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The Art Is in the Mail 

How local illustrator Michael Deas became the master of the perforated portrait

Michael Deas' bicycle, parked to ride behind the front door, boasts the slogan, "Defend America, Defeat Bush." Not that unusual of a relic from the recent presidential campaign, but it's a bit jarring when you consider Deas' latest project: a postage stamp honoring Ronald Reagan.

Deas, an immensely polite man who sometimes apologizes when he curses, sidesteps questions about his opinions of Reagan's presidency. He prefers to quip that, "Our current president makes Reagan seem like a grand statesman." But spend more time with Deas, and certain contrasts become apparent. He's kind and soft-spoken, but ire rises to the surface when a nerve is struck. His biggest nerve: when the classical and historic is destroyed in the name of profit and progress.

On this October morning, Deas has answered the door of his French Quarter home wearing his typical workday outfit: no shoes, well-worn jeans and oversized shirt, both splattered with paint. After a quick handshake, he leads the way into a spacious, well-worn home filled with books and art. On this visit, Deas also hosts Terry Green and Nori-Zso Tolson, a husband-and-wife team of filmmakers currently working on their documentary American Stamps, an examination of stamp art and the people behind it.

Deas paints portraits for a living, but today he's the subject. In a room temporarily cluttered with lights and microphones, Green sits on an Oriental rug facing upward at Deas, who poses portrait-like in a tall chair, holding his cat, Augie.

"Augie loves all this attention," Deas says, stroking the orange-and-white coat of the cat that showed up at his door one day seven years ago.

The filmmakers have been taping and interviewing Deas for two days now, and this shot wraps up their duties in New Orleans. Work done and the cocktail hour just dawning, Deas moves to his kitchen and begins mixing Pimm's Cups.

"Because he's an absolute rock star," Green gushes, when asked why Deas is part of American Stamps. "We started calling him a few months ago, and to be honest I was scared at first, never thinking I'd get access to someone like this.

"He's brilliant," Green says. "All the (U.S. Postal Service) art directors talk about him, they think he's the best. Doing this project, all we hear is praise for Michael Deas."

"The whole process of creating stamps, the process itself, plus the history and culture behind it, is fascinating," adds Tolson. "The stamps convey a very intimate history of our nation. They are given such importance because they literally are an artistic record of America."

In his 16 commissioned stamps, Deas has presented to the country renderings of icons such as James Dean, Lewis and Clark, Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart and Tennessee Williams, among others. On Feb. 6, Deas' portrait of Ronald Reagan will be issued as a stamp, following the custom that a president's commemorative stamp be released on the first birthday following his death. It's not easy to please a mourning family, but Deas succeeded. "This stamp really captures Ronnie's humor and optimism, and I hope the American people like it as much as I do," Nancy Reagan told Linn's Stamp News magazine following the stamp's unveiling in November.

A typically heavy workload prevented Deas from attending the unveiling, but he received a letter from Nancy Reagan extending an invitation to lunch and conveying her gratitude for "the beautiful portrait of my husband." For Deas, it is a personal triumph to both please a client and complete a portrait on a tight one-month deadline. Deas actually was the second artist given the commission, and the approved portrait was Deas' second submission to the Reagan Estate, after his first was deemed too serious. It helped that in his final portrait, Deas picked emerald green as the background color in homage to Reagan's Irish roots. Emerald green, the family later said, was the late president's favorite color.

Deas can talk with passion and insight about the process of evoking the character of a person like Reagan, about his extensive research into his subjects' image and character, about balancing his own artistic integrity with the need to serve the client (and contend with the red tape involved in Postal Service commissions). But at this moment, with the setting sun streaming brilliantly through his windows, he has another focus. "I've been told mine are better than the ones at the Napoleon House," he says, dropping a sliced cucumber wedge in each Pimm's Cup.

After some friendly stamp talk about the Inverted Jenny -- a stamp that depicted a plane flying upside-down -- Green and Tolson begin packing up their gear. They offer release forms for Deas to sign. A line asking for his specific work title gives everyone pause.

"An illustrator?" Deas asks, himself seeming to wonder.

"But that doesn't seem to tell the whole story," Tolson says. "A painter?"

"He's an artist!" exclaims Green. "The real deal."

"Sure," Deas says flatly, shrugging his shoulders, filling in the blank.

AT 48, DEAS HAS REACHED a place that would be the envy of many artists. He's earned admiration from many, but he's still able to live on his own terms. He is humble and operates in relative anonymity, though his work is seen by millions. Across town he's known as a brilliant artist, devoted preservationist, a nightlife scenester, and the originator of jaw-dropping Carnival costumes. He lives alone, works alone and rides his bike through the city at night alone, armed only with a desire to find what could be his next painting.

Deas lived in Metairie for the first years of his life before moving with his family to Long Island, New York. "But my heart has always been in New Orleans," he says. He recalls the massive oaks surrounding his grandmother's home, which neighbored Audubon Park. "That is such a magical place for me," he says. "It fueled so much imagination."

That imagination, plus the imagery of New Orleans with its swirling tropical clouds and crumbling, colored homes, pulled Deas back. "It's a melding of time and memory that you will not find anywhere else," he says of the city he's now lived in for the past 16 years.

Deas' path began at the acclaimed Pratt Institute in New York, a tutelage he dismisses as "dreadful." Deas' objections stem from an era in the mid 1970s when abstract expressionism was all the rage. His traditional approach to realism struggled. "Nobody wanted to see anyone paint realistically," Deas says. "I was constantly disappointed."

Nonetheless, after a series of dropouts and returns, Deas graduated from Pratt. He taught for a few years at the School for Visual Arts before being able to support himself solely through his work.

In the early 1990s, Carl Herrman, one of six Postal Service art directors across the country, was looking for an artist to paint Marilyn Monroe. Herrman learned of Deas through Deas' agent and invited him to submit his work. Herrman gathered with the other art directors in Washington D.C. to select a winner. "Each art director had a couple of people they liked, so there were 35 Marilyn Monroes facing us on the table," Herrman recalls. "At the end there were two Marilyns left, and they were both Michael's."

The Post Office issued the stamp in 1992. "Michael's portrait had a lot of emotion -- it wasn't just a nice, crisp capturing of an image," Herrman says. "The background, the way he used color, and the way he put so much feeling into his work. Everything else just seemed stiff next to Michael's.

"I'd have to say he's the best portrait artist out there," Herrman says. "Nobody can match what he does."

"With Marilyn, there was not one particular picture of her that worked to do the painting from," Deas says. "So I kept looking, looking, looking. Nothing captured what I was after. So I used a headshot and recreated the body from my model friend. I wanted to give it a feminine quality, playful and inviting."

Since that debut, Deas has earned the Gold Medal honor from the Society of Illustrators for his portrait for the 1996 James Dean stamp. A larger body of his work was featured in a 1999 exhibition at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Massachusetts. Commissioned book covers include the 25th anniversary publication of Anne Rice's Interview With a Vampire.

Recently gaining notoriety is Deas' 1992 reworking of the Columbia Pictures logo that Columbia calls The Lady. Local cloud formations form a dramatic background for a female model posing in Greek goddess demeanor. In interviews with Roger Ebert and others, actress Annette Bening claimed that the work's artist -- she didn't name him -- told her she was the inspiration for the figure. "Not true," Deas says of Bening's inexplicable boasts. "The model is Jenny Joseph, a friend of mine from here now raising her family in Houston." Ebert has since issued a correction.

When Deas paints historic characters, he typically melds existing photos and live models. Just as Joseph served as the The Lady, Marigny bartender Karen Connoway and another friend, Julie von Tell, posed as Monroe. Kenneth Harrison, an illustrator for The Times-Picayune, wore a blue suit to convey the broad shoulders of Reagan. Deas based a Benjamin Franklin portrait that appeared on the cover of the July 3, 2003, issue of Time magazine on himself. "Because, unfortunately, we share the same hair line," he says.

"With live models, you can art direct, and get the pose you want," Deas says. "But when you use disparate elements to create a single image, it's difficult. Some are more difficult than others, particularly in regard to proportion. You have to wonder, ŒDoes the hand match the head? Would their head turn that much?'"

"What I do is take the image everyone has in their heads, the image of what everyone thinks this icon should look like, and boil it down to its essence and strive to capture that," Deas says.

Then he laughs. "Well, I guess," he adds. It's as if he's quickly dismissing the talent and hard work that drive his art. Or perhaps he's dismissing pretentiousness.

With the tight deadlines that often come with the Postal Service commissions, reliability and work ethic are essential qualities in the painter. "Michael puts 100 times more effort than he needs to," Herrman explains. "He'll ride around the country, doing research, collecting images. He's like an actor learning the character."

One subject with obvious connections to Deas is playwright Tennessee Williams, a fellow French Quarter denizen also capable of furious, frenetic and brilliant output. Deas especially enjoys his Williams stamp, which was created with a micro-printing process that allowed incredible detail, in this case a rendering of Blanche DuBois in the last window of a streetcar named Desire. Her image is visible only with a magnifying glass.

"On the original work, Blanche was only 1/16th of an inch tall," Herrman says. "Nobody else would care about doing that but Michael."

"IS THAT OUR MICHAEK DEAS?" exclaimed Lydia Schmalz when she first glanced at the Time cover of Benjamin Franklin. Schmalz had known Deas for years. She had no idea he was an acclaimed artist.

Schmalz, the curator for Longue Vue House and Gardens, knows Deas through his other passion: preservation. She recruited Deas to join the board of the Louisiana Landmarks Society. The two first worked together in the dank basement of the Beauregard-Keyes House, a historic landmark where valuable books were rotting in the basement. Schmalz and Deas teamed up to transport the books to a new place for safekeeping. "So when that magazine cover came out, I thought of Michael as the guy I worked with in a smelly basement, moving books," Schmalz says. "I was very delighted for him, and said to him, ŒI had no idea you were such a brilliant artist. A celebrity walks among us.' He just shrugged, and says, ŒWell, it's no big deal.'"

Schmalz again worked with Deas a few years ago during the controversial make-over of Audubon Park. Deas served on the board of Save Audubon Park, which opposed the Audubon Institute-backed changes, and attended City Council hearings and other meetings to preserve his vision of the park and oak trees that captured his imagination as a child.

"Audubon Park was created to preserve green space for the people, but the only green the Audubon Institute sees is that of money," Deas charges. Deas typically has similar words for developers who, in his view, demolish history, culture, architecture and more in the name of profit. When Deas talks about his preservation causes, his voice rises with a fight in it. It's a fierceness not heard when he discusses art.

"That's not democracy, that's greed," Deas says angrily over the latest controversy, a move to build a hotel on Iberville Street in the French Quarter. For Deas, the threat to New Orleans' culture and architectural grandeur -- both key components of his city-as-canvas -- represents a threat to his inspiration.

"My preservation work goes hand-in-hand with my aesthetic appreciation of New Orleans," he says. "But it's frustrating in this town, where it's who you are and who you know that gets things accomplished. That atmosphere makes preservation work hard. You're not going to stop a developer from doing what they're doing on your own, but preservationists hope to draw up enough public scrutiny so that the developer is shamed into doing the right thing. But in New Orleans, there's a small group of men, a clique if you will, that you cannot embarrass them -- you cannot dynamite them -- into being ashamed. That's how it works here."

Deas' preservation work extends beyond New Orleans. His highest-profile cause came in New York City during 2000-2001, when New York University proposed demolishing a row of buildings that included the last surviving residence of Edgar Allan Poe. Deas, who published the 1989 book The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allen Poe on University of Virginia Press, responded with strong and swift leadership. He was the first to point out that Poe's residence was among the historic properties slated to be destroyed. He recruited NYU professor and author E. L. Doctorow (who is named for Poe, the E standing for Edgar) to speak out against his employers. Deas also convinced quintessential New Yorkers Lou Reed and Woody Allen to write letters to The New York Times on behalf of the effort.

For Deas, Poe's house was especially meaningful. "Like a lot of people, in high school I just became fascinated with Poe," Deas says. "He just had the look to me of the classic tragic poet. Very Byronic." In his book on Poe, Deas illustrates how public perception of Poe -- including allegations of drug addiction, which Deas refutes -- shaped public perception of the author. Multiple Poe scholars have called the book "definitive."

The fight to save Poe's house failed. A towering 16-story building, which includes penthouses for NYU faculty, now stands on its site. "It's greed," Deas says. "Universities are basically small corporations now. They take your tuition money, and don't put it toward your child's education. All they do is use graduate student teacher assistants that don't get paid anything. They take your tuition money and reinvest it, to make more money."

NYU did agree to modify the size of the building, save some of the historic landmarks in the area, and put up a plaque on the site recognizing Poe. But Deas says when he makes his frequent sojourns to New York, he cringes every time he sees the NYU building.

"I was in a funk for a while," Deas says. "It reminds me of when I was trying to learn to paint. I always felt if you work at something long enough, and you keep working, working, working, and keep trying, that you eventually succeed. Or like writing. I look at those first drafts of my book and I'm embarrassed. It took seven years, but it got published and I'm proud of it.

"But this was the first project where I really tried, I really cared, and I flatly failed."

THESE DAYS, DEAS RARELY FAILS He calls his home, which he purchased 16 years ago, "the only sound financial decision I've ever made in my life." He's watched as his neighborhood has grown slightly less bohemian, with market forces pushing the artists, the bicycle riders, the libertines, further downriver to the Marigny and Bywater. But he also realizes his fortunate circumstance, one he forged through sheer will and ability, to make a living as an artist.

He declines to reveal how much he makes for his Postal Service paintings, for which he sells all rights. He does offer that his largest paychecks did not come from painting, but from autographing. The Postal Service hired him to sign 100,000 sheets each for the Marilyn Monroe and James Dean stamps, the best-selling stamps in history. "I was holed up in Minnesota doing that," Deas remembers. "After the third day you could have stuck a pin in my hand and I wouldn't have felt a thing."

He moves about the city unrecognized, but he receives plenty of fan mail. Much of its from art students. Remembering his own struggles in art school, he answers their many questions.

Deas, whose work is featured prominently in the Smithsonian Institute's Postal Service Museum, appreciates the history of the art that adorns everything from Christmas cards to credit card payments. "The United States has beautiful stamps; it is an important arts legacy in this country. These stamps have conveyed the whole spectrum of our history. I'm proud to be a part of it."

Deas' commercial work also includes a recently finished portrait of "a younger, more attractive" Martha Washington, composed from a digital re-imaging that retraced pictures of her as an older woman to how she would look in her 20s. The work will be used on the cover of an upcoming biography of the first First Lady.

However, Deas longs to move further away from commissions and portraits, and into ideas that come from within. "My personal work," he calls it. Deas paints in an open space on the second floor of his house, just a few feet from the floor-to-ceiling windows that lead to a balcony overlooking Governor Nicholls Street. Various oil paintings lie about, and a nearby iMac computer holds digital photos Deas takes while he rides his bike around New Orleans, searching for worthy subjects.

"That's 25 percent of what I do," Deas says of his own inspirations. He notes that the market for illustrators is crumbling in the digital age. "But those paintings don't pay the rent. Stamps do." Just as he so skillfully captures iconic American figures in his portraits, Deas seems to inherently grasp the nature of his work, his calling. "People think being a successful artist is this glamorous thing, and it's really not," Deas says on a rainy Monday afternoon, serving coffee just minutes before offering an Abita Amber with lime. "I think if you talk to anyone, whether they're composing music, writing books or painting. ... It's a solitary life. Most of the time it's just me here alone with my paintbrush."

click to enlarge DONN YOUNG
click to enlarge Deas' 1992 reworking of the Columbia Pictures logo gained recent notoriety when Annette Bening claimed she was the artist's inspiration. - MICHAEL DEAS
  • Michael Deas
  • Deas' 1992 reworking of the Columbia Pictures logo gained recent notoriety when Annette Bening claimed she was the artist's inspiration.
click to enlarge Deas' iconic stamps include figures from Louisiana - history such as Tennessee Williams and Lewis and Clark. - MICHAEL DEAS
  • Michael Deas
  • Deas' iconic stamps include figures from Louisiana history such as Tennessee Williams and Lewis and Clark.
click to enlarge A devoted preservationist, Deas bases his "personal - work" on inspirations such as New Orleans architecture. - MICHAEL DEAS
  • Michael Deas
  • A devoted preservationist, Deas bases his "personal work" on inspirations such as New Orleans architecture.
click to enlarge Deas often uses friends to model for his portraits of - historic figures; he based a Benjamin Franklin portrait - that appeared as a cover of Time on himself. - MICHAEL DEAS
  • Michael Deas
  • Deas often uses friends to model for his portraits of historic figures; he based a Benjamin Franklin portrait that appeared as a cover of Time on himself.
click to enlarge Deas' iconic stamps include figures from Louisiana - history such as Tennessee Williams and Lewis and Clark. - MICHAEL DEAS
  • Michael Deas
  • Deas' iconic stamps include figures from Louisiana history such as Tennessee Williams and Lewis and Clark.
click to enlarge MICHAEL DEAS
click to enlarge MICHAEL DEAS
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