Seated on a couch in his Hamtramck house, talking to a friend and sipping hot tea on a cold winter afternoon, Carl Oxley III shifts the conversation to two of his special interests: happiness and love, though the two often come with surprising twists.
He does it by showing the visitor his paintings of gooey-eyed giraffes, girl and boy monkeys, rabbits flying upside down and a robot in a bed of flowers. Other pieces appear slightly less love struck or happy: a worrisome alien with seven dangling tentacles, a monster with three black and white eyes and two pairs of ruby lips, and a ghost riding a cloud with hands stretched out into space. Oxley says some of his work can be "potentially sinister ... like one I have of a cigarette smiling at the smoke, and the smoke smiling back at the cigarette. I call it 'Super Happy Lung Cancer.' "
He walks into his small studio that adjoins the living room and digs for recent and older paintings. All shimmer with vivid reds, blues, greens and yellows in a variety of tones. He almost always works with acrylics but paints on many different surfaces — including cardboard boxes that once contained frozen cherry pies or dairy products, and wood or plastic panels. He does use traditional stretched canvases, but some are smaller than postcard size.
As he looks for more work, the muted sunlight streams into the house and the walls burst with color. Oxley calls the environment in which he works and lives with his wife Megan — a Wayne State University Medical student — "bright and optimistic." He dubbed the web-based business Popartmonkey
he runs out of his home "the happiness company."
The look of the Popartmonkey office, which is set at the top of an l-shaped stairwell on the second floor, teases the imagination of the artist's visitor, who asks him to identify the color of the room.
"Dragon fruit," Oxley says without hesitation. And the bedroom? "Pineapple soda," he says. In the bathroom is a mural painted by a friend, Dave Moroski, who filled the piece with birds, fish and jaguar. Other rooms are painted in different shades of orange. The creamier of the two Oxley calls "Push up," and the other moodier hue he says is "bio-hazard orange."
Oxley, 26, is originally from Cheboygan, and came to Detroit by way of the Lansing area. It was there that he and Megan, who was then a student at Michigan State University, met. Oxley began painting at 16, and developed his skills while working the night shift at a hotel in Mackinaw City. He received no formal training in the arts, outside of a few classes he took at a community college.
His inspiration to become an artist came at 16, when he saw a video featuring the work of the late Keith Haring, who began his career by drawing simple chalk figures on New York buildings. "I just took paint and a canvas to work and set up in the back office," he says. But it was in E. Lansing that new worlds began to open up, and where he had his first group show in nearby Lansing's Old Town district. "I was 21 and it seemed like I was in such a big city," he says. "But it was, compared to Cheboygan, where there really isn't much to do." Oxley says that he had to drive to Petoskey, about a 40-mile trek from his hometown, just to get art supplies or go to a bookstore.
The couple moved metro Detroit in 2003, and found a cute house to their liking in a neighborhood near Hamtramck's Jos. Campau commercial district. Oxley had his first area show at Pr1mary Space, a gallery a few blocks from his home. He has also shown his work at Detroit's Scarab Club, the the Detroit Artists Market
, the 555 Gallery, the Biddle Gallery
in Wyandotte and other art spaces, restaurants and coffeehouses. He had 10 pieces at a group show in Long Island and sold three of them.
"Coming to Detroit exposed me to more art, more artists," he says, "and to a bigger community of people involved in some of the same things I was interested in."
With Mark Sengbusch, now a Masters of Fine Arts student in painting at Cranbrook, Oxley created a huge giraffe mural at an entry point to the Woodbridge neighborhood — the corner of Trumbull, Grand River and Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
The mural is a warm reminder that community begins with a friendly face. It holds the promise that love and happiness can be right around the corner. And the message from the artist? "I love to make people smile," Oxley says, settling onto the couch, his fingers curled around a round turquoise cup. "I hope that is what's getting across most of all."
Walter Wasacz is editor-at-large for Model D and metromode
Photographs of Carl Oxley III and paintings Copyright Dave Krieger