World-renowned architectural sculptor Glen Michaels is a character…both literally and figuratively. His good friend, the late Elmore Leonard, named a character after him in his mystery novel, “Out of Sight.” “But Elmore told me he purposely spelled my first name with two n’s so I wouldn’t sue him,” Michaels says.
Born in Spokane, Washington in 1927, the Birmingham resident says he started taking piano lessons when he was just six years old. “And I was always doing drawings while in grade school. I had a talented aunt who was a costume designer and she would often take me sketching,” he says. “Painting and drawing was a natural thing in my family.”
After he was released from the Army, the GI Bill of Rights gave Michaels the means to study piano at Yale University, but after two years there “I decided I was interested in creating drawings, not music,” he says.
In 1956, at the recommendation of a friend, Michaels enrolled at the Cranbrook Academy of Art and received an MFA in painting one year later. From 1958 to 1965, he supervised the academy’s workshops for kids six to eighteen years old.
Eventually, when Michaels concluded he didn’t really enjoy creating traditional still life paintings any more, a visit to a local dump turned out to be serendipitous. “I found all kinds of collectible things that I took home to my apartment in Birmingham,” he says. “And once I put hundreds of tiles on their edges, leaning against each other, I discovered it created shadows quite like the motion of undulating waves.”
Glen’s most recent major piece, a spectacular sculpture completed in 2014, is located above a fireplace in the lobby of St. Joseph Mercy Oakland Hospital in Pontiac. Approximately 14 feet long, it consists of mosaic tiles that are topped with industrial glass rods and other collage materials, including peacock feathers, gold leaf, wooden pieces cut out by a toymaker, wooden cigar molds, fused glass, square brass rods that have been highly polished and waxed, iridescent glass, shale, several pieces of wood that have a leathered look and are enhanced with paint, pieces of Tiffany glass that have been saved for him by local antique dealers and reglets (wood spacers used to set up type.) “I cut most of these pieces by hand,” Michaels says. “And I have the scars to prove it.”
Another fascinating sculpture, a fourteen by five foot assemblage called “Medieval Tapestry,” graces the front stairway of Birmingham’s Baldwin Public Library. By backing the piece with a specially constructed curved armature, Michaels was able to give it the same beautiful waving quality that is commonly found in medieval tapestries.
On the other end of the spectrum, innumerable smaller sculptures by Michaels can be found dwelling in both homes and corporations throughout the United States.
Just recently, on April 7th, the Scarab Club, the renowned 110-year old artist’s club, gallery and studio located in Midtown Detroit, honored Glen by asking him to sign one of the wooden ceiling beams located in their second floor lounge. Previous signers include Diego Rivera, Norman Rockwell, Eliel Saarinen, Marshall Fredericks, Marcel Duchamp and Balthazar Korab. And on October 6th, Michaels will be the recipient of the 2017 Birmingham Cultural Arts Award.
When asked to name his favorite sculpture, Michaels replied: “Whatever is the most recent is always my favorite.”
Photo: Laurie Tennent