How One Kansas City Artist Commands Machines To Make Portraits Larger Than Life
For the past two decades, artist Mike Lyon has worked in a three-story building near 20th and Broadway in Kansas City, Missouri, creating monumental portraits using computer numerical control — or CNC — machines to automate the drawing process.
One of Lyon’s self portraits was among the noteworthy acquisitions featured in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art's recent "Unexpected Encounters" exhibit. And in 2017, his work was the subject of a solo show, “The XYZs of Post-Digital Gesture: Drawings & Prints by Mike Lyon” at the Salina Art Center.
One day this spring, a five-by-twelve foot CNC machine on the third floor of Lyon's studio moved an archival ink pen across a large piece of paper, working on a portrait of his wife.
Each movement of the machine's arm created a small letter “o.” Working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, months at a time, the machine will draw thousands of letters until a detailed picture takes shape.
Scroll around this 360 video to see Lyon at work in his studio:
In the early days of what is now called post-digital printmaking, Lyon was a CNC pioneer, using computers to draw based on a pre-programmed sequence of machine-control commands.
He learned early on that being first can bring disapproval. During his early, experimental years, he received an email from a fellow artist criticizing his use of mechanical processes.
“His thesis was a computer did it,” Lyon remembers. “A computer doesn’t do it. You do it,” Lyon replied. “I said the content of his email was written by him, not by his computer, even though his computer sent it to me. That sort of ended the conversation. He said, 'I get your point but I still feel it’s cheating somehow.’”
These days, using CNC machines to draw is more accepted.
“To me, the computer and this technical equipment is like a new tool,” Lyon says. “It’s like having a fancy paintbrush or a new paint that flows in a special way. It’s just another efficient way to move your ideas from whatever our brain is — whatever we are inside ourselves — out into the real world.”
Creating each portrait is an elaborate process requiring tens of millions of lines of code. Lyon says he enjoys writing the code that makes his machine whir.
“The drawings are very complex. The idea of sitting down and doing this kind of technical drawing by hand is kind of repulsive. But the idea of figuring out how to generate a list of instructions to the machine to accomplish some task in visual communication is super stimulating and exciting to me — and I love that part.”
Lyon bought the three-story building where he works in 1998. Built in 1910, it was once used to store film for Paramount Pictures. With a huge wall of windows and views of downtown's Western Auto sign, Lyon says it is an inspiring place to work each day.
“Honestly, one of the important parts of what I do is that, falling out of my daily practice are these objects that persist,” Lyon said. “Whatever it is I’m doing, it's the making of some object that is so satisfying to me. And after I’m gone, maybe some of this stuff will stay around for awhile.”
This story is part of a series using 360 video to bring readers into unusual studio spaces of artists in the Kansas City area.
Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her on Twitter, @juliedenesha.