When Southampton artist Michael Paraskevas puts brush to canvas or pencil to paper, pure magic is born. Over the last 40-plus years, the cartoonist, illustrator and painter has created dozens of children’s books, multiple animated television shows and hundreds of illustrations, cartoons and covers for Dan’s Papers, yet he never stops exploring new ideas and mediums. It’s just who he is.
To celebrate these four prolific decades of making art and bringing joy to children all over the world, Southampton Arts Center (25 Jobs Lane) has mounted a retrospective of Paraskevas’s work, Paint Your World: 40 Years of Illustration, Painting, Animation and Sketchbooks, presented by Dan’s Papers, opening with a special artist reception that’s free to the public this Saturday, September 21 from 5–8 p.m. The exhibition will remain open through Sunday, November 10.
Like his career, which could be defined by hard work, inspiration and a road paved with successes, Paraskevas has spent the last eight months toiling over every aspect of Paint Your World, making sure it would be the ultimate representation of everything he’s accomplished.
“It was a big logistical thing and I kind of wish I had six months more,” Paraskevas says during a visit to his art-cluttered home a week before his exhibition was scheduled to open. In a house already brimming over with toys, antiques, collectables and bric-a-brac curiosities, every surface—floors, tables, chairs and more—is covered in stacked paintings, drawings, sketchbooks, posters and memorabilia from the artist’s storied life, all being considered for the show or awaiting transport to Southampton Arts Center.
A person less familiar with Paraskevas’s oeuvre might be surprised to learn each piece is from the same artist, from beautifully rendered farm and beach landscapes, to imaginative surrealist paintings, to his creepy Tim Burton–esque Shamlanders characters, to loosely rendered sketches of jazz greats, equine scenes, children’s book illustrations and so much more. Right now, he’s even moved into sculpture, bringing his visions to life in three dimensions for the new exhibition.
“You know what’s great about this? I’ve got more stuff now,” Paraskevas says. “It opened me up to doing sculpture. I don’t think I would’ve done this if I hadn’t done the show,” he explains, pointing out that he had originally envisioned people wearing his life-size, papier-mache and plaster Shamlanders monster heads during Friday’s opening reception, but logistics beat imagination, so Paraskevas settled on visually arresting mannequins instead. “I’d always wanted to see these kinds of things in 3-D. I’d keep thinking about making them, but I didn’t really know how.”
As evidenced by the wide breadth of work in an array of styles and media, Paraskevas rarely lets not knowing how to do something get in the way of manifesting it. He and his mother Betty Paraskevas, created 24 children’s books together, including several beach stories, the popular Junior Kroll series—which began as a cartoon in Dan’s Papers—and Shamlanders, to name a few.
The mother-son duo, who knew nothing of animation, famously turned their Maggie and the Ferocious Beast books into an animated series for Nickelodeon, followed by toys and more shows and films, including Marvin the Tap Dancing Horse for PBS, The Kids from Room 402 for Fox Family and their beloved Christmas book and film The Tangerine Bear.
“I was doing magazine work, but I told my mother, the magazines were fading in the ’90s. I saw the handwriting on the wall, so we did a kids book,” Paraskevas says, describing the fruitful working relationship he had with his mother. “My mother was very clever. She really was a very funny, funny lady. So I gave her an assignment and said, ‘Write me something about the beach.’ I did all these beach paintings and she wrote this book, and we took it to Dial [Books] and they published it—I never even had a problem. The best thing I ever did was work with my mother.”
The animated projects came following a fortuitous meeting at his Paraskevas Gallery in Westhampton, which led him to meet cartoon-licensing pioneer Connie Boucher, who immediately saw the value in what Paraskevas and his mother were doing. “They signed us up for a licensing deal and then she introduced me to everybody. The company that ultimately did Maggie and the Ferocious Beast, she introduced me to them. It was an animation company. They walked me into Nickelodeon, and then we pitched it to them, and they were like, ‘Oh, this is a great idea.’”
Betty died in 2010, but she left behind a legacy of wit and humor Paraskevas continues today. “I had learned so much from working with her and writing scripts and rewriting her scripts,” he says, pointing out that he now writes with his wife, Maria Bruno. They work together on the “Green Monkeys” and “Lili and Derek” comic strips, and he credits Bruno with the funniest punch lines.
All of these many projects are well represented in Paint Your World. Visitors will enjoy a 15-foot map of Nowhere Land, the world from Maggie and the Ferocious Beast, as well as a 12-foot inflatable balloon of the Beast, which will hang above the show “like the big blue whale” at the Museum of Natural History in NYC. “There’s a big mural going up with all the cartoon characters,” Paraskevas adds. “I had to do Maggie. I had to do Marvin [the Tap Dancing Horse]. I had to do Tangerine Bear paintings. I had to do book illustrations. In the middle room is all book stuff,” he continues. “A bunch of Dan’s covers are in the show. And then the back room is paintings from 1980s to now.”
A 75-inch TV monitor will display a movie with all the pages from the artist’s many sketchbooks, often created at special events, such as Coldplay’s secret show at the Stephen Talkhouse, the Hampton Classic and one of Billy Joel’s Madison Square Garden concerts. Also on view will be props from Paraskevas’s Plum TV puppet show and a life-size cow he painted to stand outside the front entrance of Southampton Arts Center.
A New Jersey native and Hamptonite since 1979, when his parents bought a small vacation house in Shinnecock Hills, Paraskevas says Southampton Arts Center is the only place where his retrospective makes sense. “It’s a beautiful space,” he adds, noting that it’s one of the few art venues with the room required to mount such a large show—and it didn’t hurt that Executive Director Tom Dunn spent many hours watching Maggie and the Ferocious Beast with his son, who loved it as a child.
The first 100 people to visit Paint Your World will receive a hand-painted hat from Paraskevas, and the artist has published a special Paint Your World book exclusively for this exhibition, but the true gift is experiencing his breadth of work.