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Visiting abstract painter Mike Elsass in his Front Street studio

By Bill Franz

Photo: Mike Elsass’ signature rusted steel paintings hold as many as 40 layers of paint; photos: Bill Franz

Mike Elsass may be Dayton’s most colorful artist, and he works in what is definitely Dayton’s most colorful studio. Elsass rents most of the top floor of one of the Front Street buildings. His space includes a beautiful gallery, several large production rooms, plus space that he rents out to other artists.

Elsass’ process starts with sheets of steel—some already rusted and some rusted in the studio.  Next, he may add other materials that create even more texture. Finally, he applies as many as 40 layers of acrylic paints to create the final work.

Elsass started making art after selling his successful insurance business. He is mostly self-taught, but Roger Sayre was an early mentor. Sayre, a nationally known artist, showed Elsass one way of painting acrylic on steel and encouraged him to experiment with other approaches.

Elsass feels he owes much to Sayre, but says their painting styles are quite different.  “Roger would agonize over every step in creating one of his pieces. He might sit back and stare at the work for an hour before picking up a brush and applying paint for a minute. I am at the other extreme. I try not to overthink it. I paint quickly and try to capture what I am experiencing at a particular moment in time.”

Elsass has been a successful artist for some time. His work is in more than 2,000 private collections and has been featured in national magazines. I asked Elsass how his work today was different than his work five or 10 years ago.

“I am constantly experimenting with new materials. Recently, for example, I have tried mixing oil with my final layer of acrylic paint. The mixture of oil and water beads up in an interesting way,” he says.

“I have also been developing new ways of presenting the work. With my new J-rail hanging system, I can hang five, 10, or even 20 sheets of painted steel to create an interesting pattern and size.”

During one of my visits to Elsass’ studio, he was setting up for a class—20 employees of a local company were going to spend the afternoon painting with him. In these classes, each participant gets to take home one or more “masterpieces” created during the session.

For more information on Mike  Elsass and his galleries, please visit MikeElsass.com.

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Bill Franz
Bill Franz retired from a business career and became a volunteer photographer doing projects for many local nonprofits.  His photos of people at work have been shown in art exhibitions across Ohio and neighboring states.  Find out more at billfranz17.com/about. 

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