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Nationally Acclaimed Cleveland Artist Michelangelo Lovelace Dead at 60

Michelangelo Lovelace in his Cudell studio. [Dennis James Knowles / ideastream]
Michelangelo Lovelace focuses on a painting detail in his Cudell studio.

Cleveland artist Michelangelo Lovelace, Sr. died Monday morning after a yearlong battle with pancreatic cancer. Lovelace’s paintings of inner-city streetscapes made him a beloved figure locally and won him national acclaim.

Michael Anthony Lovelace got the nickname Michelangelo from childhood friends who teased him for his love of drawing. That love turned into a passion for illustrating the stories of Clevelanders who didn’t have a voice. In a 2017 ideastream interview, Lovelace said his imagery came from personal experience.

"What I’m trying to do in my work is tell that urban, inner-city story of what it's like growing up, dealing with poverty, dealing with crime, dealing with drugs, having so much to overcome to keep your dream alive," he said. 

Oberlin College art professor Johnny Coleman said Lovelace was one of the first Cleveland artists he met when he moved to the city a little over 25 years ago. He called Lovelace’s passing “a gut shot.”

"We lost a master storyteller and an artist of the highest order, and it is, it's very difficult to process ," he said.

Lovelace’s first studio was located in an art space at the old Hodge elementary school in Cleveland’s St. Clair-Superior district. That’s where he started churning out a series of paintings that put his spin on urban life. His canvases displayed city streets crowded with people and traffic. The surrounding buildings were filled with signs advertising job training, marriage counseling and hip hop records. Lovelace's landscapes were littered with dollar stores, churches and beauty shops.

The artist and his work [Dennis James Knowles / ideastream]

"His work always was a visual narrative of his love of the place," said Coleman. "And it is a complicated relationship to the place, showing much of the struggle, but also the joy and just the intimate knowledge that Michael has about the place that he knows and loves."

Lovelace's work started attracting attention, eventually earning him a 2015 Cleveland Arts Prize. He used the money from that award to buy a house and a new studio in the Cudell neighborhood on the city’s West Side.

In 2018, his work caught the eye of Adam Shopkorn, owner of New York’s Fort Gansevoort gallery. Shopkorn paid a visit to Lovelace’s studio and proposed putting on a show. He said it was a tremendous success.

"The exhibition was reviewed by The New York Times and The New Yorker, and then we did an online exhibition during the pandemic, and that was reviewed by Artforum," Shopkorn said. "And I told Michelangelo that most artists dream of of having a review in one of those three publications and he kind of hit the trifecta."

Michelangelo and Shirley Lovelace at his 2018 exhibition at Fort Gansevoort Gallery in New York. [Fort Gansevoort Gallery]

Wife Shirley Lovelace said it was a happy memory.

"He was very glad to get his work to that level of success, because that's what he wanted," she said. "That's what he worked all those years for, because you know, Michael painted, since he was like 18. People discouraged him from doing that, but he always knew he had art in him."

Lovelace sold two dozen paintings at that show. One of the attendees was artist and social activist Hank Willis Thomas. He brought Lovelace to the attention of singer Alicia Keys, who used one of the Cleveland artist’s paintings as the backdrop to a performance last year.

Lovelace credited legendary Cleveland artist, the late Rev. Albert Wagner, as a major influence. Both men painted in an untrained style that some cultural gatekeepers call “outsider art.” Adam Shopkorn doesn’t like the term.

A painting by Rev. Albert Wagner watches over Lovelace in his studio [Dennis James Knowles / ideastream]

"To me, it's all one," he said. "I think in 2021, something that might be viewed as outsider art on a Monday could be insider art on a Tuesday. I personally think it's a bit dated, this idea of an outsider art. It's very hard to tell today who's not trained and who is wildly trained. To us at Fort Gansevoort, it makes no difference one way or the other."

Oberlin’s Johnny Coleman calls Lovelace "the ultimate insider," a person totally devoted to telling the story of his community.

"I just think that Michael was an incredibly positive human being. Incredibly," he said. "And others saw his beauty."

There was a catch in Shirley Lovelace’s voice as she thought back over her husband’s last days.

“You know, we’re on this cycle of life,” she said. “Michael did his cycle. It was over sooner than I wanted it to be, but it was not my choice. And I can accept that.”

She finds some solace in one of his paintings. It shows a diverse group of people standing in front of a church. A sign over the front door quotes a piece of scripture.

“Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.”

A memorial service for Michelangelo Lovelace, Sr. will be held at Pernel Jones and Sons Funeral Home. Viewing will be Tuesday, May 4, 3-7 p.m., and the memorial service will be broadcast via Zoom, Wednesday, May 5, 12 p.m.

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.