A Singer, A Critic and an Artist Reveal Their Creative Alter Egos”
by Elizabeth Kirsch
Mike Lyon is best known for his instantly identifiable, large- format prints of portrait heads and nudes. Using a dizzying, alchemical array of techniques, Lyon is heralded as a “father of post-digital printmaking,” a hybrid art form combining older analog media with new digital technologies. A computer programmer since the 1970s, he seamlessly melds centuries-old printing techniques with the digital, high-tech world of ShopBot CNC engineering.
Lyon’s massive, 5-by-12-foot CNC machine hums away for hours in his studio, delicately painting his carefully coded artworks. He also travels the United States and Asia, teaching artists to create woodblock prints using the newest post-digital methods.
So it’s something of a surprise to find a separate space in Lyon’s studio building designated solely for the hand-fabrication of ukuleles, each one painstakingly crafted by the artist.
“I started making ukuleles after my dad died, on Feb. 25, 2016,” Lyon said in a recent interview. “After dealing with his estate and the disposition of his personal effects, I was depressed. My own work is technically demanding and highly conceptual, and I didn’t have the energy to think about it. I wanted to use my hands. I played the violin and guitar before, and after doing some research I thought ukuleles would be easy to make and easy to play, because they have only four strings.”
Teaching himself complex, new skills is part of Lyon’s personal and professional history. His father, Lee Lyon, owned and ran M. Lyon & Co., a cattle-hide processing business with one of the world’s largest tanneries. He was also an amateur photographer who had a darkroom in the family basement.
“Although my father could be strict,” Lyon recalls, “he gave me free rein, from ages 11 to 17, to do whatever I wanted in the darkroom, and that was terrific. I’ve never been afraid to experiment.”
After graduating from high school, Lyon went to Philadelphia, where he got a BA in architecture and fine arts from the University of Pennsylvania in 1973. “As a 20-year-old art student, I started hanging out in an elderly violin maker’s workshop. I rejected his suggestion that I quit school and become his apprentice, but with some regret; I always liked the idea of making stringed instruments.”
After graduation, Lyon returned to Kansas City and got a BA in painting from the Kansas City Art Institute. Although working constantly as an artist, he had a young family and also needed money. He began working full-time at his father’s plant. Besides learning all aspects of the business, Lyon developed and designed ventilation and computer systems for the company. “I may not have loved the business world, but I love coding,” he says. “There’s something about writing a procedure and then having the machine do what you want it to do.”
He moved to New York City in 1976, where he continued to design software and computer systems for two different commodity trading firms. When he was 26, he returned to Kansas City and the next year bought his father’s business, which employed more than 100 people. (The older Lyon retired to Aspen with his wife, Joanne. He pursued ceramics and studio glass making, while she opened the Joanne Lyon Gallery, which ran for 16 years. Both served separately as president of the Anderson Ranch Arts Center.)
Lyon continued to expand and modernize M. Lyon & Co., and in 1991 he sold the business. “At that point,” Lyon says, “I began making art full-time.
“A year before dad died, my kids gave me a ukulele kit as a gift. I learned rudiments of construction by building the kit.” He also got on YouTube and looked through various how-to manuals on building stringed instruments. “The Daily Ukulele to Go – 365 Songs for Better Living” is now part of his library, next to books on Japanese woodblock prints (which he collects), post-digital art and The Mueller Report.
Every ukulele Lyon makes is unique, of different size, carved and shaped from various kinds of wood, individually braced and possessed of its own tonality. Some have intricate hand-carved designs embedded on their surface, while others resemble female torsos.
“Although there are challenging design considerations in choice of materials, dimensions, bracing of top and back, joinery, finish, etc. — most of the work is experiential rather than intellectual. Lots of gluing, clamping, sanding, finishing, and lots of aesthetic decisions which must be felt. Each ukulele ends up having its own personality,” Lyon says.
“About two years or a little longer after dad died, I suppose I had recovered sufficiently so that I began painting and drawing and woodblock printmaking again. But I’m still working on some instruments, including guitars.”
Although his hobby is not that well-known, Lyon has sold a number of his instruments. “I was recently commissioned to build an electric guitar in the image of the band’s logo. Wow! What a cool thing that was.”
Lyon is quite the ukulele, violin and guitar player himself. He and his wife, Linda, began practicing violin around 1993 and joined the Kansas City Civic Orchestra, where they still perform, around 2001.
If there is an artistic through-line in Lyon’s oeuvre, it is that he is as comfortable with the hand- crafted as he is with computer programming. Besides his two CNC machines and ukulele/guitar studio, his building includes a hand-built stationary bed printing press, where he can produce work up to 4 by 8 feet, and an entire dojo for martial arts training, custom designed and fabricated by Lyon. He also has a black belt, and he teaches there.
“I do what I want intensely,” he says.
See Mike Lyon’s artwork at http://mlyon.com