When an artist greets you with the paradoxical disclaimer that they hate self-promotion, you can’t help but take it with a grain of salt. But it’s got to be said: Mike Magestro really does — and the mere act of sitting down to talk about himself seems to push this artist out of his comfort zone. He’s fidgety. Rough-hewn at the edges and somehow goofy. He sits at the table with a big mug of coffee at his side and a blank pad of paper in front of him that he never touches. The paper sits in front of him face up like a challenge, the imprinting of words and thoughts onto its surface an open dare. When asked what he’s working on, Magestro shrugs his shoulders. He opens up, slowly, in the identical expression of designer and artist — “A project,” he says. The word — project — thumps out of him nonchalantly and without pretense, as if he was stating what he ate for breakfast. He sighs a little, apologetic. “I have a lot of projects,” he says. “Music. My art.” He whisks at something in the air then. “Lotus flowers.”
These words are so esoteric and vague, they seem to hang in the air. Magestro knows this. “Ok. What I’m doing right now with my art is lotus flowers. I only paint lotus flowers right now.” He stares past me, focusing his thoughts. “And my music. My personal project is with Your Fallen Majesty. And my design work with Mindspike…everything I do is design, really.” His voice trails off and he seems to have reached a kind of wall: he’s a puzzling individual, because he is unlike the typical artist, the typical designer, the typical musician; he is interestingly arcane, because he isn’t broadcasting his work, notching his belt with accomplishments or collecting accolades or searching for the next big buyer/publisher/well-to-do what-have-you connections in the industry. Those agendas are the typical bread and butter activities of many creatives — but Magestro seems to care as much about them as someone might care about a drawer of dirty socks.
That is puzzling, indeed, since Magestro’s creative accomplishments are intimidating. He’s the President, owner and director of Mindspike Design, a creative design powerhouse in Milwaukee’s Third Ward that he jokingly refers to as a “design mafia.” He’s an internationally acclaimed graphic designer, whose works have been published in countless books, magazines and periodicals; he’s a visual artist, a videographer; a poet, a photographer; a perpetual and enthusiastic musician and lyricist. (Drummer in the band Spanglemaker; lyricist for The Gufs and Your Fallen Majesty, the latter the result of a new writing relationship formed with The Gufs frontman, Goran.) Magestro tells me he got members of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra to do the background for a recent track he collaborated on with Kevin Sucher, a noted producer who currently manages Eric Benet and has worked with the likes of Robbie Williams, Hall and Oates, Michelle Branch, TRAIN, and Duncan Sheik.
How does one man play so many roles? Regardless of the how, the role that is taking center stage at this time is that of the painter. This month, Magestro is a featured artist at Milwaukee’s Gallery Night where his series of lotus flower paintings will be on display at MyDwelling in the Third Ward.
“It’s about beauty in chaos, the lotuses,” Magestro muses, his face pensive. “It represents human growth. Coming out of ego. You look at the lotus, a flower blooming out of all that mud…something in the chaos but not of it — just like us, you know?” He pauses and seems to enjoy the silence. “We are all beauty in chaos.”
This kind of zen, esoteric philosophy seems to match Magestro’s laidback demeanor well. He is calm, and unruffled — like the ponds that sit beneath the lotuses he paints. Of course, this is no coincidence: Buddhism and Reiki infiltrate and influence Magestro’s creative philosophies in every single arena. “Music, art — it’s all design,” he says. “It’s all about being able to create something with a deeper meaning, something that says what I want to say, but in different ways.” He pauses for a solid fifteen seconds. When he speaks again, his tone is matter-of-fact, his affect pragmatic. “I only do something because I have a message to give. The most important thing about art is being able to touch people with it, being able to create something with my own meaning, that other people can take and apply their own meaning to. It’s about conquering.”
Steady and unpretentious in his appraisals, he regards his work with an attitude one does not often find in individuals of the same calibre. He never works with the same medium twice, finishing a series and moving on as if closing a chapter, a fait accompli. “I’m always learning,” he says flatly. “If I don’t know how to do something, I take it apart, and figure it out. Before I started painting these, I hadn’t touched a brush in years.” He motions at one of his lotus paintings on the wall.
No matter what type of artistic expression it is, musical, visual, or typographical, it is impossible not to see that there’s a deeper message behind it all — a method in the madness, a crystalized awareness in the great blue something. These infiltrations — into the world of art, design, and music — have to be a relief to a guy whose job as an industry creative head present him everyday with questions he, rightly or wrongly, may not care about answering. However, because he plays this role, one might point out that this allows him to move within and between the worlds of art and music with impunity.
Still, the guy works, diligent and openhearted. “Who gives a shit about putting an image on a piece of canvas if it holds no meaning?” Magestro says. He shrugs. “I could try to sell my paintings, but I don’t. I could try to promote myself more, but I don’t. That’s not something that interests me. It’s not about the money. It’s about the message.” He is a restless artist, resilient, and surprising. He’s back to work after this, back to his projects, questions, pursuit of answers. He stares out the window, his face dark against the wall of light from the street. The day is ahead. “It’s not about me,” he says, shrugging his shoulders. “It’s about the blossoming of the lotus.”