Most people know Michael Jackson primarily as a talented stage performer. And very few outside his devoted fan base know that, besides being talented in music and dance, he also had impressive drawing skills. The collection of his drawings is valued in millions of dollars today.
The first mention of Michael’s drawing talent goes back to the Jackson 5 times. In his autobiography “Moonwalk,” the singer remembers that he really liked drawing when he was a child. When the Jackson boys were staying at Diana Ross’ house, she encouraged them to develop their artistic skills. According to Michael, one day they got caught up in painting and accidentally stained the white carpet in Diana’s living room. They panicked in fear of punishment, but Diana didn’t scold them, she only told them to clean up the mess.
Katherine Jackson: “Michael loved art a lot. He loved paintings, he loved water colors. He loved even the crayons. And he would always draw. And when he was even in school, he would draw pictures, and they took one of his drawings and put it on the front of the yearbook. … He taught himself. … Just the talent that he had. And I can’t say too much more about him, only his father — his father was an artist, too. He loved to paint and draw. So I thought maybe he might have picked it up from him. But he had a natural talent for it, Michael did.”
One of Michael’s classmates, Lori Shapiro: “I had the opportunity to be in school with him, tenth grade, that was the school in Encino with about ninety students, so I took an art class with him. I would watch him make these drawings, and then he’d ball them up and throw them away. I asked him one day, ‘I really love that Charlie Chaplin drawing, can I have that one?’ And he said, ‘Sure, go ahead and take it home and enjoy it’, but he didn’t sign it. So I got home, and my Dad said that should probably be signed, and he sent me back to school. I had him sign it, and he just picked up a crayon and signed ‘Michael Jackson’. It was around 1972-1973 school year. And this [second drawing]… I really enjoy the picture of this woman, and I asked him who it was, and I could not remember the answer, but I had the opportunity to present these pictures to Jermaine Jackson, and he told me this looked like one of the tutors they’d go on tour with, when they weren’t in school, they had a tutor, and this looked like her.”
It is not known exactly with how many tutors the singer studied the art of drawing. David Nordahl, one of the artists from whom Jackson commissioned artwork for his Neverland ranch, shared memories about his relationship with the singer. In 1988, Jackson saw one of Nordahl’s paintings in Steven Spielberg’s office and called the artist to find out whether he gave drawing lessons. Nordahl declined initially due to high workload, but they soon became friends, and later Nordahl would leave all other projects to become Jackson’s portraitist and teach him the basics of drawing. Nordahl became not only Jackson’s favorite living artist (Michelangelo led the historic rating), but also his trusted advisor and confidant who designed Neverland carnival rides and joined family outings. They visited art galleries and private exhibitions together. And when Michael managed to carve some time between his numerous work projects, they studied the art of drawing.
David Nordahl: “We practiced doing certain things with pencil and colored pencil, but Michael was a perfectionist and so he would get angry at himself if what he was trying to do didn’t work very well. He was so impatient with himself, so we had a few lessons like that and I told him it takes a long time to develop skills in art. You know he really didn’t have the time to devote to that with his music and all the other things he was doing, he simply did not have the time to sit down to do the kind of practicing that he needed to do. Still, I am convinced that if Michael had devoted himself to art, he would have been a great artist, but if he devoted himself to be a preacher, he would have been a great preacher. If he devoted himself to being a doctor, he would have been a great doctor. So it did not really matter what he chose. And he always told me, ‘You know I could be working on a gas station, if I have not been given this talent’. He said, ‘Who knows what I would be doing.’”
Today, the collection of Michael Jackson’s drawings is worth an estimated $900 million. Almost all of them are stored in a huge hangar in Santa Monica Airport which Jackson used as his art studio and warehouse. Currently, these works are co-owned by the Michael Jackson Estate and Brett Livingston-Strong, the Australian artist and sculptor who also worked with Michael on various art projects. According to Strong, his business partnership with Jackson began in 1989 when they equally shared the ownership rights for all of their mutual works. In 2008, Jackson allegedly decided to hand over the rights for his share to Strong, and now Strong wants to arrange an exhibition of the singer’s art. The collection of drawings left by Jackson in the hangar included about 160 works. Some of them have been donated to the L.A. Children’s Hospital. The sketches contain recurring motives: chairs and gates, keys and number “7.” Jackson’s portrait of Bubbles, his pet chimpanzee, shows a monkey-like face vanishing into a cushy, ornate lounge chair. “He loved chairs,” says Strong. “He thought chairs were the thrones of most men, women and children, where they made their decisions for their daily activity. He was inspired by chairs. Rather than just do a portrait of the monkey, he put it in the chair. And you see, there are a few sevens — because he’s the seventh child.”
Jackson, who was a technically talented artist — and completely self-taught — fixated on these motifs, elevating everyday objects into cult symbols. Strong added that Jackson’s sketchbooks are completely filled with studies of his favorite objects, in endless permutations.
But Jackson also created portraits: a small sketch of Paul McCartney, and a large drawing of George Washington, created as Strong was working with the White House to commemorate the bicentennial of the Constitution back in 1987. He also sketched self-portraits — one as a humorous four-panel drawing charting his growing-up process, and a darker one that depicts him as a child cowering in a corner, inscribed with a sentence reflecting on his fragility.
As an artist, Jackson preferred using wax pencils, though Strong adds, “He did do a lot of watercolors but he gave them away. He was a little intimidated by mixing colors.” Some surviving pencils are archived in the hangar; in a cabinet on the far wall of the hangar, there is a ziploc bag containing a blue wax pencil, a white feathered quill and a white glove that Jackson used for drawing.
Jackson turned to art as times got hard for him. “His interest in art, in drawing it, was just another level of his creativity that went on over a long period of time,” Strong says. “It was quite private to him. I think he retreated into it when he was being attacked by those accusations against him.” The sketches and drawings certainly reveal an extremely sensitive creator, though it’s clear that Jackson also had a sense of humor.
Jackson’s art was kept under wraps for such a long time simply because of the scandal, which erupted right around the time that he was looking for a way to publicize the works. “A lot of his art was going to be exhibited 18 years ago. Here’s one of his tour books, where he talks about exhibiting art. He didn’t want it to be a secret,” Strong says, pointing at a leaflet from the 1992 Dangerous World Tour.
Strong says that he was a mentor for Jackson and encouraged the singer to create bigger paintings and drawings, and exhibit his work. The idea behind their partnership was that Strong would help Jackson manage and exhibit his art. Notably, the alliance birthed Strong’s infamous $2 million portrait of Michael Jackson entitled “The Book,” the only known portrait Jackson ever sat for.
In 1993, everything blew up. At the time, Jackson and Strong were both on the board of Big Brothers of Los Angeles (now known as Big Brothers Big Sisters), a chapter of the national youth mentoring organization established in L.A. by Walt Disney and Meredith Willson. They had planned out a fundraising campaign involving Jackson’s art. Strong explains, “We thought that if we would market [his art] in limited edition prints to his fans, he could support the charities that he wanted to, rather than have everybody think that he was so wealthy he could afford to finance everybody.” When the scandal erupted, Disney put a freeze on the project. The artwork stayed put, packed away from public eyes in storage crates.
As for the spectacular appraisal of $900 million for Jackson’s art collection, Strong says that it derives from the idea of reproducing prints as well. The figure was originally quoted by Eric Finzi, of Belgo Fine Art Appraisers. “The reason somebody came out with that was because there was an appraisal on if all of his originals were reproduced — he wanted to do limited editions of 777 — and he would sell them to his fan base… You multiply that by 150 originals, and if they sold for a few thousand dollars each, then you would end up with 900 million dollars.” Fair enough, though now Strong says he has gone to an appraiser in Chicago to get that value double-checked, and they arrived at an even higher estimate.
The story of Jackson’s art ends up being quite a simple one, though confused by so much hearsay and rumor. Strong and the Jackson estate will slowly reveal more works as time passes, and an exhibit is tentatively planned for L.A.’s City Hall. Negotiations with museums for a posthumous Jackson retrospective are still underway, but Strong has high hopes. He’s even talking of building a Michael Jackson museum that would house all of Jackson’s artwork.
Brett Livingston-Strong also shared his memories of the singer when he visited him in his studio. He was in a very light and happy mood most of the time. Michael would have the oldies on, and sometimes he’d listen to some of his Jackson Five songs. He’d kind of move along to that, but most of the time he would change it and listen to a variety of songs. He liked classical music. His inspiration to create was that he loved life, and wanted to express his love of life in some of these simple compositions.
“I came to the studio one day, and we had a Malamute. I came into the house, and I heard this dog barking and thought, ‘Wow, I wonder what that is.’ I go into the kitchen, and I couldn’t help but laugh when I see Michael up in the pots and pans in the middle of the center island. He’s holding a pen and paper and the dog is running around the island and barking at him, and he says, ‘He wants to play! He wants to play!’ He’s laughing, and I’m laughing about it as I’m thinking to myself, ‘I’m wondering how long he’s been up there.””
Michael Jackson’s dedication to art: so strong that he’ll end up perched on a kitchen island.
“I love to draw—pencil, ink pen—I love art. When I go on tour and visit museums in Holland, Germany or England—you know those huge paintings?—I’m just amazed. You don’t think a painter could do something like that. I can look at a piece of sculpture or a painting and totally lose myself in it. Standing there watching it and becoming part of the scene. It can draw tears, it can touch you so much. See, that’s where I think the actor or performer should be—to touch that truth inside of the person. Touch that reality so much that they become a part of what you’re doing and you can take them anywhere you want to. You’re happy, they’re happy. Whatever the human emotions, they’re right there with you. I love realism. I don’t like plastics. Deep down inside we’re all the same. We all have the same emotions and that’s why a film like E.T. touches everybody. Who doesn’t want to fly like Peter Pan? Who doesn’t want to fly with some magic creature from outer space and be friends with him? Steven went straight to the heart. He knows—when in doubt, go for the heart…”
Sources used in this article:
Michael Jackson’s Art and Studio, Revealed for the First Time
Michael Jackson’s Personal Artist Shared King of Pop’s Vision
An Unforgettable Journey: Michael and Me. David Nordahl Interview