil arch enemy “Snow” in the form of a snowman.
J.P.: Along those lines, what was your process for getting the book published? I know, ultimately, you used CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. Was that by choice? Did you seek a publisher? And how was the self-publishing experience for you?
M.B.: I collected my past Tweets (thanks to #dearsnow), picked out the best ones and set out to illustrate them. My background is in graphic design, so designing and assembling the book was in my wheelhouse.
I created the book, some T-shirt designs, social media graphics, all while learning how to self publish on the fly through Amazon’s CreateSpace, all in 30 days time. It really has become fairly easy to self publish as far as the process on CreateSpace (now KDP). They’re real good at guiding you step by step.
My choice to self publish came from two reasons: 1. I had no idea how one published a book, and didn’t have any publishing connections. 2. I wanted to get the work out there quickly into people’s hands, and also maintain control over it all.
I like having say over the whole project in self publishing, but when it comes to marketing it, that’s where I wish I had the resources of traditional publishing. I’m a great creator, but not so great maintainer. Once something is completed, I’d rather move on to the next project. That’s a challenge for sure.
I did self publish two other books last year as well, “The Art of Yoga” and “Dear Human: What Your Dog is Really Thinking.” I have more plans to self publish additional “Dear…” titles this year. Self publishing has become a way to get my ideas out there and into people’s hands.
J.P.: You teach an online course, “Your Artist Journey.” And as one who earned his masters degree online (and hated every moment of it), I wonder what are the benefits/limitations of online art education?
M.B.: I’m actually in the midst of re-launching my course “Your Artist Journey: Finding Your Voice & Style Through Daily Practice.” One of the benefits to online education is being able to deep dive into something very specific and do so at your own pace. I think we’ll just see more and more online course as time goes on. It matches the way we consume content in today’s culture, if you think about on demand movies with Netflix, and music with Spotify. People want choices, variety and the ability to approach things so they fit into their current lifestyle. Why should education be different?
I enjoyed my time at art school, but the Internet was very young at that point and there weren’t as many resources available. The biggest asset to being at art school was relationship and proximity to the other students learning and the professors who had connections that were helpful post-graduation. That’s still one area I think online education lacks a bit, community. It’s helpful to have things like Facebook groups and other forums to gather people in to have discussion and ask questions, but it’s still easy to hide or not show up. To get the fullest out of education I think it need to be experienced in community.
J.P.: I love hearing artists break down their work, and I loved this one in particular. So … where did this come from in your brain? What were you thinking? How long did it take?
M.B.: This is a mixed media piece called “The Hermit.” It was part of a series I did called “30 Days of Faces” where I explored the relationship we have with the importance of recognizing faces. As far as my process, I started with creating what’s called a monoprint where I applied acrylic paint to a plate then pressed paper onto it so the paint would transfer. These prints were abstract color fields. Once they were dry, I would either draw or transfer a previous continuous line drawing of a face that I felt matched the mood of the print. The final part of the process would be to enhance some features using media like pastels, color pencils, etc. Each piece took a few hours to create.
This particular face was one I came across on the internet. In my mind I created this backstory that this weathered old man had seen some harsh years and now was living in seclusion as a hermit.
J.P.: How did this happen for you? Like, when did you first know you had talent? When did being artistic first bring you joy? When did you know this was your calling?
M.B.: Some of my earliest memories are of creating greeting cards for family members for birthdays. I loved that something I created could make someone smile, and having them hang it on the fridge.
Art has always been about connection for me. I want to create art that fosters a connection either around subject matter, or that creates an experience where there is an exchange. I’m not one of those artists that is driven by process. I’m a heart guy, not a head guy. I want to move people and make the feel. But I also want to build bridges with my art – bring joy and make people smile, or find some common ground. We have enough things dividing people today.
As far as knowing when it was my calling, that’s a bit trickier. I loved cartoons, comic strips and comic books growing up. I was always drawing and my high school art experiences really solidified that this was what I wanted to pursue.
But I had that dreaded starving artist conversation with my parents, and they wanted me to at least go into something art related that could earn more money. So majored in graphic design.
I bounced around from job to job for several years, until I finally hit a wall. I felt like part of the machine, cranking out deadlines every two weeks and not really being able to enjoy my work. It was a “is this it? Is this all there is?” moment. At the same time, I was heavily involved in my church volunteering in ministry. I loved being able to help people and felt the calling to enter full time ministry. And so I did. A wild 10 year ride. I co-planted a church and things seemed amazing and successful. But inside, I was struggling with my place, my identity, and found myself in some roles that really didn’t fit with my areas of gifting. I had taken a 10 year absence from my art, and looking back it was really messing with me.
I ended up suffering from depression, and had to leave the ministry. But it led me back to my art just as a way to climb out of depression. I embarked on a 365 daily art making journey, and almost seven years later haven’t missed a day. I blogged more about it last year if anyone wants to read more and see what 6 years of daily art looks like.
About 2 1/2 years ago I was finally convinced this was my calling. To help people through my art and journey. To make art that makes a difference as well as help others on their own journey. So I started my own business, Mike Brennan Art & Design, where I offer several art initiatives, as well as graphic design and illustration.
J.P.: How do you take it when someone doesn’t like a painting? The ol’ “Yeah, I’m not feeling it.” Does it hurt? Do you not care? Both? Neither?
M.B.: Honestly, I’ve been at this so long and try to be as prolific as I can with creating something every day, that if someone doesn’t like something I try not to let it bother me. We all have those days where we are more susceptible to criticism though. I try to remind myself that the person who didn’t like it probably isn’t my audience for it anyway. And being in rhythm of daily creation, if there’s something I feel like is subpar, tomorrow is a new day with new creations.
J.P.: On Jan. 11 you posted this quote—”Inspiration comes from many places but you have to have your eyes open.” And I wonder, what do you mean? Like, what do you really, really mean?
M.B.: I think inspiration can come from almost anyplace, but you have to be open to it. It’s too easy to run around distracted and hurried all the time and miss things right in front of us. There are things all around us that can inspire us. We can look but not really see. The trick is to broaden our definition of what an inspiration can be, or where it can come from. When you walk through life a little more aware and curious you can notice beauty in textures of rust and decay, or how the softness of a shadow falls on the person across from you while commuting. Inspiration isn’t reserved for when we listen to music that moves us, or see someone performing with excellence that makes us appreciate their talents.
One of the things I like to do is identify posts from other people’s Instagram accounts that grab me in some way visually. I will use many of them to create some art that I can post and tag the original account. It usually creates some nice moments where I can surprise and delight people with my art. I can make them feel noticed and spread some joy. And even if it’s just for a brief moment say “You helped inspire this.”
J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
M.B.: I don’t know that I have a greatest moment. At least not like a single great accomplishment or meeting or opportunity. I really suck at celebrating my wins, as I have a tendency to press on toward the next project. But I would say there have been smaller moments where I was able to help other people in some way either through my art or by sharing life. I’m always in a place where I’m looking for the perfect trifecta – me using my gifts and abilities to help and bless other people, while bringing glory to God.
The lowest is easy. At the end of my full time ministry years, as I mentioned, I was fighting depression. It became apparent that I had to leave ministry, which also meant selling our house, leaving not just a job but friends and family. I had lost a sense of purpose and hope. And shortly after, my father passed away quickly from cancer. It was one of those “Is this what life has become now?” moments where you feel like you are living rock bottom for an extended season of life.
Ultimately, that led me back to my art and a kind of Pheonix moment. Sometimes it’s life’s tragedies that can lead us to some of our greatest victories if we keep moving forward, do the hard work of wrestling and showing up everyday.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH MIKE BRENNAN:
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: No, I have a strong faith. If it’s my time, it’s my time.
• Four greatest artists of your lifetime: Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jim Henson, Bill Watterson
• Three memories from your first-ever date: Eating at a Friendly’s restaurant in a local mall. Talking a lot because I was nervous but happy she was smiling and laughing at my jokes. The sound of my leather jacket crinkling when I moved as we spent a few hours talking in the car.
• What’s something that will immediately embarrass you?: I used to be super shy as a kid. I remember feeling my body heat rise and my face get all red when people would call attention to me in any way. Thankfully that faded away as I grew up. Today, I think it’s more getting embarrassed for others – like when someone thinks they are killing it in a performance but the whole room knows they are bombing. Yikes.
• Who wins in a 12-round boxing match between you and Sandy Koufax?: Sandy. I’m a lover, not a fighter.
• One question you would ask Jair Bolsonaro were he here right now?: Would you mind if I sketched you?
• Is it OK to bring your own popcorn to a movie theater?: Yes, but not pre-buttered. That can get messy in a hurry, and also the grease stains tip off the employees that you are smugglin’ kernels.
• Two celebrity crushes: Only two? Sandra Bullock. Faith Hill.