By Amanda Tonoli
Deep in the decrepit Knox Building in downtown Youngstown, Michael Greene Sr., a Youngstown State University graduate of the department of art and local artist, works on his next piece of art: an acrylic painting of a religious image from the open book sitting on his knee.
Greene learned to live his life through his art. He grew into being an artist — as well as was being born as one.
As a boy, Greene said his mother found him in his crib, digging in his diaper and drawing on the walls. Being supportive of his work, he said she watched him — at that time and during other creative moments — never hindering his creative side
“You know, you could really
stop somebody — tell them no, color inside the lines, but that whole loner, creative thing, she nurtured,” Greene said.
Greene, originally from Warren, grew up to attend Trumbull Business College. He jokes that he was there “for a minute,” before being approached by one of his teachers persuading him to go toward what he really wanted to do. That’s how he ended up at Youngstown State University.
“He was my math teacher. … We had conversations,” Greene said. “He said, ‘Michael if you could be doing anything else, what would you be doing?’ and I said probably painting.”
Greene said it came out of nowhere — he wasn’t painting then and he had a family to support. After that conversation, Greene’s math teacher started steering him away from the business college. He began listening to WKSU and WYSU radio shows because they always played jazz. Greene grew up in a home full of music, and having kids and kids on the way, he constantly played the music for all to hear.
“I started having other interests,” Greene said. “I started thinking outside the box. No more steelworker and all of that bullshit, or the urban league, trying to get a job. … I started hanging around art.”
Greene started to rent a studio so that he could paint and work on his homework at night, outside of some of the chaos at home. During his first year at college, Greene said he went through big changes.
It was as though his state of mind was changing as he progressed through college, Greene said. The people he hung out with were people that enjoyed the same type of things that he did. His mindset was changing, and he began to want more — and his wife at the time noticed.
He rehashed a few times when she angrily showed up at his studio, often with a screaming match in mind, only ending with an angry storm as she left with her car full of children and disappointment. She could see the changes in him, see him getting to be an intellect, and rejected the very thought of him being a different person than the one she knew.
Over the years Greene made friends to fill the void. He listed a few artists’ and musicians’ names — including Jason van Hoose, a fellow artist at The Knox — reveling in how they had this way of “vibing” off of one another and pushing each other to do more.
“We always took everyone in,” van Hoose said about their tight-knit group. “As long as they were artists.”
Something that the young artists did to promote their work was selling their pieces to big restaurants in Cleveland. Sometimes they would have to sell way below their desired price, but it ended up being something that would mold their careers and add to their resumes.
Now Greene paints mostly religious- and music-based works, in addition to portraits if he is asked. He has recently started to use acrylic paint, as a challenge due to it drying so quickly as opposed to using oils.
“It’s like, how quick can I do this before I lose it,” Greene said. “[But] I always put too much paint out because I’m used to using oil, but it’s a good challenge — you’ve got to keep learning in your craft,” Greene laughed.
Greene has placed most of his art in The Knox Building, covering the walls and filling the restaurant on the first floor — he and Jacob Harver are helping keep old buildings alive by decorating the historic building with attractions to draw in the crowd. What he and his close friend van Hoose are doing there, however, is much more than painting and sculpting.
The two have begun to take on Youngstown State University art students. Art student Heather Seno just showcased her senior project in the McKelvey Gallery on the first floor of the building, in May before her graduation. Other art students have started to flock to The Knox to display their work, and even ask the advice of the experts. There is a new student-teacher relationship, in which Greene and van Hoose that were once students are now the teachers.
Greene said he misses his group, but their journeys have taken them to their own successes and expertise.
“We were taught by the experts, and now we are the experts,” Greene said. “It’s a beautiful thing.”