Electric City
Up Close & Personal
By: Alicia Grega-Pikul

Meet Art Sniper Ted Michalowski.

If you've walked down Spruce Street between Penn and Wyoming Avenues in downtown Scranton, you've surely seen the kinetic, larger than life posters urging passersby to purchase tickets for The Northeast Theatre's productions. Smartly designed by Marywood University art instructor Ted Michalowski, the posters' story is almost as dramatic as the plays they push. Particularly passionate about on-the-spot illustration, the artist planted himself in the audience, conspicuously drawing the performances in his programs until he got an offer. Arriving for our interview with bulging portfolio in one hand and a couple of high-test Zummo's house roasts in the other, Michalowski delivered a slide show while he spoke— one so colorful and caffeinated, it's impossible to represent in words. Thankfully, his images can soon be seen at www.tedmichalowski.com.

You were just hired to draw the Briggs trial. Is that conisered journalism?

Courtroom illustration is very much like journalism because I go in to be the artist as witness, to go where the cameras can't. Pennsylvania is one of the states where they do not allow cameras into the courtroom. So the news doesn't get to go in and show you Briggs, who allegedly shot and killed these two cops. That's the role of the courtroom artist. It's very demanding and raises the pulse— there's no time to hesitate. It's not for the faint at heart.

Do they give you your own table?

I did this with Norm Jones (WNEP TV-16) last time and he is slick. He got me close enough to the judge to see he was wearing hiking sneakers under his gown. I'm trying to find where the climactic moment is, not only what time it is, but what place it is in the courtroom. I work on a whole a bunch at once because they're not going to stay there long enough. Even though I'm fast and I've worked to do this real off-the-cuff, I have a news crew waiting outside with a camera ready to shoot them. And they shoot them while they're still wet. Most of the time I'm still painting them as they're taking them out of my hands. This is a job where you're sliding down the razor blade of life.

Your images communicate so much.

Thanks. It's a tremendous form of communication because who doesn't understand drawing? And who doesn't begin their life drawing— what's more sensual than grasping that crayon in the beginning? I just never let go, and kept drawing and I still love nothing more than to draw, and run and jump around with my dog, and my dad's my hero, and I still don't understand girls. So I'm still a boy. I found out how to make it work for me. You hesitate, you lose. That's what my dad tells me. I have a lot to thank my dad for, and a lot of it is rooted in sports. My father pushed me into sports really early on, and from that I learned all the social skills and hand-eye coordination that you need to sketchbook your life.

The theatrical on-the-spot drawings must be really hard, too?

Sure. They're in the dark. And there are people all around and you have to draw discreetly. When you're a sketchbook sniper, you have to be like a cowboy with your back up against the wall, six-shooters at your side. When you draw in a restaurant, the waitress will ruin it for you every time. But then of course, now I'm at the point where I like them to ruin it. I pretend I don't want to be noticed drawing, but I do. Say you're at Don Pablo’s and someone brings over the sombrero— you draw that guy because it's his birthday. And then you try to find the person at the table who looks most generous, and then you draw that person. And if there are kids that you think that person is fond of, you draw those kids. Then you go and make the sale of that drawing, because most likely they're going to want it for the person’s birthday, and you can pay for everybody’s dinner at your table.

The social aspect is intriguing.

A lot of people become artists, specifically going into illustration, because they enjoy isolation. I don't know if I could handle only being boarded up in the studio. Drawing on-the-spot solves all that, and demands an immediacy in the drawing. I am much happier in the studio now that I have a dog— Grimm, my black lab, who's also a great model and studio-dog, lying down next to me. When I work in the studio, I can be more conceptual because then I'm working from photos I shoot. I try to convince myself that it's from life, because you can get real tight from photos, and it's harder to keep your arm from turning to concrete. I can't take it. I get restless.

I love that everyone who walks by TNT gets a dose of art in their day.

Yeah, that's pretty cool. That's wild to see that stuff. I always find excuses to walk in front of The Northeast Theatre and say "Hey, look at that." Remember my nominations for new Best Of's in next year's Electric City— there's no better place to take a date than The Northeast Theatre. What gal isn't waiting for a fella to ask her to the theatre? Right? How about the music series at the University of Scranton? That's one of the best places in Scranton to draw, with those huge balconies overlooking the musicians and the audience, and another great place to take a date. I might be a horrible date because I have my face stitched to my sketchbook.

Yeah, it's the same thing when I'm reviewing a show.

Sure. We can't win. But this is the life! These are the lives we've chosen. They have to be very understanding if you're going to find someone to go with you. I used to draw under the table if I was with someone who felt uncomfortable with me drawing. While we're eating, I'd hold the sketchbook under the table and draw fixed on them— not looking at the page. Usually I draw better when I'm not looking— and this way they got the impression that I'm really interested in the conversation.

Since everybody and their kids have a digital camera, don't you think the pendulum is going to swing in favor of illustration?

I hope so. I hope it reverts. That's why I like doing hand-done type. What's more human than making something with your own hands? It can get to be pretty cold otherwise. Not that there's anything mystical about drawing. People think "Oh, it's a gift." That's something that really used to send slivers up my spine. I have a violin in my studio that I might have played well in grade school but basically now all I can play is that little motif from Psycho when I have someone over as company taking a shower. So, do you lose that gift? It's not like you go to the top of Mount Sinai and get the divine pen to draw with. It takes a lot of work.

Let's talk about the Drawing Social.

I always wanted to start a group up in Scranton and now that Test Pattern is on again, we're going to start it February 9. We're promoting it as a benefit to get some money in the drawer to start up this figure drawing group, to get some supplies, posters printed, to have for models and musicians. Then it will continue every Thursday.

So I walk into Test Pattern - What do I see?

It's not only going to be a drawing group, it's also going to be a performance. Of course, priority seating or standing will be given to those who are drawing and there will be a five dollar donation to get in— two dollars for students with ID. And where do you ever get to hear someone who can actually play the Theremin? And Steve Kurilla is a fantastic percussionist. They are When I Float Backwards, and Jazz Assassins are going to accompany them— upright bass and guitar, a jazz duo. Each duo is going to do their own set, then they're going to play together. So it will be a great show, even if you just want to go to watch. It will be absolute synaesthesia.