The art of the hustle: Michael Savas’ LCAD exhibition showcases the diverse range of a working artist

By MARRIE STONE

Back in the 1970s, when Michael Savas was still deciding on a profession, it came down to music or art. Like a lot of 20-somethings in the ‘70s, he played in a band and took classes at Orange Coast College. But he figured art might be the better long-term choice. So, without any technical training – but a lot of talent, hard work and relentless determination – Savas began building a 45-year art career from the ground up.

“I put together some promo materials, found a mentor and – slowly but surely – started building a freelance business,” said Savas, who has taught at Laguna College of Art + Design (LCAD) since 1996 and served as Chair of the Illustration Department since 2005.

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Courtesy of Michael Savas

Michael Savas has taught at LCAD since 1996 and served as chair of the Illustration Department since 2005

Now through March 17, Michael Savas: Variety of Creation is on exhibit at the LCAD Gallery. The show spans several decades of Savas’ diverse and prolific career including technical illustrations, digital prints, acrylic portraits, oil paintings and airbrush work. Unfortunately, there wasn’t space for his many watercolors, sculptures, children’s book illustrations, gouache, reduction cut prints and other works.

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Photo by Marrie Stone

“Michael Savas: Variety of Creation” is on display at the LCAD Gallery on Ocean Avenue through March 17

In addition to a few dozen outstanding pieces on display, the exhibit conveys the full life of a working artist, the art of the hustle and what it can take to make a living in an ever-evolving field. It also demonstrates how quickly Savas had to pivot his skills and adapt to new technologies that threatened to drive him out of business. When Savas saw how digital tools were coming to take his job in the 1990s, he learned to use them to his advantage and was soon hired by LCAD to teach.

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Photo by Marrie Stone

“Reuland Electric Motor Co.” (1996), acrylic and airbrush on board. Companies initially resisted digital technology. As an early adopter, Savas convinced them change was inevitable. He taught his first LCAD class on computer imaging.

Savas began as a self-taught portrait artist at amusement parks like Disneyland and Marine Land. He refined his ink and technical skills during the ‘80s, finding lucrative work in the aerospace industry as a technical illustrator. His clients included companies like McDonald Douglas, Hughes Aircraft and Northrop Grumman. That paved the way for jobs with other manufacturers including Rainbird Sprinklers, Reuland Electric Motors and several others. He also worked in advertising for companies like Mars Candy, Quaker Oats and Carl’s Jr.

“I hadn’t taken any technical or perspective classes. I learned that on my own. I went to the library and studied books on perspective, dimetric drawing, isometric drawing – which is what they did back then.”

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Photo by Marrie Stone

“Meter” made for Beckman Instruments (1997), acrylic and airbrush on board

The technical aspects of art weren’t the only skills Savas learned. There was also the business of art. He taught himself how to pitch clients by stuffing envelopes and selling himself to agencies. He learned how to invoice, pay taxes and get a business license. He even discovered how to sue a client when they stiffed him on a bill. And he won.

“I was a hustler turned artist,” Savas said. “I needed money. I would do anything anyone paid me to do, and I didn’t turn anything away. If I didn’t know how to do it, I would research and learn. But when you’re self-taught, you always feel like an impostor. What legitimized my career was getting the degree.”

Savas returned to school in the 1990s, earning his BFA from LCAD and his MFA from California University Long Beach.

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Photo by Marrie Stone

(L-R) “Sunflower Surface, HIV and Breast Cancer” (2003), acrylic on panel

It’s easy for artists to get too precious about their work. They often believe fine art is the only legitimate artform. Savas tells students that if they want to make a living as an artist, they need to think of art like any other job. It’s work.

Over his many years at LCAD, Savas has brought a string of successful illustrators to campus to council his students. One night stands out in his memory. John Jude Palencar’s work appears on hundreds of fantasy book covers and in dozens of horror magazines.

We were at his gallery show and [Palencar] whispered to me, ‘What you do is considered the dirty underbelly of art,’” Savas recalled. “I asked him how much he got for some piece on his wall. He said $5,000. My average agency job made between $3,000 and $5,000. My work paid as much as his. It’s just a matter of content. He painted dragons while I created cut-aways for Mitsubishi. Maybe it’s not as fun, but it pays the same bills.”

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Photo by Marrie Stone

“Tribal Masks” (2004), This indigenous portrait series showcases Savas’ interest in the ways individuals and societies use adornments to communicate cultural, social and religious expressions

“Other artists can snub their noses, thinking illustrations are a commercial sellout. But if you’re selling at a gallery, it’s all about money. All art is commercial. You’re creating work that you hope the public will buy,” Savas said.

As for what companies are willing to buy, Savas says a big market remains for medical illustrators. But Gen Z students don’t think the work is sexy or interesting. They gravitate toward gaming and concept art. “Mechanical drawing is some of the highest paid work, but it’s not appealing to them,” Savas said. “Yet it’s so necessary. That work hasn’t gone away.”

Returning to school in the 1990s gave Savas the time and opportunity to explore his passions. He took a special interest in horror art – people being overtaken by tentacles and tapeworms. That led to his obsession with the microscopic and microbial. He liked the irony that the smallest cells – like cancer and HIV – can wreak the greatest damage. He produced this work decades before COVID, but its resonance with the current show feels impossible to ignore. “The series started as campy B-movie horror and then got more serious,” Savas said.

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Photo by Marrie Stone

“Arachnid” (2007), acrylic on panel

When Savas saw Barry Moser’s printmaking work in the Pennyroyal Caxton Edition of The Holy Bible, he learned how to make acid etching, copper point prints and relief engravings. As this exhibit shows, there’s nothing Savas can’t do.

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Photo by Marrie Stone

“Apoptosis” (2007), a resingrave emulsion digital print. “Apoptosis” means programmed cell death, one of the body’s essential methods of ridding itself of abnormal cells. Cancer cells block this process.

The long arc of Savas’ diverse career proves that art can be both a passionate pursuit and a practical profession. There’s plenty of passion in his work. That’s led to a long client list. It’s also led to recognition by the Society of Illustrators in both New York and Los Angeles. And it’s allowed his work to be featured internationally in numerous exhibitions and publications.

As for his old bandmates, they did some gigs at Holiday Inns and Harvey’s Casino before bailing out to earn a living. Sometimes there’s satisfaction in seeing where the road not taken leads. “They didn’t last,” Savas said. “My career lasted.”

Michael Savas: Variety of Creation is on exhibit now through March 17 at the LCAD Gallery located at 374 Ocean Ave. Entry is always free. For hours and other information, visit their website by clicking here.


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