Artist Mike Stilkey Gives Old Books New Life in His Impressive Installations

Mike Stilkey has had quite a year. In addition to a mid-career retrospective at the Great Park Gallery in Irvine, he has embarked on an enormous five-location commission project for iPic Theaters (the high-end theater chain with five star cocktail and food service), and created custom installations for a public library, private homes, and even a cruise ship. I’ve been a fan of Stilkey’s work for years and was thrilled when BELLA asked me to chat with him about his work, inspiration, and life in Los Angeles.

You work in several mediums but are best known for your book sculptures and installations. What precipitated the evolution from painting and drawing on paper and canvas to painting on and creating three-dimensional book sculptures?

I’ve always had a hard time painting on things that are white. Initially, I would go to thrift stores and garage sales and just look for things to paint on: books, records, scraps of wood, anything that wasn’t white. I’ve always been particularly attracted to books and had a weird obsession with them. There’s just something about them — the feel, the smell, and their history. Not to mention I’m a chronic doodler so I would always draw in my books anyhow. It was just an evolution of my art and a serendipitous idea.

Where do you get the books for your work?

The books I use are discarded by local libraries. They can’t be recycled because of the glue used in the book bindings. So, instead of throwing the books away, libraries love to donate them to me so I can give them a second life in my art. Otherwise, they would just end up in a landfill somewhere.

When first considering a new installation, does the space itself influence your ideas?

The space always impacts the inspiration for a piece. I’m such a visual person; most of the work I do comes spontaneously. It’s usually seeing the environment that inspires the piece.

When you step into the studio to create, do you have any rituals, anything you do for inspiration?

I definitely have some rituals in the studio. One of them is incense. I can’t believe I just admitted that. The other is music. Music has had the greatest influence on me. It’s like the moment I hear it, I start visualizing paintings. It makes me feel like a little kid. I get so excited that I can’t paint fast enough. I listen to different music all the time; it really depends on my mood. It helps to set the tone for my painting.

You are a native Los Angeleno. What neighborhood do you live and work in and what makes it home for you? 

I’ve been living in Sierra Madre for the past few years. It’s amazing. I can walk to town and have a couple of beers and the people know me. It’s a really eclectic mix of people living up here—artists, musicians, hippies, weirdos, and old people. It’s the first place I’ve ever lived in Los Angeles that I’ve felt a part of.

BELLA’s tagline is “Beauty defined by you.” As an artist, how do you define beauty? 

Honesty is beautiful. People who paint real things, things that are close to them, or anything that makes them feel something [are beautiful]. This world is full of people doing what they are supposed to do. It’s refreshing when it’s real. I really crave that connection.

What do you have planned next?

My next big project is at the iPic Theater in New York. I have two installations going up and they’re both about 10 feet by 20 feet. Oh, and I’ve also been working on a children’s book, so stay tuned… 

To see more of Mike Stilkey’s artwork, visit the iPic Theater in Westwood, the Beverly Hills Public Library, the Monrovia Public Library, or

Contributed by Alix Sloan, Special Arts Contributor

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