In 2013, Micah Baldwin spoke at Big Omaha about how entrepreneurs need to stop lying about being happy and be honest instead. It was a relaxed, transparent presentation, full of stories from his own life leading up to his time as CEO at Graphicly. But what struck me then wasn’t Baldwin’s funny anecdotes. It was the slides.
Photos of fine art helped him emphasize how his brain looked as a cocaine addict (a piece by Paul Chatem) and about how killin’ it is killing founders (a Joseph Stein painting). Suddenly I was waiting for the next art piece. I was so taken by the colorful, visceral work that I tweeted this:
I won’t deny it. I love being right. Baldwin tweeted me back with:
I finally called Baldwin (only a year later; he’s VP of product at Blurb now) to ask just what it was about fine art that made it integral to the life of an entrepreneur. Specifically, a product-oriented businessman who, while working closely with graphic and engineering designers, admittedly has no artistic talent of his own.
Fine art enhances your own creativity
“I learned probably by the age of three that art was not for me,” Baldwin joked. “I can’t do it, but it’s something I love, so I figure I should be supportive. And in art, it has to be more than ‘I like your shit.’ It’s ‘hey, I bought your shit.’”
Baldwin said he tries to talk about the things that he likes and the artists he’s passionate about because “I want to share what I like with people. And I talk about people, because I want them to know there’s one person in the world who really believes in them.” So he collects. Fifty-one pieces at last count. Glancing through the pieces on his walls, a viewer might see a connection to Baldwin’s love of tattoos. Most of the paintings are figurative, full of deep, rich color, and hint at great story.
“For me, I think my energy is absolutely driven through inspiration,” he said. “Beauty, art, music — they all force our brains to think in a different way. And that helps me to be open-minded and creative. Thought is not something that should be kept inside a box. It should meander. I think in many ways art and music are the foundation on which I build everything off of. If I’m thinking of a project I need to work on, I tend to spend time looking at pretty pictures or listening to music. I’m experience driven.”
It’s easier than ever to connect with the artists
Fortunately for Baldwin, he says it’s easier to find art today than it’s ever been. “You can follow artists on Facebook, Instagram. There are companies like Artsicle who are doing new things with art distribution. And you just learn what’s out there if you’re friends with designers.” When did this passion for art collecting begin?
“Oh wow. I think I bought my first piece when I was 12,” he recalled. “All my friends had band posters and chicks in bikinis on their walls, and I had a print of Starry Night.” To this day, the classic work is special to Baldwin, largely due to the widely held theory that the painting represents Van Gogh’s view from his cell at a mental hospital. “It is absolutely a moment of sanity in an otherwise insane man’s mind,” Baldwin said. “I think we’re all looking for that moment.”
It was about ten years ago that he bought what he calls his first “for real, collectible” piece of art. “It was a Mike Giant painting — it’s done with basically pencil and a Sharpie.” Baldwin explained that the piece, Lies, Bruises, and Two Shitty Tattoos, is black and white like most of Giant’s work. “Turns out he’s color blind,” Baldwin said. “I think knowing and understanding why and what people paint is important. I’ve met about 60 percent of the artists whose art I have. Knowing the artist is certainly a good thing.”
Perhaps as a result of that philosophy, Baldwin has become a collector of his friends’ work, many of whom were or are designers. For example, Elle Luna was one of the first designers at Mailbox and is now a full-time artist. “She’s amazing,” he said. “Her art is probably the closest to modern art that I would go to. It’s very expressive, as she is herself. She’s sort of learning about the world around her and displaying it in her art. Like a hundred self portraits in a hundred days. I like her expression of growth through her art.”
Another friend, Mark Hemeon, is still a designer at Google. “Super, super solid,” Baldwin said. “He’s connected to the sea. He’s a surfer. He’s got a wife, a few kids. He paints, well, water. Or he paints these little trees, kind of an anti-commercialism conversation. He’s very connected to the natural, very organic.”
Fine art is like a tattoo: a captured moment in your life
“These people are just good at what they do,” Baldwin said, “and they’re very good as designers. But the core of their art is very much exploration of the world around them.” It’s that exploration on the artist’s part that Baldwin’s looking for. “I’m driven by the emotional connection with me and the artist and the piece. If the triangle fits…”
Sometimes the triangle is particularly personal. Sam Flores is a classically trained graffiti artist. “It’s one of my favorites,” Baldwin said. He commissioned the piece while he was living in Colorado, “so it had a very Colorado feel. Usually his stuff has a very Japanese/Asian feel, so it was unique.”
A pair of paintings by Adam Feibelman hang on either side of Baldwin’s bed. “They’re all spray paint and, I believe, something like 50 layers of paper,” he said. The paintings, which are right and left depictions of a worm’s-eye-view of two skyscrapers, remind him daily that he’s “not that far from waking up in an alley.”
Currently, Baldwin’s got his eye on a painting by Eric Joyner, an artist known for colorful, imaginative scenes with robots and donuts.
“I think that when you decide what you want to buy, you have to think about three things,” he explained. “Price matters — more expensive doesn’t necessarily mean better. Budget matters. It limits what you can and can’t buy. The second is: Stick to things that matter to you. I like color. I own a couple black and whites, but I really like color, and I like lots of motion. The third would be story: What’s the back story? This guy’s a San Francisco guy, it’s hanging in my friend’s store, and I meet friends for donuts every weekend. Perfect.” Oh, wait, there’s a fourth thing. Baldwin said you’ve got to see the piece in person before you buy. “It might be bigger or smaller than you think. And you have to see the texture or the stroke. And when you see it, you’ll go, wow, that makes a lot of sense.”
He acquires a new piece perhaps a couple times a year or so, but it’s getting to the point that he doesn’t have a lot of wall space left. “I don’t collect to say I have it,” Baldwin said. “It should fit on a wall somewhere, and I should want to look at it every day.”
He might not be emotionally attached to every single piece — “if someone says I want to buy x for y amount, and it made sense, sure I might sell some of them” — but Baldwin said most of them are like tattoos. “The art that’s on my wall is indicative of moments in time, even if those moments aren’t all positive.”
“People shouldn’t be afraid to experience things that are of the fine arts,” he said. “For me, everything is driven by shared experience — if people see me enjoying art in a cost-effective way, then they think they can too. You try to affect artists, so they know they have the ability to spend 24 hours a day doing art. Or you can affect other people, showing them it’s not that hard to enjoy art and buy it.”