Interview with Michael Albert, aka Sir Real
Artist and author Michael Albert (aka Sir Real), a modern pop artist and the author of An Artist’s America, was a special Reading is Art-RAGEOUS guest in July 2010 at the Chicago Public Library. Albert showed teens how to combine art with a recycling philosophy to learn how to create their very own work of “Cerealism.”
Sample art work, used with permission from the artist, is featured on this page.
Chicago Public Library’s Teen Advisory Council interviewed Albert about his art and what inspires him. Learn more about him by attending his programs at the Library and by reading this interview!
Have you always been a collage artist or do you work in other media?
I started my serious artistic pursuits with drawing (with crayons, magic markers, pen and ink, and wax oils), and it evolved after several years of serious drawing into collage… First I used throwaway and extra photos for my collages, then stickers, old labels and junk mail from work, and eventually cereal boxes and other famous cardboard brand packages, which I’ve become known for.
Who are some of your favorite artists?
Van Gogh, Picasso, Gauguin, Matisse, Cezanne, Magritte, Monet, Modigliani, Rembrandt, Klimt, Kurt Schwitters, Haring, Basquiat, Warhol, Willem de Kooning, and my grandmother Maxine Frankel. (And others.)
Where did you get your artistic ideas or inspiration from?
From everywhere, from being aware of what I see and hear… Hearing or reading a quote, Shakespeare, Lincoln, song lyrics, talking to people, the news… I like picking subjects that other people can relate to…
How do you usually start a piece of art — for instance, do you imagine how the finished piece will look first, and then start collecting materials?
I usually have an idea, and I do kind of imagine what it will look like when completed, but of course I never really know till it’s done! Since I’ve been working steadily for over 20 years and making collages for over 15 years, I have been thinking of ideas and collecting materials all along, so by now I have an incredible variety of imagery I’ve collected and culled from the packages I’ve come across, and therefore my collages can be crammed full of images…which is what I like!
How long does it take (usually) for you to finish a piece of artwork?
My larger collages (which I make on acid-free museum boards which are 20”x30” or 32”x40” usually), I call my EPIC WORKS because they literally take months to finish. My USA Map took over 100 hours to complete. This is why I like to work on several pieces at a time, several smaller-sized works and one large one usually. This way as I am finding and arranging the elements for the large work, I can also be putting together several smaller pieces on various themes. I also collect elements for other collage ideas I have. For example, I have been collecting things that say “New,” “New Flavor,” “New Packaging Same Great Taste,” etc., and am conceiving of a collage that says, “There’s Nothing New Under the Sun” and featuring hundreds of these “New” logos… For the EPIC COLLAGES, it’s also like the beginning of a journey of a thousand miles when I start one of these larger-scale works. It takes some mental effort to start knowing how long a journey is probably going to be…
Is it difficult for you to shop without being distracted by labels, letters, and images on products?
YES!! But it’s OK… I call it market research and try not to buy anything just for my art… I like to save packages from the landfills, not create more garbage if I can help it — then again once in a while I do. I recall purchasing a nice big box ($2.69) of Hamburger Helper for its character (the hand with the face) because I had the idea to do a collage of the Bible quote by Jesus, “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!”
What are some simple things that people can do to recycle that they might not know about?
Besides making art like I do, you can make many other cool crafty things with these types of materials… More and more we are seeing actual store merchandise made from recycled materials — purses made from gum wrappers, etc. … I think purchasing certain items in bulk also helps reduce the amount we have to recycle and perhaps sometime soon, there will be a major push in that direction — maybe my art is showing the futility of using these materials for packaging such small quantities of products. We create too much garbage this way, and our world is becoming polluted… It has to stop!
Have you ever worked with numbers instead of letters?
Yes, after talking to a math major at NYU [New York University] while giving away my posters on the streets of NYC a few years back, I was inspired to create collages of as many digits of the number pi as possible… There is a version of the pi art in my book, An Artist’s America, and I recently finished a pi collage to 777 digits that took me four years (literally) to complete… It took that long to collect enough numbers to use, and I have created an EPIC 20”x30” collage on this theme… I have done numerous versions on this theme where I go out to as many digits will fill the space…
Do your collages always have a theme? Do you ever do random works? How do you come up with your collage subjects?
I have several themes I’ve been developing and have created many works in each theme (Flags, Quotes, Skulls, Maps, Sir Real, Cerealism [abstractions of famous brands] and others)… Lately I’ve been experimenting with what I call “Brandscapes” or landscape-looking compositions made from brand packages. I also write a lot of poetry — as much as I make visual art — but I don’t share that yet! It’s still my secret passion…
What is your favorite state and why?
I have only been to about a dozen states so far, but I like them all. The USA in general is a great place, all the states have their own personality traits (sights, accents, foods, culture), which to me make them special!! It’s cool that all these very different places have the commonality of being part of the same country. The USA is my home.
What advice would you give a budding artist?
Make art like a maniac (it doesn’t seem to be a casual thing) whenever you get a chance… DO NOT WASTE YOUR TIME. (This is a general statement, but really important.) There are so many distractions in this world, you can spend all your time doing things that aren’t really productive such as non-stop texting or watching reruns of old TV shows you’ve seen before, etc. OR you can use your time and opportunity to CREATE SOMETHING!! I would suggest experimenting with various materials and media… With art I believe practice makes perfect… See if you really love the process of making art and are happy with your results. You will see if this is what you love to do if you continue doing it — the doing it and the creation of art is the reward. I also think it is critical, though, to spend a good deal of time developing the other side of the brain and learning practical skills — such as communication skills, how to sell, basic math, etc. — so you can survive. We all need to know how to manage our lives in addition to creating interesting and great art. Art may be a very important thing, but other things are important too… earning a living, relationships, keeping fit and healthy, doing what’s right, etc.
Do you work with what boxes you have on hand or do you sometimes seek out a particular letter, color, image, etc.?
I have a wide assortment of materials on hand, but on the rare occasion that I decide I need a specific image, I may go and purchase it at a store… I’ve been doing many workshops at schools, libraries and museums, and often the students bring in boxes from home so I get to see and use a lot of packages I wouldn’t otherwise have an opportunity to. My cronies (who bring me ALL THEIR BOXES) are my parents, my printer, who has a big family, and a few other people… They are all creatures of habit! They always buy the same things!! Of course we save all our boxes at home. (I have four kids.) At home, it’s a personal offense to me to throw out a perfectly good cardboard product box!
What is your favorite cereal?
Cheerios, and I also used to eat a lot of Life cereal, too! Now I like Barbara’s cereals and Kashi. I also like Hot Cerealism! Oatmeal, etc., … I like bananas in my cereal, too!
How did you get started?
I started drawing in college and continued. It was my secret passion for years until I started showing it around. After I started working (selling food to specialty stores), I continued drawing every chance I got and eventually used the art in my business when I created the Sir Real juice brand, which I still own and operate… I don’t watch TV! I like to listen to music or talk while working. Over time it (making art) became “what I do.” The collages started when I was reluctant to throw away old bad photos and other materials I had accumulated at home and at my office and started using them in my art. This led to using cereal boxes and other consumer packages.
Who was/is your inspiration?
I was inspired by the great museums of [New York] and some in Europe that I was fortunate enough to visit when I was younger. I was in Chicago once before, in 2002, and was inspired by the Art Institute of Chicago… I can’t wait to go back when I’m in town in July… By seeing art displayed and honored like it is in major museums such as seeing the “Mona Lisa” behind glass from a distance, with a group of people from all over the world trying to get a glimpse of it made me realize how important art is. Then I had a thought that maybe I could create something that anyone might want to see, and that was inspiring. By me liking what I create and having other people respond to it positively, I am inspired to create more, to add to my body of work, which is my life’s work.