Michael Lichtenauer is a sought-after, Grammy-winning tenor living here in SoCal, singing with the area’s best ensembles as well as putting in plenty of session hours in studios with top artists and filmmakers across multiple genres. A veteran of world-class ensembles like Chanticleer and the LA Master Chorale, he is also a complex, multi-faceted artist within and beyond his very active career in music. Diving into visual art wholeheartedly over the last few years, Michael has created works of art that are garnering buzz on Facebook, and are have been the basis for his line of beautiful and unusual holiday cards and other notecards, which can be purchased on his website or on Etsy. In addition to all of this, Michael maintains active interests, including food, eating out and trying new things, as well as an abiding love of cheese. (I’m with you there!) We managed to catch him between projects, to pick his brain a bit about how his activities diversified, what it takes to manage multiple disciplines, and what he sees for the future. He has also shared with us a few of his favorite pieces. (You’ll see an inspired use of aquamarine, his favorite color!) And we’re just in time to stock up for holiday card-sending!
So Michael, which came first: the music or the paint?
Music. I’ve always enjoyed making things, and as a child, art and music were my favorite classes. But I guess music came first, because I have a very specific memory from kindergarten. At a school assembly, the school choir, The Bluejacket Stars, were up front and sang “It’s a big wide wonderful world we live in…” I remember sitting in my row in my class on the floor just enraptured, and saying to myself, “I can’t wait until I do that”. Nobody in my family sings — my parents are tone deaf. But it’s always been a gift I was given, something that was part of my makeup. My favorite toy as a child was my blue plastic record player and my stack of 45’s. I even decorated the record player at one point with crayons… Hmmm…
LL: Do you consider one of your activities a primary career, and the other a side business, or is that stratification not useful to you?
ML: Music is definitely my primary career, but nobody gets to sing forever, nor do I want to. I want to go out on top and not be asked to leave, so, hopefully the art will be my next career.
LL: How did you get started doing notecards?
I finally got a handle on some depression and anxiety issues, and all of the sudden I was making things again, and it felt incredible. I thought it would just be my personal therapy, but people kept saying,”Is that for sale?”, or, “That would be a beautiful card,” etc. I thought, “really?” And here we are.
LL: Are your original designs generally created in one medium (watercolor, oil, etc.), or do you dabble in many?
I initially was all over the place, constructing things. I bought a drill, painted plywood, used glue guns, got rid of all my furniture except my sofa, made a work table, got help from a friend with a table saw to chop up some things… But now it is primarily acrylic on canvas.
LL: Are the originals for sale as well?
ML: YES! ART32400.com I also do commissions.
LL: Are your designs specifically intended for this print format, or do you choose cards from works you’ve created for other things, or for pure joy?
ML: Everything up to the holiday cards was just created out of joy and therapy and expression. People kept asking if I was going to do a holiday card. I thought about it, but I don’t force anything. If ideas come, great. I’m finding that when I am in concert, but not always singing, maybe sitting and listening to an instrumental portion played by The LA Phil, I start to see stuff. If I make something, it’s pretty much completely done in my head, but there are always tweaks and changes in the execution too: occasionally, ideas will come fast like dictation, and I’ll work fast and excitedly and get shaky, then I stop and walk away and calm down before I mess something up, then resume. I’m learning to adjust to the process.
LL: Are you enjoying Etsy’s direct-sales experience, working with customers? Are you selling anywhere else as well?
ML: I’ve tried ETSY and have my website, but I’m thinking of absorb ing it all onto my site. I’m working on Paypal buttons, etc. — not the slickest site, but the first I’ve ever built, and a good challenge. I do look forward to handing that off when I can afford it.
LL: Does the visual part of you intersect with your musical work? (I imagine it must.) Where are the areas or moments where these two talents collide?
ML: As I said before, I see beautiful things in concerts sometimes. When I am working on something and it is going well, that piece will have a song to it, or definite genre. It could be a tune we all know, or a kooky ditty that is the ‘sound’ of the piece as I’m making it. Fun ones can result in me dancing around a bit while working. My work table is tall, so I work standing, or moving about…
LL: What musical work is most likely to send you home dying to paint?
ML: Good music. I am all over the map musically, I still find it mind blowing. I adore it.
LL: Did you receive training in visual art, or are you self-taught? How did your current style develop? Any notable influences?
ML: I studied design my first semester of college, but eventually graduated with a Journalism degree. I’m self-taught, I guess: my favorite thing to do when I was traveling with Chanticleer was to hit museums, so I’ve been lucky to have seen so many beautiful things and places. I’ve always loved modern, started with Picasso, had a big Kandinsky phase, Rodchenko, Hockney, Ruscha, Koons, Stuart Davis, great architecture, DADA, Twombly, Mary Blair, Bauhaus, Sister Mary Corita, Miro, Klee…again, I’m all over the map. I am seeing more and more of a language developing that is “Lichtenauer”. I love lines — always have.
LL: Which of your artworks means the most to you, and why?
ML: I have a couple little things I made when this art began bubbling up that I’ll always keep. They are like a proclamation to me: “the door is now open, it’s ok, it doesn’t matter if it is good or bad, let it out, for no other reason at all, than to let it out and enjoy the process.”
LL: What does your average day/week/month/year look like? How do you balance your various disciplines, as well as tracking inventory, filling orders, etc.?
ML: This is still pretty new, before it was selling an occasional print or original or doing a commission. I have a lot of daytime hours to work, since most gigs are evenings and weekends. I am excited to see what the holidays will bring. I hope people enjoy the holiday cards, or any cards. I’ve also sold cards to folks who want something that isn’t holiday-specific. That’s why you can get them one by one, and get exactly what you like. I’m also going to offer gift boxes: plain, or with my graphic, or you can decorate it yourself!
LL: What is your favorite part and/or least favorite part of living this double life?
ML: I needed balance. I threw myself into my music career for the last twenty years, but suddenly realized it was all I had. Where is the rest of Michael’s life? The art has changed everything: my mental health, my appreciation for my music, and an ability to meet those demands with a refreshed attitude, with a million more things to do and think about and work on. I need a lot of stimulation to stay out of trouble. It’s exciting, and another gift.
LL: How does managing multiple disciplines affect your home life, in terms of space, time, etc.?
ML: I’m single, so that part is easy. I still rent a one-bedroom that is now a studio in the eating area, with piles of paintings and supplies everywhere, and a sofa. I still have a bed and bedroom, of course, but the rest has been given over to see where this art will go. The kitchen sink is always a mess, but it’s pretty. I really want to get out of this apartment, both because of the space and light issues and because it is time to move on, and maybe have a table to eat at again.
LL: Do you think of yourself as being in business, or as an artist, or both, or neither?
ML: I’m an artist, and I have a bit of a business background too. After obtaining my journalism degree, I worked in corporate America for five years. I did not like it, but I learned a lot. Any freelance musician is a businessperson: you are your business, so I’m just adding to my business.
LL: Any advice for readers who are looking to build or expand their own side business?
ML: Again, this is all new and young and small, but you have to be a bit obsessive about it.
LL: What’s next? Any plans to expand, or big projects coming up?
ML: I’d love to have a gallery show someday, and a studio.