American Spark


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Painter: Michael Bradshaw

The first thing you observe about Charles Michael Bradshaw is the hat. His black duckbill is a sartorial compass on the time-space continuum, planting him smack dab in the middle of his current life in the city and his former life in Virginia’s Middle Peninsula.

“I wish I hadn’t sold it,” Mike reflects on the Chesapeake Bay deadrise he bought in the ‘80’s for $1,000. It took 2 1/2 years of weekends to restore the boat that he would come to enjoy for the next two decades. Re-built it with his own two hands. With his buddy Michael Lee Burke. “We replaced 140 bottom boards on the thing. We had to knock out all the boards and put in all these new boards. You had to pre-drill each hole before you could put the nails in.” The specialty nails cost $300 a box. “You know that wax ring under your toilet? We had to rub that between the seams of the boat, and we left the boat in the cradle. As the boat swelled up for two days, the wax would press the rocks out of the seams.” Mike pings out details of their labor as if they just finished the project yesterday. He says of the craft, “It made me a better person.”

The deadrise, built by Deltaville’s renowned boatbuilder Alvin Sibley, is a symbol of the Chesapeake Bay. It’s a classic workboat — the nautical version of a multi-tool — used by watermen for everything from oystering to crabbing to fishing. Ever resourceful, Mike found an inexpensive slip for the vessel and a sweet slip for himself. “I had this nice little cottage in Topping, Virginia, and I lived there for a couple years,” he says, describing the wooden sun porches on either side that overlooked the Rappahannock River. “It had a 1935 Home Comfort woodstove. My mom and aunt came over and we cooked over that stove.”

Deadrise in Acrylic by Michael Bradshaw

Deadrise in Acrylic by Michael Bradshaw

Mike was driven to make art from early on. I remember this guy — everyone called him Grandaddy Bishop. He owned the grocery store and would make his own hand-painted signs. I would sit with him while he worked on his signs. One day he handed me charcoal and some paper — and that was it!” Mike’s passion was borne.

Not that there weren’t detours or ancillary interests, like football. It was during a high school football practice that he was injured so severely a doctor told him he was a quarter of an inch away from becoming quadriplegic. Mike’s professional life began with the “right job” working for a couple of years in his mother’s dry cleaning business. But that wasn’t a fit for him.

What he really wanted to do, and what he did do, is paint signs. He created hand-brushed signs the craftsman way. Coca-Cola. Village Cafe. Shockoe Bottom. Mayo Island. The difference between machine-made vinyl and hand-painted? One’s a sign, the other’s a landmark.

“The most fun I had was with the neon business,” Mike reminisces about Tally Sign Company which dates back to the 1930’s as a maker of neon signs, outdoor advertising and more. The billboard-painted-by-hand — which is making a comeback in our Instagram age — is a direct communication between advertiser and driver. “I traveled all over the state painting billboards. In Gloucester we painted a 10x40 billboard. They’d give us blueprints and we’d blow up the blueprints on a projector, in sections, the way Michelangelo made blueprints of the Sistine Chapel.” Mike describes how large hand-painted projects (which took weeks) meant projecting a pattern onto brown wrapping paper, then perforating the paper with a “pounce wheel.”

“It was like a cookie cutter, and then you’d put it in place, take a chalk bag (carpenter’s chalk), and leave a chalk impression.” That was the first part. “Then we painted over the chalk using very expensive oil-based bulletin paints.”

Michael Bradshaw

Michael Bradshaw

Michael Bradshaw

Michael Bradshaw

“I had my van full of beautiful paints, I had a good apartment, I’d take my ladder and...” His voice trails off as his memory snatches souvenirs from that junction. A sudden turn of topic lands in the middle of conversation casually, as if asking the waiter about the wine list. “Did you know her?” he asks, as he shares an image from his phone. It’s a portrait he painted of his sister. His sister had been struggling with bipolar disorder. She was living in Kalamazoo, Michigan, when she fell into what might be described as an extended period of narcolepsy. It ultimately led her outside where she opened the trunk to her parked car and proceeded to lie down in the road, passed out. A vehicle ran over her. Like blues musicians who say you can’t really play the blues without living the blues, one gets the impression Mike’s art stems from the same deep well as the blues greats.

Mike's Sister.jpg

These days, Mike communes with canvas and acrylics, and keeps his portfolio in his car. “I like to paint with acrylic like it’s oil.” It’s evident that he can spend endless hours mixing and thinning and mixing and thinning and creating an oil-like medium. After all these years, he knows what he’s doing. And he’s listening to that voice that calls him — to make, to create — and quietly and insistently beckons him to keep on painting.

Pastel Mike.jpg

Mike Bradshaw is available for commissions. He doesn’t have a website. He doesn’t even want you to email him. If you want to reach "Mr. Mike” call him at (804) 398-3198.

Mike Bradshaw Art Pic.jpg
May-Lily Lee