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Custom Plates

From the DMV to the Art Gallery

November 23, 2003|SONDRA FARRELL BAZROD

Artist Michael Kalish found his calling via the scenic route. "My mother taught art for 20 years, and my aunt was an artist. But I went to Kennesaw State University in Atlanta, Ga., on a baseball scholarship and wanted to play professional baseball," he says. An earlier foray into art at the University of Rhode Island had ended in frustration. Says Kalish, who is colorblind, "I was always failing art classes when I painted colors as I saw them."

But the dream of becoming a pro center fielder ended his junior year after he broke his back during a game. "I'd been playing since I was a little boy, and it was taken away from me, so I dove into art in my senior year."

Even in the arena of right brain creativity, Kalish was a player with his eye on the ball. ''I'm an idea guy. If I was going to be an artist, I didn't want to be a struggling artist,'' he says. "I wanted to create work and have people buy it, and I had to find the best way to do that.''

Driving cross-country after college, Kalish met his destiny when the North Dakota plate on the car in front of him caught his eye, and he began to see license plates from a fresh perspective. ''I saw that they were unique and colorful, almost icons in themselves with the different catch phrases and colors.''

Kalish spent the trip acquiring license plates. He contacted departments of motor vehicles in different states and scoured antique shops and flea markets for vintage plates. He was also reveling in his passion for Americana, trolling Route 66 and visiting landmarks such as Mt. Rushmore and the Statue of Liberty. ''I went back to Atlanta with this incredible collection of license plates and no idea what I was going to do with them.''

Inevitably, perhaps, art met Americana when Kalish sketched a giant Statue of Liberty, cut up a batch of New York plates and began welding the fragments into a composite of the New York landmark assembled on a painting-shaped wall piece. A collector browsing in his Atlanta studio bought the unfinished 4-by-3-foot piece, and Kalish had a career. He produced pieces on subjects such as Mt. Rushmore and Uncle Sam, along with a vintage-car series titled ''Route 66.'' A gallery show in Atlanta sold out, and Kalish also sold work in New York before moving to Los Angeles a year and a half ago.

Since that first Statue of Liberty in 1996, Kalish has produced a U.S. presidents series (now sold) that was shown at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. A giant image of Uncle Sam hangs in the United States Embassy in Moscow. He accepts private commissions, and his pop art portraits include the Beatles, John Wayne, David Letterman, Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein.

Kalish, 30, hand-cuts and welds the license plates, produced in materials such as tin, steel and aluminum. The words ''prison made'' are discernible on some fragments. The works are composed entirely of license plate pieces; for portraits, the fragments are arranged against a painted steel background. Detail lines are done with black metal plate pieces. Kalish gets plates through contacts, fans and fellow collectors such as one man who sent 7,000 from a collection of 75,000 plates. Most of the artworks average about 35 plates, every one from someone's car or truck. ''There's a story in each piece,'' says Kalish, who maintains studios in Los Angeles and Atlanta.

Given baseball's place in American popular culture, Kalish's original calling is a recurring motif in his work. He's done a series on baseball players, including a large installation project of 10-foot-tall baseball players for the Atlanta Braves stadium using vintage plates from the home states of Braves history: Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Georgia. For about the past six months, the artist has been working on a 10-by-8-foot installation piece based on a 1932 photo of fans at a Chicago Cubs World Series game against the New York Yankees. Kalish, who purchased rights to the photo, puts the completion date at six to eight months, but he wouldn't have it any other way. ''I could not imagine myself doing anything else.''

Michael Kalish Sculpture, (310) 558-9248; www.michaelkalish.com.

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