Michael Hildebrand, Illustrator/Activist

by Robin Beaudoin Ownby | Illustrations by Michael Hildebrand

New York-based artist Michael Hildebrand is a transplant from Memphis, with his heart still in the South. His colorful illustrations in ink and acrylic gouache play on complementary colors, shapes, and moods.

Describe your artwork as if I’m blind.

I have friends in New York. I have a specific style. It’s very alive. Even when I draw something static, it always has some movement or flow to it. I don’t sit still well, so I think that passes on. I love either stark black and white, or I love every color you can put in something. I’ve loved color since I was a kid. A big painter in my hometown passed away and she left me some oil paints. Colorful, I guess, and alive.

My subject matter is mainly the male portrait and male figure, I just love natural things and I’ve been lucky that I’m kind of cute and a lot of New York guys want to let me draw them. (laughs)

I use acrylic gouache, which is flat but it’s there. I am the most impatient artist, so everything I use dries fast and it’s there. Every kind of acrylic paint and Bombay India Ink. The cover art here is digital, the struggle is to make it look like the paint feels.

How did your art schoolwork develop to the portraits you do now?

I have a good thing to say. I had an incredible illustration professor, Joel Priddy. It stuck in my head after college, that one important thing to learn is sometimes to un-learn things you learn in school. I had gotten so anal-retentive about stuff that didn’t matter. I’ve learned to do what you’re strong at. I won’t ever be satisfied with what I do. I’m glad I went to college because I learned great ways to think. I went to Arkansas State University on scholarship, and I did these big chalk drawings because I was bored and was invited to be the student activities coordinator. I studied frat parties for my first two semesters, took a break, moved to Memphis, and luckily an older gentleman at my job told me I was talented, and I had to get a degree. I’ve never gotten a job because of my education. I had a double emphasis in illustration and graphic design, and a minor in Art History.

Moved to New York around five years ago. Harvest design firm had me working remotely in Key West, which is a small town, but you can’t just leave. I biked a lot and went to every corner of the island. We lived right on a little canal, and I got to see nurse sharks, manatees, and huge tarpon. My friend suggested we go to New York for a week, and on our way back, he asked, “So how soon do you want to move?” I came at the right time in my life. This city is whatever you want it to be.

My sketches- in the South if I saw you in the street, we would talk. I still have the face where people will talk to me. There’s loneliness in my work now. You can know people here but you never really know anyone. If you click with someone here you click. I’ve created symbols and things that represent the loneliness of being here. The animal/beast ones.

Influence, both artistic and political/life. What message are you sending your consumer?

Mixed messages. Lane Smith (illustrator, James and the Giant Peach) and Maurice Sendak (illustrator, Where the Wild Things Are). Sendak was a gay illustrator and I never knew that growing up. His work unintentionally really influenced me. Lane Smith is a complex illustrator, especially in the 1990s. It’s always fun with a dark side to it. Their illustrations always made me want to draw.

I’ve always been a part of my high school political scene, even before Bill Clinton and Bush Senior’s campaign. I knew it was going to affect me, without even knowing why. I’m glad I can help people pay attention to that stuff now. In my 20s the majority of gay people didn’t care, but older guys were political because they had to be, or they were scared shitless because of AIDS. Seeing the LGBTQ community gather in politics and support EVERYBODY, is beautiful to see. Transphobia in the community is infuriating. The book Middlesex helped me deal with my own transphobia. It helps you deal with your femininity and masculinity. All my power comes from my femininity. That’s also involved me in politics. Women didn’t have rights- they still had to fight.

Do you judge a book by its cover?

I don’t anymore. I think I did in growing up because I was taught to. People say don’t, but I think after coming out of the closet in high school, really meeting people and being as open as I was being that young, people felt they could be who they are. People are automatically pretty open to me. There’s something that meets in humanity and we will be cool together.

What’s the worst thing you got away with as a kid or young artist?

Great question. My sister was doing horrible things and I was the good kid. I’m so loud I got caught if I sneezed. I flew to Midland, Texas to go to a prom. My boyfriend was from Hot Springs, Ark. and I went to go to prom with him.

You have stayed in touch with and relevant to the South, what is your connection here?

Even though I grew up in Arkansas, Memphis is what made me who I am. It’s really where I achieved a voice of some kind, as a person. Memphis knows me as a designer, New York knows me as a painter. My southern accent is still there- it’s not going away.

My family and so many of my friends are still there. I read this morning they’re going to allow parents to opt-out of LGBTQ education in school. It’s such a dumb thing, and it’s important to me. Being angry is why I stay part of the political part, and from the distance I am, they can’t hurt me. Someone in Arkansas years ago doxed me (published my private information) and gave me a warning. I contacted them and was on the tiptoes of a lawsuit against them.

I’ve been called slurs more in New York than I did in the South, which was surprising.

How does a person view your art and do you have any shows upcoming?

I have friends reaching out to do shows here and there. I have so much work I’ve done since moving to New York, so I hope to get a space and put up what I haven’t sold and have it as a timeline of what I’ve done since I’ve been here.

I’ve always embraced the web since the ‘90s, just because people look at their walls so I’ve sold a lot of artwork in the last four months. Some people collect and have no more room on their walls.

I’ve done commissions but have stopped doing commission portraits because I like to have the person in front of me. I haven’t been able to do that in over a year. It’s been a real struggle, and I can draw someone from a photo, but that doesn’t have any life to it. They just want a copy of a photo and I don’t do that. I’ll do commission illustrations. If I ask somebody over now, I want to already know them pretty well because of the quarantine. I want to make sure the person is comfortable and if they get nude I want them to feel it’s something they’re comfortable with.

Contact: Michaelhildebrand.com
IG: Michaeljhildebrand