Some call New Orleans artist the greatest painter you've never heard of


by Mike Hoss / Eyewitness News

Posted on November 10, 2009 at 11:34 PM

Updated Wednesday, Nov 11 at 1:51 PM

NEW ORLEANS -- Artist Michael Deas sits in the solitude of his French Quarter home touching up his latest painting.

If you're not aware of his work, don't be alarmed. Art critics have called him the greatest painter "you've never heard of.”

Deas grew up in Metairie, but moved away with his family to New York, where he attended art school. But it was when he moved back to New Orleans in the late 1980s that his life changed. It all started with a painting he hated.

“I was just so upset with it,” Deas said. “I just thought it looked horrible and they were never going to use it. And I just remember throwing my brushes across the room in the middle of the night.”

The piece that looked so horrible to Deas has been the logo used at the beginning of every Columbia Pictures movie for the last 16 years.

“There's something about being on screen that gives you a little immortality, I guess, so I'm very proud of that. It’s a nice feeling. It’s a good way to impress a date.”

Deas said many people think the woman in it is actually actress Annette Bening. Not even close. Instead it was a woman who worked at the Times-Picayune.

“That’s Jenny Joseph and she was incredibly gracious and just wonderful about the whole thing,” Deas said.

A couple of years later another of Michael's paintings became the logo for Polygram Pictures, and a slow starting career was moving.

But it would be his next, rather unusual client that would define him: the U.S. government, more specifically, the U.S. Postal Service. The agency commissioned Deas to paint a picture of New Orleans author Tennessee Williams for a stamp it was releasing. You see, that little stamp actually begins with a full size oil painting.

And at the time Deas lived around the corner in the French Quarter, near the spot where Williams wrote the classic “The Glass Menagerie."

“So I've always had the feeling he was kind of looking over my shoulder when I was doing the painting,” Deas said. 

“I always try to add something to tell a bit of a story with the painting,” Deas added, explaining that, though you have to look hard on the Williams stamp, in the background is a streetcar and inside a woman, who Deas says signifies Blanche Dubois, the tragic heroine in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

The Postal Service loved the Tennessee Williams stamp so much that they asked Deas to do more. That includes James Dean, President Ronald Reagan, explorers Lewis and Clark, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant and the still popular Marilyn Monroe.

“And it was very successful. I think it’s one of the best, I think second to Elvis as the best-selling stamp in U.S. history.”

In the last decade, Deas has painted pictures that have become 21 postage stamps. The last one to hit the market this year is likely his favorite: Edgar Allan Poe. He's written a book about Poe and is an afficianado of sorts, having drawn Poe’s mesmerizing face since his college days 30 years ago.

“And I was always attracted by Poe's face, how he looked. He looked so much like one of his creations. He had a very romantically handsome, sad, tragic face.”

If you can imagine what it would be like to have your work on a stamp to live on forever, what about having your painting on the cover of Time magazine? Deas’ Ben Franklin donned the July 4 issue in 2003. The July 4 issue in six of the past seven years are all Michael Deas originals.

He usually works with pictures and a human model. For Ben Franklin, he used himself.

"My friend Maria took pictures of me with a silly looking wig on and an 18th century costume. Unfortunately I have the same hairline.”

Pretty good for an artist who was told by his college art teachers to change careers.

"They said that I would never make it as a painter so they kind of shuffled me off to the illustration department,” he said.

Deas has witnessed the changing of an industry, where oil paintings have become a financial luxury and clients would rather use a digital camera and Photoshop.

So now he's painting for him. He does personal portraits and anything that involves his true love: New Orleans. Right now it’s the city's cemeteries that speak to him.

“There's something very beautiful about them and I can't quite put it into words. If I could put it into words, I'd be a writer.”

But thankfully he's a painter and one whose work will be looked upon for decades to come. The sort of longevity that every artist only dreams of.

“Things that will look as good in twenty years as they do now. So I try to make my stuff as timeless as possible,” he said.