Not many people can recall the exact moment in time when they discovered what would be their calling in life. Mike Hedges remembers well the time period when his life’s path emerged. He was a junior at Oak Park-River Forest High School when the light bulb went off.
“Usually, my parents would go to school conferences and my teachers would tell them that I just wasn’t doing well in school,” he remembers. “They would come home, and I’d get in trouble. My junior year, I was taking art just to take it, not because I had any particular interest in it, and my art teacher, Mrs. Forbes, told my parents that I was really good at it. It was the first time they weren’t mad at me when they got home.”
Mrs. Forbes became the catalyst to Mike’s career as an artist. She saw such promise in her student that she helped him enroll in college at the Art Institute while he was still in high school. He went on to major in Studio Art under the supervision of artist Tom Jewell-Vitale at Loras College in Iowa. He began his career as an abstract artist with his first student show and continued to pursue the craft after graduating in 1998.
A canvass of a different sort
While the art was what excited him, Mike knew he had to do something else to bring in money. For a time after college, he worked as a scenic artist for various Chicago film studios and traveled to Europe, but he ended up back in Oak Park with a combination of careers based on two different types of painting.
“I’d worked one summer in high school for Campus Corps Painting, and a friend and I started painting houses during our summer breaks from college,” he says. “I got started in the business to make money during college, but after college I kept doing it. It’s very hard to make it as an artist. With my own painting business, I’m my own boss, so I can do both: make the money and have time to paint.”
Hedges, who, with his wife Julie — also a native Oak Parker — has a 3-year-old son Brady and twins on the way, admits that he hopes to one day focus exclusively on studio art. For the time being though, residential and commercial painting projects help pay the bills.
“Mostly, we do interior work,” he explains. “The fun part is helping people choose colors and helping them design their homes. I do a lot of murals.”
Mike’s residential and commercial painting talents have taken him from painting MTV’s Real World house when the show was set in Chicago, to other states and even out of the country.
“Clients who have come to know me will have me go to their lake houses and paint because they know they can trust me. I’ve worked on restaurant designs in Austin, Texas and a vacation home in the Virgin Islands. This side of the work can be exciting because of the creativity involved.”
The real artwork
While his house painting business has steadily grown over the years, so has Mike’s reputation as an artist. In June of 2010, he signed with Thomas McCormick Gallery in the West Loop.
Throughout the years, he has adapted his artistic work to fit his changing lifestyle.
“Shortly after college, I had a studio in Lincoln Park and I was able to work in large scale, which I love to do,” he says. “Some of those pieces sold to corporate firms that have the space to display large works.”
When he and his wife purchased their Oak Park home across the street from her parents, the basement was initially Mike’s studio. While not as large as his space in the city, it offered plenty of room to create.
“I began to work a little smaller because that’s what people need in their homes,” he says. “These houses have lots of windows, and there’s just not a lot of room for art.”
In anticipation of welcoming two more children into the home, Mike realized that more living space was a necessity. He allotted the majority of the basement space into family room space, relegating himself to a small area for painting. He plans to eventually re-purpose a garage into studio space.
“I use oil paints and the fumes aren’t really ideal for children, so it will be better to have a separate studio.”
In the meantime, the smaller studio hasn’t hampered his creative impulse. The walls of his house are filled with his paintings and collages, and large stacks of recent works are awaiting perusal by his gallery.
“I try to at least get to the studio for an hour or two each day. Sometimes, I’ll stay down there for weeks when I’m busy. I like to work in series of eight or so paintings. Winters are slow for house painting, so I get more time to paint in my studio. I just finished up a series of 40 paintings, knowing that this winter I probably won’t be able to get down there as much.”
Mike’s Oak Park roots continue to provide a good foundation for his family while he builds a name for himself as an artist. His parents still live in the village, and his father, John, is active in village politics, serving as a village trustee. His in-laws not only offer frequent local babysitting, but art advice as well. Bob Dunn, Mike’s father-in-law, is an artist as well, who paints landscapes. Many hang in harmony next to Mike’s abstract work in the family home.
“It’s great having another artist in the family,” he says. “If I ask someone else for criticism on a work, they are usually just nice about it. [Bob] will give it to me straight.”
Mike plans on carrying that interest over to the next generation as well. Leaning against the wall of the basement is one of his larger paintings.
“Brady helped me with this one,” says Mike while pointing out the work. “He got to do a little painting on it. He knows all of his colors, and he seems really interested in it. He’s got his own easel down here, and he’s already creating his own art.”