Bursting Out of the Box

Performance artist Michael Israel soars to new heights

Dressed in a fitted black T-shirt and plain dark pants, Miami artist Michael Israel stands alone on an expansive stage. In his right hand he clutches a paintbrush.

Before him is a blank canvas that measures approximately six by four feet. Behind him are hundreds of people who have gathered to watch him work.

As a familiar ballad resonates from the stage speakers, several onlookers clap encouragingly. Some peer curiously. Others sit in silence. Without warning, Israel crouches, spinning his lithe body in a full circle before catapulting high into the air, arms extended, legs splayed. With the precision of a heart surgeon wielding a scalpel sharper than Bill Maher's wit, he spatters fire-engine-red acrylic paint across the once-stark cloth. In one swift movement, the artist lands, exhibiting the grace of a feline. He grabs a lower corner of the canvas and spins it upside down.

Michael Israel using different strokes
Bob Lasky
Michael Israel using different strokes

Details

Friday, August 4, at 8:00 p.m. Admission is free.
Crest Theatre, Old School Square, 51 N Swinton Ave, Delray Beach; 561-243-7922

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That's how the piece begins. It ends, unbeknownst to most in the audience, less than four minutes later, with the vast majority of onlookers on their feet, screaming wildly. Some are in tears.

Skeptics may scoff that it's unlikely someone could produce something of creative worth in less time than it takes to order a burger and fries. Granted, he is no Picasso, and his art is the stuff of street fairs. Nevertheless the fact that he completes a piece in minutes is impressive.

Israel — who has performed in Monaco and on NBC's reality show America's Got Talent— recently decided to capture his work, along with the audience, on camera for a DVD called Art Outburst. It will feature Israel creating an estimated twelve pieces.

And he's doing it here in South Florida. On Friday, August 4, Israel is scheduled to give a rare local performance at the Crest Theatre in Delray Beach — free of charge. Tickets will be allotted on a first-come, first-served basis (and all attendees must give written consent to be filmed). That could be viewed as a bargain, considering this world-famous artist has shared the stage with celebrities such as comedian Jay Leno and country music singer Lee Ann Womack. Plus he has shown his artistry at presidential galas, and he wowed the crowd at the 2002 Special Olympics in Salt Lake City.

So what is it about Israel's work that inspires the likes of George W. to commission a portrait?

Describing what he does for a living is easy: He paints pictures, such as actors, musicians, athletes, and predictable patriotic images — nothing any of us hasn't seen before. But explaining how he does it is another story. And trying to verbalize the range of emotions involved in actually witnessing his artistry is something even the artist admits finding difficult.

"Nothing communicates the emotion or the passion that you'll feel when you actually see a show," Israel says from his North Miami studio. "The goosebumps that come up on your arms, and the tears that run down your face. It's an amazing experience, and to try to explain it ... people think, No, it can't really be that good."

Israel's first foray into the art world ended in relative disaster. Or at least what a toddler might call disaster — namely a slap on the rear. Before relocating with his newly married mother to Miami at age two, Israel lived in his native Queens. He recalls a photo snapped at the family home that depicts him with a crayon in hand, drawing on the wall.

"My mother was my first art critic," he laughs. "She walked up to me, looked at the picture, and then slapped me on the butt and said, 'Don't you ever do that again.' It's been parental revenge ever since."

After graduating from high school, Israel perfected his craft at art fairs around the nation. Although he attended a number of art-related classes at various academic institutions, including the University of Miami, he considers himself largely self-taught. And during the past three decades, he has adopted a style all his own.

Combining his passion for martial arts — he has a black belt in karate and trains up to six times per week — with painting, he spins, twirls, and jumps around with the energy of a hyperactive four-year-old, in time to a thundering soundtrack. Sometimes he turns the canvas on its head to create suspense (his specially mounted canvases can be spun 360 degrees), or he might produce a piece in less than a minute. But wherever he's booked, be it corporate events, casinos, festivals, et cetera, he razzle-dazzles audiences with a brush-slinging frenzy of color and showmanship unlike any other.

Fans of his work have paid as much as $60,000 for a piece, which might strike serious art enthusiasts as reprehensible. There is even a year-long waiting list to snag one of Israel's live works. Among his most popular pieces is Hero, a man-size painting honoring 9/11 rescue workers.

And I must admit, while watching the videotape of him creating the piece along with Enrique Iglesias cooing his sultry "Hero" ballad, I did feel a tear well up.

 
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