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W hat do a snowman with a wine bottle, a baker flying on a measuring cup and a creepy, hollow-eyed businessman all have in common?

Michael Micinilio. 

For the past decade and a half, Micinilio’s been illustrating New Haven chalkboards with such strange, playful characters. Patrons of BAR or the nearby shop The Wine Thief have likely seen his work, since he’s been chalking sections of their walls for 14 and 10 years now, respectively. He’s also begun decorating the back wall of the new Flour Flours bakery on Chapel Street, which may be the start of his next chalky “marriage” in the city.

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But while Micinilio has become a sort of chaplain of chalk in New Haven—he’s the featured artist and a judge at the inaugural New Haven Chalk Art Festival on August 20—he actually lives in Bridgeport. Perhaps ironically, his work is absent from that city’s walls. “If it wasn’t for the Read’s Artspace building”—an affordable loft studio space for artists in Bridgeport, where he’s lived and worked for the past 12 years—“I would be in New Haven.”

Many of Micinilio’s works hew to a fun, cartoonish breed of surrealism, even if, in some cases, they’re also clear reflections of their real environments. A house with a wine bottle chimney sits on a floating island of grapes, or a goldfish carries a bottle of wine in its fin, in clear nods to The Wine Thief. But although he got his MFA thinking he might work for the earnest animation powerhouse Pixar, Micinilio identifies Tim Burton’s style as a much larger influence on his work.

You can see it, in spirit and in stroke. More than a few of his chalk works enter into that region of the surreal that is quite eerie. In several autumn-themed pieces for BAR’s chalkboards, Micinilio created pumpkin heads whose smiles were a little too wide, a tad too crooked, for comfort. And there’s something unsettling about the hollow, black eyes that so often appear in his portrait pieces.

While his style is contemporary and irreverent, it sits on a bedrock of centuries-old fine art. As he was earning his degree in illustration from Bridgeport University (’87), Micinilio was drawn to old Western masters like Raphael and Da Vinci. He was particularly fascinated with their treatment of that most complicated of human features, the face. But his interest in the realistic facial expressions depicted by the masters waned after discovering the hyper-expressive caricatures of commedia dell’arte, the comical, masked theatrical style popular in Renaissance-era Italy.

The progenitor of modern-day sketch comedy, commedia dell’arte involved actors and actresses playing stock characters distinguished by masks, often with ridiculously exaggerated cheeks, long beak-like noses, flabby lips or the kind of wrinkles that could only look natural on an elephant’s behind. 15 years ago, Micinilio went to Venice to study the art of making these peculiar masks, and when he hung one of them off the corner of a portrait black-eyed businessman, the juxtaposition struck him.

And it stuck with him. The hollow eyes of the masks are in the inky, blank ones he gives many of his illustrated characters today. “The eyes are the window to the soul,” he says, and in this case they’re the window into the viewer’s soul. Since his subjects’ eyes are like the shadowy peepholes of masks, the viewer is given the responsibility of filling them with kindness or malice, or leaving them their disquieting vacancy.

Micinilio’s works of chalk art are by contract fleeting. Micinilio gives them life and death, and in return gets part of a living. He illustrates the four chalkboards at BAR once every month, all in the same day. He does a 4’x5’ patch at The Wine Thief with every change of the seasons, plus a 4’x8’ piece once a year. Four Flours’s back wall is also on a seasonal schedule.

The businesses for whom he works have to be comfortable losing whatever last piece Micinilio gave them, and Micinilio has to be comfortable periodically expunging his uncanny parade of dancing, drinking, floating, cackling characters. He says people often ask him, “How can you erase your own artwork?” To which he replies, “If I didn’t, I’d be out of work.” 

And New Haven would be a little less interesting, too.

Michael Micinilio
chalk artist for:
BAR – 254 Crown St, New Haven;
The Wine Thief – 181 Crown St, New Haven; and
Four Flours – 1203 Chapel St, New Haven
mmicinilio@aol.com
www.micinilio.com

Written by Daniel Shkolnik. Photos 1 and 4 by Daniel Shkolnik. Photo 2 provided courtesy of Michael Micinilio. Photo 4 by Dan Mims.

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Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

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