It’s not uncommon for an artist to turn an eye onto their personal life for inspiration. Mikey Yates, an artist born in Sulzbach-Rosenberg, Germany, does just this by using his medium to make sense of his past. His dad, for example, was in the army and was stationed in Germany when he was born. His mum, afterwards, also joined the army, and between them there’s a total of around 40 years worth’ of military. As a result, Mikey and his family have lived in various places like Germany, Washington State, San Antonio, Houston, Texas and Missouri. “My mum and two older brothers are from the Philippines, so we kept that culture with us everywhere we moved – most of my family still lives in Manila,” he tells It’s Nice That.
While growing up, Mikey would often find himself drawn to the subject matter of Mortal Kombat and its iconic 3D characters, as well as Pokémon and 2000s NBA players. He’d often put pencil to paper in his own time but it wasn’t until the age of 22 that Mikey started to take it seriously – he was, before then, focused on making music. “I took my first drawing class in college where you stand up and draw still lives with charcoal, and I really fell in love,” he says. This class inspired him to swap his major and soon enough he was knee-deep in the arts. He’s been drawing and painting ever since.
Turning a colourful eye onto his own life, Mikey’s paintings are immensely autobiographical. In his older works, you’ll stumble across self-portraiture, a snapshot of Mr Magbulos sipping soup, people playing basketball and someone doing the washing up. In more recent accomplishments, Mikey’s subject matter appears a little more intimate. The artist has painted his friends and family for his first solo show at Taylor Grahne Projects, aptly titled Love Letters. The works involved are all newly commissioned and depict a compilation of storytelling and portraiture, where each piece has been inspired by a specific time or place. “Sometimes, my paintings are of memories from a few years ago,” he explains. “And sometimes, my paintings are of what I’m experiencing this week. I can only make what I’m inspired to make, and usually it has to do with the people and things closest to me.”
These moments arise from all sorts of memories, but more often than not it’s from the various American states he’s lived in, as well as his experiences of growing up within an itinerant military family. A mishmash of cultures and locations belie the work, a vibrant bricolage of everything he’s ever been influenced by. His process is also an intuitive one, and most pieces tend to start off a little differently than the other. “I’m usually operating on the outer edges of what I’m comfortable with,” he adds, “so each piece feels experimental.” For this specific body of work – the first since graduating from school and also the first he’s created using almost solely acrylic paint – he started off with drawings from snapshots of his family. Then, he recomposed the compositions and continued to build on the image. “I really wanted to try and follow my intuition and forget some of the grad school overthinking that was going on.”
Coffee and Cassava Cake with Mom in Texas (2021) is one of Mikey’s favourite pieces from the series. It depicts a portrait of his mum amongst her own space with her belongings. She sits on a chair, legs crossed with a hot drink in tow. Through the window, Mikey has painted the military building Ft. Hood in Killeen, Texas, which is where she was stationed. “She just found out she needed to unexpectedly move again because of the military,” he says. “It was painted over a few months, and in those months, I saw her sitting room get unpacked in the new house in the exact same way it was in the old house: the colourful chair, the grandfather clock and my brother's childhood painting.” For this painting, Mikey was inspired by the “semblance of normalcy” and how his home was always his safe space growing up, a place to shelter from the constantly changing outside world.
In Chess with Dad (Mt. Rainier) (2021), Mikey depicts himself and his father playing chess, a moment he’ll forever cherish. Inspired by the many nights he and his brothers would play the board game with their father, the piece therefore sings with a sense of familiarity and closeness – it’s “set up as a contest and a confessional; when we play chess we talk one-on-one and exchange stories and ideas in private.” This painting, akin to his other works, evokes a sense of love and memory – there’s always a story behind it. “The main thing is love, really. The love of my family and friends, giving them their flowers while they are still here.”
Love Letters is on view at Taymour Grahne from 23 October - 20 November 2021.
Mikey Yates: Chess with Dad (Mt. Rainier), 2021 Acrylic and oil pastel on cradled wood panel, 152.5x122cm./60x48i. Courtesy Mikey Yates and Taymour Grahne Projects
About the Author
Ayla is a London-based freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising in art, photography, design and culture. After joining It’s Nice That in 2017 as editorial assistant, she became online editor in 2022 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. She has written for i-D, Dazed, AnOther, WePresent, Port, Elephant and more, and she is also the managing editor of design magazine Anima.