SAN DIEGO — The following scene has been played several times. Only the players have varied.
Mike Byergo, an energetic 37-year-old San Diego bachelor, is having dinner at the home of a new girlfriend. Her parents are there, too.
The conversation seems to be going pretty well. Byergo already has mentioned his hobbies--that he's a jazz pianist, a scuba diver, underwater photographer and enthusiastic sky diver.
"And what," the girlfriend's father asks, smiling politely, "do you do for a living?"
"If I say I'm an artist, there's a sudden silence," Byergo said. The smile disappears from her father's face. His next question, almost inevitably, is, 'Are you working?' "
A wildlife illustrator, whose work is sold at every major zoo, aqua and animal park in the United States (and hundreds of overseas ones), Byergo works constantly.
"An artist, now, has to be about 20% artist and 80% businessman," he said. "It's against my personality to be a salesman, but I've had to buckle down to it. I wear a lot of different hats."
Lots of Time at the Zoo
He often spends the mornings at the San Diego Zoo, taking hundreds of photographs, or riding around in a truck with a keeper, clutching a handful of hay, to get as close to the animals as possible.
"The average person looks at an animal, but they don't really see them," he said. "How many people could tell you how many lumps there are on a giraffe's head?" (There are between one and five.)
"I'm a demon for accuracy. Well, most of the time. I don't paint on the whiskers on (koalas) because it makes them look too much like rats."
His afternoons are allotted to business. His father, retired from the Navy, helps him with shipping. His mother does some of the marketing. He himself spends many afternoons at the printers, anxiously supervising the process by which half a million dollars worth of machinery separates, by laser, the colors of his paintings so that they can be transferred to paper or cloth.
But it's during the midnight hours--the hours from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m.--that he creates, in vivid watercolors, the complex, mosaic-like wildlife posters that take five or six months to complete.
It's also during those hours that owners of exotic pets--"And San Diego has a lot of them," he said--bring his living models to his Kearny Mesa house. Rare lizards and snakes are the models he's now working with.
"The fellow is an emerald tree boa," he said, passing over a photograph showing him working at his drawing board with four feet of snake coiled around his neck and shoulders. "It had very big teeth."
Whatever kind of teeth they have, none of his models, he stressed, have ever given him a hard time. Even during the months he spent constantly underwater, in Micronesia and the West Indies, researching for his "Tropical Saltwater Fish" and "Coral Reef Fish" posters, nothing ever bit or stung or lashed out at him.
Most Sharks 'Friendly'
"Out of 300 species of shark, only nine will attack humans," he explained cheerfully. "Most are very friendly. I've even pulled their tails."
He was standing in front of his jungle-like patio as he spoke. (It comes in handy when he's painting backgrounds.) Beside him, in a wrought-iron cage, a rainbow-billed toucan named Melon--"A man in a bar sold him to me, in a brown paper bag, when he was a baby,"--made duck-like quacking noises.
To the question "But, Mike--when do you sleep ?" he replied that he goes to bed at 4 a.m. and sleeps "until the first phone call of the day wakes me. Usually about 9 a.m."
He has streamlined his home by keeping furniture to a minimum, and all of the paint white.
He's also streamlined the time it takes him to decide what to wear each day, he said, by having 45 Hawaiian shirts made.
"I stumble to the closet, with my eyes half closed and put on the first one my fingers touch. There aren't many places around here that you can't go to wearing a Hawaiian shirt."
Born on North Island, Byergo has lived "around here" for most of his life. He did spend the years 8-10 in Japan while his father was stationed there. The years from 18-22 he spent in Los Angeles, at the Art Center's College of Design.
It is "known among illustrators as 'The Boot Camp of Art Schools' because of its strict discipline," he said as he walked from his patio into the house. There was a blur of white feathers as a Moluccan cockatoo named Roy landed on the shoulder of the Hawaiian-shirt-of-the day.
"At the art center we spent the first four months drawing a white egg on a white plate, on a white cloth, with a mirror at the back. If you survive, it gives you a long span of attention."
Fourteen years ago, when he first began doing his wildlife posters, which contain as many as 75 animals, or fish, or birds, entwined with an exotic background, Byergo worried about competition.
"But there hasn't been any. Nobody seems to want to put six months into one poster."
Mural at Sea World