Peering at Detroit-based artist SLAW’s paintings is like stepping back in time.
Men in tuxedos with slicked-back hair smoke cigarettes, hold martinis and ogle ravishing women. Get close enough to SLAW’s colorful canvasses and you might even hear the faint sound of the Rat Pack crooning in the background.
“I’ve always admired the mid-century – the culture and lifestyle,” says SLAW, 47 – real name Kevin Stanislawski. “It was post World War II. There was this newfound wealth and opulence. There was attention paid to detail and design; form went before function. It was just a really cool time period.”
SLAW’s artistic style is a self-described cross between Hanna-Barbera cartoons and the modern look of the 1950s and ’60s. Think The Jetsons meets Mad Men, a comparison he gets often, despite the fact he began his artwork long before the hit AMC TV show aired. He always has appreciated ’50s and ’60s home furnishings, clothing, lifestyle and architecture. His Detroit basement apartment affirms this.
SLAW shares his home (and studio space) with his two kids – Kevin, 21, and Taylor, 18 – and their 3-year-old Yorkshire terrier, Frankenstein. The apartment celebrates all things retro: two working jukeboxes (a Wurlitzer and a Seeburg) that spin everything from Sinatra to KC and the Sunshine Band, ’50s and ’60s furniture and lamps, an old ’60s Pepsi Vendorlator vending machine, throwback tiki bar – and a mini time capsule of other items dating back to America’s golden age.
Inspiration also comes from antiques, old magazines and family photos of such things as homemade bar basements.
SLAW says his progression as a self-employed independent artist has been important for his kids to see.
“I wanted to show them that there is another lifestyle out there. You don’t have to go the corporate way,” he says. “(But) one of the things you sacrifice by cutting your own path is that you don’t have anyone who’s gone before you. I’ve always tried to instill that you don’t have to do what others have done.”
His son, Kevin, studies art at Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn. In a couple semesters, he plans on attending Detroit’s College for Creative Studies (CCS), like his dad. Currently, Kevin is learning the fundamentals of art. It’s tedious, Kevin says, but it helps having a professional artist for a father.
“If I have any question at all, I can just ask him,” Kevin says. “He just answers it and I can get it right away.”
SLAW loves that he can help.
“He’s going through the struggles I went through,” SLAW says. “He didn’t have any real art classes in early schooling. I didn’t, either. A college class was the first real experience we both had.
“It’s fun, too, to answer the question where I didn’t realize I knew it. It’s like breathing.”
His daughter, Taylor, also loves art. Currently, she studies mortuary science at Wayne State University, but contemplates switching into nutrition or dietetics.
“Everyone thinks that you should be a parent, not a friend,” SLAW says. “But at this point, I feel I can do both.”
SLAW’s entrance into the art world didn’t happen at once.
After graduating in the mid-’80s from CCS, he joined the corporate workforce. He did some advertising work before taking a job with Ford Motor Co. as a design engineer. He realized it wasn’t for him and switched gears.
About 13 years ago, not long after he and his wife divorced, he started showcasing his work at the Johanson Charles Gallery in Detroit’s Eastern Market, followed by shows at the Scarab Club and other venues. SLAW also began to do cover art for a then-fledgling alternative publication called Real Detroit Weekly. From then on, he received more recognition.
“I’ll come up with ideas sometimes in the middle of the night,” he says. “I’ll do the research, come up with a sketch. I never work without a sketch idea.”
He paints with acrylic because it “has a whole different set of principles” and likes to use it to create a flat, even-toned image.
Even though his work can now fetch thousands of dollars, it’s not always a consistent paycheck. But that’s all right, because “an artist should always be hungry. It’s how we thrive and create great work,” he says.
In that regard, the Detroit art scene is alive and well.
“It’s interesting because if you go out to L.A., every waiter is an actor,” he says. “In Detroit, just about every waiter or waitress is an artist.”
SLAW has hosted about five shows at Wyandotte’s River’s Edge Gallery. In 2011, he was commissioned by the Wyandotte Street Art Fair committee to create a special rendition of the fair’s mascot, Art, for the event’s 50th anniversary.
“I’m their adopted art son. I’ve been welcomed by the Wyandotte community,” he says. “It’s an old Polish community and I’m an old Polack. It’s very community-oriented.”
His June/July 2013 show at River’s Edge features paintings of TV classics such as The Brady Bunch , The Addams Family, I Dream of Jeannie and Gilligan’s Isla nd, among others.
“It’s my TV show show,” SLAW says. “In the generation I come from, we were raised with the TV. I grew up in its heyday.”