50 years is a long time to give to that crazy world called the advertising business, pouring out your creative soul for what may amount to a 15% bump in market share for pancake mix or automobiles or awareness of the latest cause. But if you’re lucky, you walk away having been in the presence of incredibly talented individuals, with a lifetime of friendships and stories to share.
Michael Koulermos was a Parsons School of Design student back in 1960, when he earned a spot at Hockaday & Associates the day after graduation. So began a lengthy career that brought him through many renowned agencies and companies from McCann to Victoria’s Secret, working on everything from Coca-Cola to Nintendo. Most importantly, however, Michael got to forge professional and personal relationships with many legends of the business, including ADC Hall of Fame laureates George Lois, Henry Wolf and Robert Brownjohn.
When Michael retired from the industry in 2012, he knew he needed an outlet for his creativity, as well as a way to reflect on the friendships he made along his long career. With that in mind, he propped up his easel and painted an astounding 82 portraits of advertising and marketing luminaries who he got to meet over his career… and he painted then all in less than a year.
Entitled A Visual Memoir: Conceptual Impressionist Portraits, the portraits and their stories are currently on display at the ADC Gallery. We chatted with Michael about his very personal, awe inspiring exhibition.
Of course this incredible exhibit that we have here in the ADC Gallery wouldn’t have even been conceived if your career in advertising didn’t have such a profound effect on you. Tell us a bit about your time on Madison Avenue.
I worked on over 300 brands in my 50 years working in advertising, the last 20 as a senior creative director. Everyday I worked on new assignments or projects. To me, to be a good creative, you need to be like a detective, a problem solver seeking the truth. learning all you can about the benefit of each clients’ product, but also getting to know every aspect of the total business.
Did you work on a lot of personal projects during your time in the agency world, or were those put on hold?
I always found time to work on my own projects, from working on new product innovation to designing my own line of contemporary furniture in 1975. It was especially important to find time for the wife and kids.
How did you “know” that your career in advertising was winding down?
I knew it once technology took over the ad business. Social media became the way to talk to consumers. If you’re over 50 years old and have grey hair, clients just don’t trust you. And let’s not forget that clients get old too. New people come in and want to work with their own people.
So you’re retired — then what? What spurred you towards creating this vast collection of portraits?
I always felt that a mind is a terrible thing to waste. I wanted to work the rest of my life. It didn’t happen; I was forced to retire. And so I decided to go to one of my loves, which was painting. Old art directors never die, they just paint away. (laughs)
So many of the portraits, we know them as icons, as ADC Hall of Fame laureates, as people to study and idolize. You, however, know them as people. Would you say this exhibition is more about who they are versus what they did?
If you read their bios, my wife Rhonda tried to capture a little bit of both. The bios mention their accomplishments, but yet there’s also a human interest story.
We’re sure you have countless stories about all of the colleagues and friends you painted. Would you care to share a memorable tale?
Steve Gordon was always funny, lightning-fast with one-liners and keen observations, Steve would, in no time, have close friends and colleagues weeping with laughter. Mass audiences loved him, too. As writer and director of the critically acclaimed movie Arthur in 1981, he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. The film won two Oscars — Best Supporting Actor for John Gielgud and Best Original Song (“Best That You Can Do”) as well as a Best Actor nomination for Dudley Moore. While he was elated, Gordon was also characteristically worried. He’d begun writing a sequel, but would ask, “How am I going to top Arthur?” repeatedly to friends over dinner. Tragically, he didn’t have the chance, as Gordon died of a heart attack less than a year later, at 44.
Gordon found early success as an advertising copywriter with his campaigns for Barney’s. In the “Men of Destiny” commercial, young Casey Stengel, Humphrey Bogart, Louis Armstrong and Fiorello La Guardia discuss what they want to be when they grow up. When asked his ambitions, Barney replies, “I don’t know. You’ll all need clothes.” With the tagline “Even Then He Knew,” it won multiple awards, including a place of honor in the Clio TV Hall of Fame.
Gordon’s first play to make it to Broadway, “Tough to Get Help,” directed by Carl Reiner, opened and closed the same night in 1972. But his connection with Reiner led to writing for television: “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “Chico and the Man,” “Barney Miller,” and “The Practice,” a show Gordon created in 1975 starring Danny Thomas, which ran for a year.
Do you have any favorites among your portraits?
As an artist I love all my children. What I tried to do is capture not only their likeness, but their energy, spirit, their essence. I do hold the portrait of Stedie Kambanis close to my heart, he was a dear friend who passed.
As humans, we never stop learning. What did this experience teach you?
For me it was a small miracle. I couldn’t believe the passion I had to paint these 82 portraits in less than a year. I would say painting each and every one of these portraits has done more for me than anything else.
Now that this project is finished, what’s next?
Pablo Picasso once said ‘the meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” That’s exactly what I’m going to do. When this exhibition is complete, I will be inviting all of my dear friends to take their portraits home with them. It is my gift to them for being such inspirations in my life.
A Visual Memoir: Conceptual Impressionist Portraits by Michael Koulermos is on display at the ADC Gallery during regular Gallery hours from now until December 3.
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