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pop art exhibit at Mason Art Gallery
Beacon students experience the “Pop Goes the Easel” exhibition at the Mason Art Gallery.

By Gabrielle Russon

Michael Knapp wants his art to say something.

“Good art should tell a story,” Knapp said. “There should be something that you get out of it rather than just looking at it and saying, ‘It’s pretty.’”

Knapp’s frustrations with authority figures and society’s overreliance on technology emerge as a few of the themes in his new exhibit that recently opened at Beacon College. Knapp’s “Pop Goes the Easel” show is on display at the Kristin Michelle Mason Art Gallery through March 10.

Even if Knapp wants you to think a little bit deeper, his art feels fun with bright, playful colors and a feeling of chaos.

Beacon studio arts professor Russell Bellamy and the artist Michael Knapp.
Beacon studio arts professor Russell Bellamy and the artist Michael Knapp.

“While these works appear fun and joyful, there is an underlying message of caution and danger,” said Dustin Boise, a Beacon associate studio art professor who is the gallery’s director. “Michael’s work is composed in a manner that forces the viewer to think about their personal experiences with similar items and or experiences leading one to develop meaning.”

For this exhibit, Knapp painted the 23 pieces during his day job where he works as the resident artist at Tampa’s Museum of Science and Industry. Five days a week, Knapp takes his post in the museum. He paints there to inspire children and shows there’s plenty more than just STEM (science, technology, engineering and math.) Don’t forget STEAM too. Knapp says proudly he puts the “A” in STEAM for art.

Knapp has been an artist for most of his life. It’s what he does. It’s who he is, he says.

“If you’re an artist, you’re an artist. I can’t do anything else,” Knapp said. “It would just bore me to tears or I would fail. I am an artist. That’s just what I am. And I’ve loved it ever since I was a very young child.”

Knapp, who grew up outside Tampa, went straight to work at a supermarket chain’s advertising department and then would eventually paint signs which taught him how to paint with sharp edges.

“Commercial imagery, commercial lettering …. It was all advertising, marketing, all that stuff was drilled into me and formed my background for what I’m doing now,” Knapp said.

His latest gig at the museum has lasted 21 years so far.

Knapp’s inspiration for his art could come anywhere.

On a visit to a flea market, he stumbled on a box of children’s toys that moved him. Toys that had once been loved and played with every day, now being thrown out. Maybe the box would go to a new home and another child might discover them? Who knew the end to the story?

Knapp started to paint. That piece is called “Discarded Childhood” and shows a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figure, a baby doll and other play things depicted in colorful colors.

“Blue suits and robots” are the latest muse for Knapp in several of his pieces appearing in the Beacon exhibit.

“Men in blue suits, they represent authority figures, politicians, CEOs. Anybody that in your life that you would have had that would have been a boss or a principal of a school or somebody like that,” Knapp said, reflecting on his youth when he said he felt pressured to cut his hair and dress a certain way to conform in the business world and become somebody successful.

“I was never meant to do that. But in order to get the things that I wanted, they made it seem like I had to do that,” Knapp said.

Years later, Knapp responded by painting the men in suits with cartoon faces as caricatures.

Robots appear in his paintings too, like one where a robot is interviewing a human for a job.

Knapp expresses concern for how prevalent computers, robots and technology are in our lives.

“You can’t go to the grocery store without having to deal with a robot and you can’t call the doctor’s office without having to go through five or six robots before you can talk to a person,” he said. “They have become very intrusive, I think, in our lives.”

But not all his pieces question society or hint on sadness and nostalgia from childhood. Sometimes Knapp gets inspired by a movie line — the cheesier the better.

“It was an old science fiction movie, and they are overacting,” Knapp said, describing the motivation behind one painting. “This guy was very boisterous in his delivery, ‘Commander is on the rocky planet surface!’ … I said, ‘Oh wow. What a great line!’”

He pulled out his paintbrush and created the commander surrounded by rocks.

The reception of the exhibit has been positive after the exhibit officially kicked off with a grand-opening celebration, Boise said.

“I watched as diverse groups of students, faculty and staff stood before the canvases, which ironically are the dimension of a moderate-sized TV, discussing the possible narrative each painting presented,” Boise said. “In the day and age of the screen — often a solo endeavor — these paintings brought individuals together to decipher and discuss ultimately developing and strengthening Beacon’s community.”

If you want to see Knapp’s work, the gallery is located at 103 East Main St. in Leesburg, and is open Monday-Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Special events may vary the hours. The gallery is open to the public.