Skip links

The Color of Steel

The Color of Steel: One DCP writer’s account of painting with a master – Mike Elsass by Annie Bowers

The scent of acrylic paint, polyurethane and incense lingered in the air at the old warehouse. Industrial fans hummed, and someone down the hall was using the freight elevator; I could hear the distinctive creak of the lift’s gate and the rumbling motor in the distance. I looked at the paint-splattered work table in front of me and there they were — my modest but brilliant painted steel masterpieces. As I stood in the Front Street Studio and gazed down at the beautiful works I had created, my white tuxedo shirt streaked in an array of colors and my fingernails caked with paint, chalk and sand, I felt only one thing — pure satisfaction.

There should be more days when we allow ourselves just one goal: create beauty. I’ve had the unique opportunity to spend some time in the Front Street Studios, working and painting alongside nationally acclaimed artist, Mike Elsass. A retiree from the insurance industry and a free spirit at heart, Elsass began painting after Roger Sayre, a renowned steel artist and Mike’s self-proclaimed mentor, inspired him to begin experimenting with layers of rust and acrylic on steel.

“I was fascinated by the color, texture and nuances of how the rust reacted with steel,” said Elsass. “I was on the Gulf Coast and had a load of steel in the back of the truck; the spray from the ocean tainted it in really neat ways … it just grabbed me.”

Elsass’ Dayton gallery, the Color of Energy, located at 16 Brown St. in the Oregon District, along with countless other renowned galleries from Sedona to Chicago, showcase his talent — a dynamic, vibrant body of art that is rich in color, depth, motion and texture.

Elsass draws artistic inspiration from his travels to many places that are close to his heart — from Quebec, to the Gulf Coast and the Louisiana swamps, to the Arizona desert and the Midwest countryside. His work reflects his spontaneous nature, his appreciation for finding beauty in the abstract, and his motto, “There are no mistakes.” To Mike, the steel represents strength, aging, imperfections and the beauty in nature.

“I like to move about and paint … I grab the energy of the moment and the place,” said Elsass. “I always say ‘brush ahead of the brain’ because painting shouldn’t be outcome-based; it’s about feeling the energy of your surroundings and letting it guide you.”

The process of applying sometimes as many as 40 layers of paint, glaze, sand and steel shavings to the rusted, imperfect surfaces acts as a metaphor for the stages of life — we begin with a relatively blank slate and over time add layers of depth and natural elements that represent various experiences and emotions. The end result, just like each of our lives, is a work that is imperfect yet profound, beautiful and unique.

After rolling up the sleeves of the white tuxedo shirt Mike provided me with (a happy and fancy alternative to the traditional smock), I participated in the various stages of the creative process … from the very beginning when the sheets of steel were treated with vinegar and sand, covered in plastic and left to corrode, to the process of applying color and texture, layer after layer. As I experimented with different colors, sand, powders, brushes and rollers, I became more comfortable in what began as foreign territory; gradually I relaxed, stopped thinking about the things I’d neglected on my daily to-do list, and settled into painting, which became meditative and therapeutic.

As I worked, I realized that like life, creating art is a process. I couldn’t expect perfection from the get-go, and I didn’t necessarily know where I was headed. There were times when I felt I’d made mistakes, but the beauty of the process allowed me to keep going, over and over, until it felt right.

Sometimes I asked Mike for guidance, and other times I dug through the buckets of acrylics, picked one (burnt orange was a reliable stand-by) and tried again on my own. A little color here, some copper dust there, a few more brushstrokes … I followed my whims, watched and learned, and eventually found comfort and reassurance in knowing “there are no mistakes.” And when all was said and done, the result was a beautiful collaborative effort — perfect in its imperfection.

For me, painting with Mike is an escape from the ordinary, an escape from routine —for me, painting allows me to simply create. But it’s more than that — painting is a lesson; it’s an exercise in personal growth. It stretches the boundaries of familiarity, inspires creative freedom and allows me to experience a glimpse inside the life of an artist. I value the days when I allow myself to simply create. I revel in the colors, scents and feel of the work … by painting with Elsass, I get to experience firsthand the color of energy.

In addition to creating art for his galleries and working on commissioned pieces, Elsass holds classes and workshops for those interested in exploring their more artistic sides. He periodically hosts special events and exhibits at his Color of Energy Gallery as well as open houses with wine, food and fine art every First Friday from noon until 10 p.m. Art lovers and novices alike can find Elsass’ pieces at a number of Dayton locations, including Sidebar, the Dayton Racquet Club, the Envelope, Penny Lane Publishing, Centerville Design, Deck the Walls and Vintage Scout Interiors.

Visit the gallery, sign up for a class, or just stop by to say hello, and you’ll see for yourself why the work of this incredibly talented local artist has become so widely acclaimed. Once you experience the beauty of painting on steel with Mike Elsass, you won’t know what hit you — and you’ll never turn back.