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Michael Frizzell: Siouxland Public Media's Artist of the Month

Michael Frizzell
Ally Karsyn

Michael Frizzell used to need weeks or months to finish a painting, but now, in just 90 minutes, he has a painting of Biggie Smalls almost done.

 “It’ll be a solid red background, and I’m trying to make it a little bit abstract with the colors. So there’s some greens and purples in there. Some darker shades of red. A little of blue,” he said. “If anybody knows Biggie, they’ve seen the picture of him with the crown on. That’s the one I’m working from.”

Michael Frizzell
Credit Ally Karsyn
A partially finished painting of Biggie Smalls by Michael Frizzell.

 Another work in progress is propped up on an easel, featuring the face of Layne Staley. Then, there’s Prince and a painting of David Bowie that he just can’t leave alone.

Frizzell is busy building up his body of work for ArtSplash. He’s been selected as one of the Splash Artists for the Sioux City Art Center’s 24th annual festival, which will return to Riverside Park over Labor Day weekend. The program helps local artists make their festival market debut and waives the booth fee, which ranges from $275 to $525.

This is all new territory for Frizzell.

After decades away from drawing, he picked it up again five or six years ago when he was working at a bank and needing a change.

“I started reading comics when I was 10 or 11, and I started drawing from them,” he said. “Those got pretty detailed. I knew I could do it. I just didn’t know how far I could take it.”

He went to the University of South Dakota right after high school, but he didn’t know what he wanted to do. After his first year there, he wasn’t sure about going back. He talked to his high school art teacher, who actually suggested following in his footsteps.

But he had lingering doubts.

“I really didn’t think I could do anything with art at that time,” he said. “I didn’t think I was good enough to do anything with it.”

Frizzell took a year off to think about it.

Twenty years later, he went back to school.

He was ready to follow through with the plan to teach K-12 art, but there was just one problem. He couldn’t pass the math portion of the Praxis test to become a teacher. So he dropped the education half of of his double-major and focused on making art instead.

By this time, he had made a personal discovery.

“I didn’t know I could paint,” he said.

He’s not the only one to put off pursuing art as something more than a hobby or childhood pastime.

He shares an airy, third-floor studio in the Benson Building with Brian Damon, a retired psychiatric social worker, and Debra Knealing, who spent more than two decades as a drafter and mechanical engineer.

All three went to Briar Cliff University as non-traditional students to study art. Frizzell was the last one to graduate. He completed his degree in December, and he’s been having fun playing with paint ever since.

“It’s all experimental to me,” he said. “I’m really still new at this. So I’m still learning how to do everything.”

Michael Frizzell
Credit Ally Karsyn
A painting of David Bowie by Michael Frizzell.

His work has an element of realism, especially with the people in his paintings. You can tell, oh, that’s Jimi Hendrix or that’s Bob Marley. But at the same time, there’s a hint of post-impressionism as he applies vivid colors to real-life subjects, usually musicians from his youth.

However, this does not pay the bills.

As an artist, Frizzell’s day-to-day life involves working as a trainer at a call center and then painting in his shared downtown studio three nights a week while his 13-year-old daughter is at the boxing gym.

“There are a lot of artists that are full-time, and they’re just scraping by,” he said. “I can’t afford to do that, obviously. I have a daughter that I’m raising too, so we need to eat food and live under a roof. If I could spend all my time in the studio, I definitely would, but at this time in my life, it’s not realistic.”

On his Facebook page, Michael Frizzell Art, he shows a bit of frustration about this reality with snarky posts depicting buttons and bumper stickers that say things like, “Artwork is work,” and, “Buy my art before I’m dead.”

“People do buy my art,” he said. “As soon as I post something, there’s usually somebody asking me how much I want for it or if they can commision me for something. I’ve been pretty lucky with that, but I know other artists who are not. People just ask them, ‘Hey, can you do this for me?’ And that’s all they say. They don’t say, ‘How much do you want?’” They expect you to give away your art for free.”

Getting paid has been a problem through the ages. There have been countless now-famous artists from Claude Monet to Vincent van Gogh who died poor and unknown.

That’s why things like the Splash Artist Program exist—to help local potters, painters and creators of all kinds navigate the business of making art.


You can find Michael Frizzell and his paintings at ArtSplash on September 2-3. The other Splash Artists include his studio-mate, Brian Damon; along with Marcia Schutz, a metalsmith, and her sister Marilyn Tenney, a potter.

If you want to get a sneak peek of what he’s working on, Frizzell, Damon and Debra Knealing will be hosting an open house on Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon in Studio 355 in the Benson Building.

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