Curiocity: Michael Birawer On His Iconic Skyline Paintings
The jagged lines, the vibrant colors and the intimate details of a beloved neighborhood or skyline — it doesn’t take much to positively identify a Michael Birawer painting.
His art is one of the most iconic to come out of the Twin Cities and can be found in several restaurants, businesses and homes across Minnesota.
Beyond his wide reach locally, Birawer has expanded his offerings to other popular city skylines, including Chicago, New York, Washington D.C. and more.
Birawer will be signing his incredible artwork in the coming weeks at the Mall of America and Rosedale Mall. But before he does, we chatted with the artist about his Minnesota roots, his inspiration and what keeps him motivated.
Tell us a little about your background – you were born and raised in the Twin Cities?
I was born in St. Paul and I grew up in Cottage Grove. From there, I attended the College of Visual Arts in St. Paul. I majored in Illustration and came out of that with a Bachelor of Fine Arts, with major Illustration and spent most of the 1990s working in graphic design, a little bit of illustration work and from there, I was kind of doing these — strictly as a hobby — local scenes and locations and neighborhoods I used to live by or places I would frequent as paintings. Probably about the year 2000, I took it more in that disciplined way of developing a series of paintings that dealt with Minneapolis and St. Paul. From there, I just kept building upon that scene and really, to this day I’m still connected to that idea and that concept.
When did you discover your love of art and of painting?
I think I always knew that as a kid. I was a pretty regular kid, loved sports, homework not so much and I think I just thought of myself as a highly imaginative kid and always kind of liked to use art as my means of escape. I think, at the point, growing up in the 80s, the idea of being an artist as a career wasn’t something that factored in, it didn’t seem like a plausible occupation. So it was one of those things where I really enjoyed art and had a passion for it but growing up in the Midwest, I sort of felt like I had to fit in with my peer group and what they were doing — going off to four-year university, and I just felt like that was what you do. And then I discovered that there was such thing as a real, actual art school, which I really only thought that was fiction. I couldn’t believe that there was a place where you could actually go to an art school and study art. That was an incredible experience for me.
I just always kind of knew, no matter what my mood or emotional state, I always feel that art to me is something that is my grounder — it keeps me grounded, it keeps me blissfully occupied, when I go through tougher times in life, it’s always there. It’s my friend, it’s something that I just have this really intimate connection with.
The skyline and neighborhood series are certainly what you’re known for – how did that begin? What was your inspiration?
The skyline came a little bit later, I was really working on more individual locations — St. Croix Broiler, Nye’s, Murray’s, you know, First Avenue. I think it just kind of came around to the fact that I enjoyed exploring different buildings and how they relate to each other and the first piece that really inspired me was a scene of downtown Minneapolis that has the Stone Arch Bridge in the foreground. I just thought that was such an incredible view. In order to get that view, it’s not really something you can just drive by, you really have to walk out there to see that and take that in. It’s just such an inspiring thought. … I’d say that was the first for me. It sort of laid the footings for other skylines that would soon eventually follow.
How did you choose your locations after that?
Some of them are that I want to build upon a series of works, like a series of downtown skylines. I always thought St. Paul was an incredibly different skyline than Minneapolis — they both have the Mississippi River going through them but they’re both so different. I’m just kind of looking for that — things that are different than the previous one. There’s something unique about each skyline and there’s something that I really want to call out and play up. From there, I think I just take on cities like Chicago, Boston, D.C., New York, San Francisco, I kind of just get really excited when I see city skylines. It’s as though you can step back and see how the city operates — when we’re in the city, we’re so engulfed and embedded and it’s a totally different experience. Really just stepping away, that’s what I really enjoy about painting a skyline.
The style of painting that you’ve created — somewhat graffiti, somewhat abstract — where did that come from?
That style came from my interest in cartooning and comic books and MAD Magazine, just characters just based on heavy line work. It sort of came out of that. Where a straight line doesn’t have to be a straight line — it can take on a whole angular, geometric shape, it can take on a shape of nature. Buildings don’t have to sit on exact proportionality of a photograph and I just find that I really identify with that. I’ve been kind of developing it over the years. Some of the lines in the earlier days were a little smoother — the Hennepin Avenue bridge was an earlier piece and the lines were smoother and the color blends were much more smooth. They just got a little more angular and evolved from there.
Did you have any idea that painting neighborhoods would bring you national acclaim and recognition?
No, I mean, no. I never … I thought right away that there was a lot of luck that was involved with kind of how I began. I think the Twin Cities was the right place to do what I was doing. It was easy to get the work in front of people. Mall of America is the center point of shopping and consumerism, just having my work be in the mall, it really got a lot of people to notice it. I felt like I was really on to something when people were acting like they were. I was trying to figure out for a while what that was. The work in general has such a positive overtone, I think that’s the way it unconsciously happened. I think these works are accessible to people, picking out things that people really love and places they really love. They’re very personal to people and I think that’s where it started to connect. From that point, I think it was sort of a formula that developed that I think could work really anywhere. The most important part of these works are that I’m invested in each one of them — that it’s not artificial. Each composition is really thought out and each one, when I’m working on it, it’s very special to me. I think that at the end of the day, that really shows through. At this point, I’m not trying to phone it in with these paintings — there’s a lot of time and a lot of care that really goes into them.
What is it like for you to know so many restaurants, businesses and home owners have a piece of your art?
It’s amazing to me, really. I have such a connection to it, and I know exactly where it all came from. The fact that it’s being celebrated in different venues and restaurants so other people, the public, can enjoy it, it’s just an amazing feeling. It’s something that motivates me to keep going and keep creating. My work is never done. I still love it. I still love the process. I still love doing shows and connecting and talking with people and hearing about their experiences with the locations and places I’ve painted. I love that. It’s just really inspiring to me.
Michael Birawer will be doing a holiday signing at Deck The Walls at Mall of America on Saturday, Nov. 17 from 1-4 p.m., and Deck The Walls at Rosedale Center on Saturday, Dec. 15, from 1-4 p.m. For more information about his artwork, head to his website.