Michael Kirwan was one of the most productive, original and well-known artists of the American gay scene, his brightly-coloured and well-observed paintings capturing every aspect of the fantasy lives of men loving men. Though identifying as gay himself, he regularly drew scenes which included women, especially if they had plenty of flesh.
Raised in the Washington Heights district of New York, he attended the St Rose of Lima Catholic School from first through fifth grades. Even though he rarely had art supplies, from an early age he drew on paper bags with ballpoint pens, and filled small stenography pads with drawings. He was buck-toothed and regularly called a sissy, but didn’t really care as long as he could draw more inviting worlds on A&P supermarket bags. He became part of an innovative programme developed by the Archdiocese of New York whereby particularly bright boys were taught rigorous, in-depth college courses by the Christian Brothers. So he spent the sixth, seventh and eighth grades travelling downtown to West 83rd street to attend the Monsignor Kelly experimental school. Here his artistic abilities were recognised and he flourished. Upon graduation however, he found that there was no available next step, and was horrified when he started freshman year at Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx and understood that he’d have to endure four years of being badly taught what he already knew by inferior teachers. Young Kirwan became irreverent and manipulative, displaying a caustic wit when insulting his superiors.
While still at Spellman, Michael married his high school sweetheart and six months later became a father. Later that year he was denied a diploma because he had hurled a jelly donut at the back of his religious instructor’s head (she was an ex-nun). With a family to support, Michael worked for six years in the shipping and receiving area at Gimbels department store. At the end of the 1970s his marriage dissolved under the combined weight of his irresponsible attitude and continuing homosexual shenanigans, and in 1980, embracing his newly found gay identity, he went to work at the St Mark’s Baths, a sperm-splashed institution in the East Village. Michael rose quickly through the ranks from laundry boy to management through being an inept but endearing presence. Encouraged by Bruce Mailman, owner of both the baths and the magnificent and historic Saint dance club, Michael rediscovered art and in particular his skill at drawing the naked men surrounding him at work. In 1986 Michael realised that the AIDS epidemic would soon end the heyday of the tubs. It was during this time that his works were first published in Stroke magazine. He next worked for two years at the GVC porn video distributorship, until the company profits vanished up the executive’s nostrils.
In 1988 he got a call from a friend in Miami – Michael moved to Florida and became a chef at the highly regarded Strand restaurant, a pioneering establishment in the revitalisation campaign afoot in South Beach. When he was fired in 1990 the owners gave him a special bonus, and Michael decided that with six months of bills taken care of he’d try his hand at self-employment. For several years his work appeared in Freshmen, Torso, Gent, Playguy, Sugah, Mandate, Inches, Cavalier, Honcho, Nugget, and countless other magazines.
After moving to California in 2000, he spent a year as the Artist in Residence with the Tom of Finland Foundation. Michael enjoyed an inspirational relationship with the work and history of Tom, and maintained a supportive relationship with the Foundation, which is dedicated to the education and preservation of erotic art for all artists. These years would provide Michael with the most important friendships and partnerships, and saw him creating some of the best work of his life. He was now free to draw for his pleasure, to pay the rent, and for fans commissioning erotic scenes via his website. Michael always felt he was visually documenting every variety and scenario in gay and straight sexual activities. His inspirations for drawing his characters came from the everyday, regular people he encountered on the street, on the bus, in parks and markets, in seedy bars, and in dark alleys where names were not exchanged but furtive fun was found. Michael’s drawings exposed the fevered excitement and erotic beauty in every body and face; he always said he did not draw ‘pretty’ guys because he knew regular guys had better sex.
For many years Michael Kirwan used his website at KirwanArts to connect with his friends and audience, and to market his commissions. Since his death the website, which you will find here, has continued to showcase his work, including paintings, drawings and stories. Much of the information about Michael in this profile was sourced from information given on this (now rather attractively retro) tribute site, for which we are very grateful.
We would like to thank our Russian friend and contributor Yuri for supplying some of the images for this artist.