Rhody Maker: Artist Michael Pekala Creates Rich Nature-Inspired Paintings on Fabric
The West Warwick-based painter also wrote a children’s book inspired by his young daughter and her love for animals.
Rhode Island Monthly: What pushed you to become an artist?
Michael Pekala: Well, I definitely started drawing at a young age. I was an only child, so there were no siblings to play with, so drawing and playing with LEGOs were two things I remember doing all the time as a kid to pass time before video games really started to come into play. My parents actually ran seminars, so my summers — for about five years during my teens — were spent in New Jersey. There would be hours on end with nothing to do while my parents were at the seminars. I would draw, and it was definitely those years where I started really getting into drawing.
As I got older, I stuck with it. I went to Boston University for a degree in advertising, but while I was there, I realized I really wanted to draw. I did go back to school — I went to Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) — and I got a bachelor’s in illustration since it was all they offered in drawing. I did it in two and a half years, and I just took studios while I was there, so all of my credits transferred from Boston University for my liberal arts courses.
From there, I went into graphic design, which I still do full-time. I started getting more and more into painting about five years ago. Around 2015, I started with pen and ink, and then the pen and ink evolved into watercolor, which evolved into acrylic, which evolved into the fabric paintings that I’m doing now.
RIM: When did you start painting on upholstery fabric, and why?
MP: My first painting on the fabric was the original hummingbird; I’ve done four of them. It was a little over two years ago. The exact reason why: I don’t know. I remember, as a kid, besides during the summer at the seminars, during the year, my mother was an upholsterer and she worked out of our basement. I’d go down there, and there would be upholstery fabric everywhere. I definitely feel used to it, or it’s something that I’m used to seeing.
The jumping off point, though, of why one day I decided to go and paint — I went to Lorraine Fabrics in Pawtucket and I started walking around there, looking for some fabric, and I saw this certain upholstery fabric that had some flowers in it, and it just looked really cool. And I thought, “Oh, man. I could put a hummingbird on that and it would look awesome!” That kind of jump-started it.
From there, it’s just been fun. I go and buy fabric, and buy the stretchers so I can get the size that I want, and I stretch the fabric, and then paint on it. With the more abstract patterns, it does become a little bit like when you’re a kid and you’re laying on the ground, looking up at the clouds, and “What do you see?” Some of these patterns kind of have that same feeling. That’s kind of how the creative process will start.
RIM: Do you have any specific sources of inspiration?
MP: I definitely pull a lot from nature. You’ll notice that I’ve done roosters, owls, hummingbirds, sea horses, foxes. I also paint lighthouses. I do a lot of pen and ink lighthouses, and I did some in acrylic. I most recently completed the Brant Point Twilight, which pulls in the Brant Point Lighthouse on upholstery fabric. That one came together nicely and I’m really happy with that one. I do pull from that for inspiration.
I also have two young kids, who are six and eight, and they are fully giving me ideas and inspiration and all that kind of stuff that helps me get the creative process going. Sometimes, I’ll go, “Hey, what do you guys think I should draw next?” I also recently self-published a book called Ella Lee in To Catch a Hummingbird, which collects some of my upholstery fabric paintings in a story about my daughter. She loves animals, and it’s kind of an adventure where she goes to catch a hummingbird and it shows all the animals she meets along the way.
RIM: Your paintings are amazing, especially the animal ones. You say your daughter loves animals; are you also an animal lover?
MP: Yeah! I grew up with dogs, and now we have cats. We’ve always had animals around. We also just had our daughter in horse camp a few weeks ago. I have photos of her holding butterflies, and she will pet bumblebees because they’re furry. She got stung by a wasp when she was probably a year and a half old. There was one in the house at my mother-in-law’s, and she tried to pet it, and that’s what happens! She loves animals. But yeah, that was a lot of the inspiration for the story — just watching her interact with all these animals.
RIM: Do you have a favorite original piece?
MP: That is a good question. Two of them are actually just acrylic paintings on canvas because I did paintings on upholstery fabric for a little while, at first, but I struggled with the fabric itself. Depending on the type of fabric, whether it’s nylon or cotton, I actually fought the fabric. It’s a tough way to describe it, but I would put the brush down but the fibers push against the brush, and it is kind of frustrating. I took a break and I went back to doing canvas paintings, and I did the Castle Hill Lighthouse and the “Cardinal in Spring.” I eventually went back to doing the fabric paintings, and I’ve been pretty much on them since. But I do love those two paintings because I was really able to fine-tune my painting when I wasn’t fighting the fabric. That ability to focus and push my painting abilities would then work again on the fabric.
“Mr. Fox” is probably my favorite fabric painting. You can see how the fabric looks on the back and what it looks like before. I am a huge fan of him. The “Cardinal in Spring” and the Castle Hill Lighthouse are in our dining room, and “Mr. Fox” is in our living room. I haven’t been able to part with him yet, but we’ll see. He’s probably my most recent.
I did really like the peacock paintings. They both sold quickly, and that’s the thing. As an artist, it’s almost like one of those things where you love the idea of it being in someone else’s home. It’s such a cool feeling to create something and then have it go and exist in someone else’s house. I am very happy, and I loved both of those paintings. I may end up painting another one.
RIM: With the children’s book that you made, what was the process like? Are you excited about it being published?
MP: Some stuff just strikes me. Like working on upholstery fabrics, a switch gets flipped, it’s in my head, and I do it. No other reason other than one morning, I woke up and had this idea for the children’s book. It started when I was thinking about my daughter and how I have done all of these paintings — I have painted a lot of hummingbirds. (Again, not a real good reason why. I just always really enjoyed painting them.) It came together so quickly.
Ella Lee is our daughter’s name, and so I had the idea of Ella Lee in To Catch a Hummingbird. And I was like, “Well, that’s just brilliant!” The one thing that ties everything nicely together is that the narrative has a real whimsy to it, and that is something that I love about all the fabric paintings that I’ve done. The whimsical feeling of the story along with the whimsy of the illustrations come together nicely. I wrote it, and my wife, who’s a kindergarten teacher and knows the target audience pretty well, read it. She said, “Wow! This is really good!” And I was like, “I know, right?! It is! It’s actually good!” She had some ideas, like with the rooster having what looked like a mohawk on fire, and that got worked in there. She also had a really good idea to pull together the ending of the story, which I worked in. It was pretty well done after that.
I also am a graphic designer, so I have all the pieces to pull something like this together. A small number was printed with the Country Press in Lakeville, Massachusetts. It was nice because they’re local and I was able to choose the paper and the cover stock. I had a small number of physical copies printed, and I do have the e-book up on Amazon. It was an awesome feeling when I picked them up in early May. Just an incredible sense of accomplishment. I’d like to ultimately print more. I do have some ideas for down the line when I get there to do a second printing on hardcover.
RIM: You teach in Rhode Island School of Design’s continuing education department. What’s your favorite part about teaching?
MP: I’m actually teaching right now. I’m teaching Cartoon Anatomy: The Heroic and the Hideous. I am a very big comic book fan. I always have been. I taught a number of comic book related courses. They’re a Continuing Education (CE) program at RISD. Obviously I paint now, and I do graphic design, but my roots will always be in comic books. My illustrations, the figure drawing, all that kind of stuff — it all goes right back to there.
It’s a lot of fun. I’m teaching remotely right now. It’s been tough because there is a certain level of engagement obviously that you get in person that you don’t get when you’re doing it remotely. That said, the reviews for my course were really great. The struggle was trying to put together this course. The kids are all over the country — different time zones and things like that impact putting videos together to instruct the kids. You give them as much feedback as you can, and the course kind of builds week after week with each project that they send in. It’s been challenging, but it has been going well. The kids seem to be extremely receptive to it, and there has started to be a rapport back and forth. In person is definitely better just for the fact that there’s certain points where you’re showing them something, they’re struggling, and you see that light go off, like, “Oh!” That’s the one thing you do miss in remote that I really do like in person.
I’ve been teaching for over two years now, and it’s been really good. It has been rewarding, and the kids are at such a great age. It’s before they get into college, so it’s like thirteen to seventeen year olds. They’re passionate about it, but they still have a lot to learn. It’s a great age to work with.
RIM: What’s next on the horizon for you?
MP: That is a good question! I’m working on another painting, and I’m in the Members’ Show at the South County Art Association — “The Goldfinch” is in that one [on view now through August 21]. I’m continuing to push the children’s book and get the word out. I’ll be teaching again; I’ll wrap up the summer session for RISD and start again in the fall. Kind of just continuing on. I’ll continue painting, and I feel like I’m starting to have some recognition with the fabric paintings. I feel like people are starting to enjoy them, and the book thing has been a different avenue that I will be exploring more. I do have my idea for my second book. It’s just a matter of time, which is never on my side. I do work full-time as a graphic designer and I have two young kids, so there’s always that struggle of trying to do everything and get everything done. But yeah, continuing on. More of the same, more illustrations, and just see where it leads.