Michael Lords is a Freemason, Olde World artisan, one part St. Francis and without a doubt one of more remarkable members of Tiny Town's Titus Flats community
By Matt Tomich, special correspondent to tinytowntimes.com
TINY TOWN, USA – In a past life, Michael Lords believes he was a sailor, or maybe a carpenter. Judging by the menagerie roosting and cavorting about his home – four Rottweilers, ten birds, two cats and an unknown number of squirrels and ducks – he might’ve been a zookeeper as well. First, meet the rotties: Gossamer, Arcadian, Eustus and Constantine; the three macaws, Virgil, Fargus and Sinclaire; his five cockatoos go by Corapora, Isis, Arazzmus, Caspar and Constantina; and there are two green parrots he calls Heckel and Jeckel. Then of course Molly and Aurora, the cats.
Michael's present incarnation has led him into the construction field as a contractor specializing in masonry and carpentry. He is a devoted member of the Freemasons and speaks fondly of his visits to the splendidly detailed Masonic Temple in Manhattan. A nautical motif runs throughout his cluttered house – the wooden hull of an unfinished ship sits on one shelf and a scuttled fleet of model battlerships on another, and pictures and models of schooners adorn his walls as well as angels cast in various clays and stone. Indeed some residuum of his past life seems to have attached itself to him: At heart he is an artist, an obsessive artisan who carves Gothic-inspired scenes in large wooden panels he finds in random locations: job sites, forests and other locations of value. These works consume an enormous amount of space above and below decks in his little house.
Lords also has found himself desperately looking for work that, in a past life, a man of his many skills would have had no trouble finding and applying toward a decent living.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Lords, now 56, grew up in a foster home with one of his many siblings in a building near the Brooklyn museum. While many children spend their youngest years outside, Lords found himself getting lost in the worlds depicted in paintings and sculptures in the museum, staring into the vivid scenes for hours on end and developing an appreciation for a universe imagined in the mind's eye. He would do the same inside church sanctuaries and was once thrown out by cops who were called in by a suspicious Priest. When Lords explained why he was there, the Priest pardoned him and requested that if he was so enamored of the artwork in the building, the next time he came to visit he ought to bring an artist's pad.
But sketching wasn't what Lords had in mind.
His artwork emerged, idly enough, from pre-adolescent boredom. “When I was young, about 11, my foster mother who was sick with cancer, was throwing out some furniture,” he said. “I took an arm or a leg off of a chair or something and with a 10-penny nail just started doodling on top of it. It was an outlet ... and from there it grew.”
In the late 1970s, he studied medieval art and art theory at SUNY New Paltz, but after two years, Lords was forced to drop out and find a job. He’s been working in the construction industry for his livelihood and on relief carvings to feed his soul, ever since.
His pieces are intricately detailed, precisely etched reliefs that range from fantastical scenes painted with a wealth of vivid colors to carvings of two inch-thick Gothic and Victorian architectural elements varnished a deep brown.
At the time of this report he was in the middle of a large piece that was eighteen months in the making, Lords said. The piece at times consumed up to fourteen hours a day, he said, to ensure the wood matched the vision that appeared in his head a year and a half prior. “When you start, it becomes an obsession,” he said. “Some of these pictures have taken years to do.”
Lords is a classicist by training and nature, though a non-academic one. In fact, he's something of an anachronism, as if he really is, according to his own beliefs, a reincarnated man or an unrequited artisan, transmigrated to the wrong era.
“I grew up in the 60s with acid and The Grateful Dead,” he recalls. “But still I sat and looked at the masters. For a person who was smoking pot and popping acid, looking at a master is a big difference to going to see a tie dye.”
But there is something telling in the way he positions himself against the postmodern and the kitsch, believing instead in the value of great art from the likes of Da Vinci and Michelangelo. “Andy Warhol is like slumming to me, whereas Da Vinci is just the highest of art. A Michelangelo is the highest of art. But people would rather look at a Warhol. As a ten year old kid playing in [the Brooklyn museum] – we'd go back and look at the same paintings, artwork, statues, day in and day out, just because they were there and they were so incredible. That’s what we did as kids.”
Unhappy with the changes in his Brooklyn neighborhood, Lords left the borough for Ithaca two years ago, where he now resides.
"I came up here thinking I could open a business," he says. "It turned out to be a nightmare."
He spends most of his time with his four dogs – Eustice, Constantine, Arcadian and Gossama. Throughout this interview his cockatoo Constantina sits and squawks, jumping from the reporter's shoulders back to his master's shoulders. “I like walking with my dogs – you meet people, you pick up friends but you don’t have to entertain anybody. The dogs, they entertain themselves – you just follow along.”
But credit where credit is due: Lords is an entertainer. At the Ithaca Festival in June, be could be seen on and around the Ithaca Commons, his four companions in tow, lounging around and lapping up the attention from passersby. “These guys are very popular for a small town.”
So is he.
However, Lords’ residency in Ithaca has been bitter-sweet: he’s had plenty of time to work on his art, but only because he’s spent the better part of the last 24 months unemployed.
“Try to get a job up here, you’ll see they only give you $10 an hour,” he says, referring to the construction work he’s been doing since he was 15. “I went from making $170,000 a year, in my own business, by myself, to making nothing up here. You have Home Depot, you have Lowe’s, you have all these other businesses, how hard could it be to get a job?”
Welcome to 21st century Central New York, Mr. Lords.
From this reporter's perspective [Tomich is from Perth, Australia] there’s something distinctly American about Lords’ approach to life. He came from humble beginnings, growing up in a foster family with one of his biological sisters – he’s one of nine children; he was small business owner; a college dropout; he’s tasted a sliver of success when his artwork was big in the late 1970s, exhibiting in SoHo and Boston, and he’s been trying to get back to that place ever since. He’s stubborn yet approachable, independent yet friendly, hard-working yet out of work, and self-assured but not quite arrogant. It’s this last trait that sticks out the most.
“Nobody sees the value in art like this,” he says. “How many times have you seen a little statue of a sailor – a little stupid statue that anybody could carve? That is what impresses people. Simple, tacky is what sells. But I’m not looking just to sell. I want to be one of the masters. I want my pieces on show in Europe, I want people on the other side of the world to see them ... What I really need is an art critic – someone to get my work out there.”
He says all this with an alluring charm that makes you want to champion his work and wish him all the success he clearly feels he deserves.
“I’m a complex person,” he insists. “There’s so much involved inside of this one person. I’ve been living on my own since I was 13. I’ve done a lot and seen a lot. Been nowhere, but still done a lot. There’s just so much left to be done.”
One thing he does is act as caretaker for the wild animals in his neighborhood. Lords lives on the corner of S.Titus and Fair Streets, across from a small nameless park that runs alongside Six Mile Creek.
Earlier this year the city removed several traffic calming barriers on South Titus – at the insistence of the fire department – and very much against homeowner's wishes. With the small park right across the way and the relatively slow traffic, flocks of ducks had begun to gather and make themselves at home to an unsafe degree. Since the removal of the barriers, Lords has found himself in the role of grave digger to a generation of water fowl accustomed to a less hazardous hang-out.
"People just speed through here now; I've buried about a dozen ducks or more since [the barriers were removed]," he says. "They are living creatures, like us, and it's the right and respectful thing to do for them."
Perhaps in his past life he was a friend of St. Francis, as well.
Abigail Baron and Franklin Crawford also contributed to this story.
IMAGES: Top, Michael Lords, with his cockatoo Constatina, right: one of many carvings varnished to a high gloss as opposed to being painted. Next down: The Master and the Student: Lords discusses his work with Abigail Baron, then an Ithaca College senior, in March, 2012. Next: A stylized detail from the large carving he is showing to Baron. Below that: Lords at Gallery Night in Ithaca in December, 2011. Below, left: Lords with his dogs, bird and a friend in the small park that stretches along S. Titus Avenue from N. Plain to Meadow Streets. Right of that: a detail from one of his more recent carvings, shown at bottom. Bottom: One of Michael's three macaws checks out the photographer's lens: Right: Three of four of Michael's Rottweilers pose with aforementioned carving, a piece that measures roughly two-and-a-half-feet by a little more than six-feet, long.