By KEVIN CHIRI
Tammany West news
MANDEVILLE – There is nothing like a quick profit of $50,000 for a young college student to suddenly realize his artistic talent might be a little more than he originally thought.
Michael Hunt is considered one of the best poster artists in the United States, having sketched nearly 150 commissioned posters of celebrities and famous people, not to mention two incredible opportunities when he created and presented posters for Pope John Paul II and President Bill Clinton.
Hunt, a North Shore resident, is 49 years of age now and has decided to “give back” some of his good fortune by offering art classes for locals at his Mandeville studio. The classes will begin in September and provide 20 people per class the chance to learn Hunt’s technique and approach to painting.
In the early years of discovering his talent and honing his craft, Hunt said he was not at all that confident about having a future as an artist.
“I was surprised when people saw my art and thought it was pretty good,” he said. “I was still doing it for fun so when I went to college I was still planning to become a doctor.”
But one sketch changed all that.
Hunt was attending LSU and decided to create a poster of the school that included the Bengal tiger mascot.
“A friend saw it and told me it was ‘really cool.’ He told me I should make copies and sell them,” Hunt recalled.
Standing on the street outside Tiger Stadium, Hunt was surprised to sell all the posters he had, then had an unexpected encounter that would change his life.
“One man saw the poster and said he worked with a local shopping channel. He said I should come on their show and try to sell more of them,” Hunt said. “When I went on the show I got 10,000 orders. We sold them for $10 each and I got $5, so I made $50,000.”
He followed it up with a Mardi Gras poster that went on the shopping channel and this time sold 15,000 copies for a profit of $75,000 for the artist.
“It seemed insane to me to make that kind of money so fast,” Hunt said, clearly recalling those early moments in his life.
He told his parents he would take a semester off school “to focus on my art and see what I could do.” And the result was that Hunt was off and running to a lifelong art career, with all his potential patients needing to find a different doctor.
“My parents did so much to help me from the start. They were always so supportive in what I wanted to do and they helped me stay grounded and realize I wasn’t going to hit a home run every time,” he said.
That came true with his third poster—a circus scene—that hardly sold on the shopping channel. But it was an important lesson that has never escaped his mind.
“I never forgot that circus poster,” he said with a laugh. “It showed me that great success doesn’t come with everything I do and the public can be brutal, so you have to keep an attitude of humility and always look for the next challenge.”
Hunt grew up on the West Bank of New Orleans, graduating from Lutheran High School. He got a hint about his talent when he won first place in the 19-year-old division of an art contest although he was only 9.
“There was some kind of mix-up and my piece got put with the older kids,” he chuckled.
He never had any formal training and said he painted and sketched for years through high school “mostly for fun. I really never embraced it until after the first posters sold, and then my family helped me run it as a business. That’s when I knew there was something here for me.”
At the age of 21 he passed on an opportunity to move to California to become what he was told would be “the number one poster artist in the world” after famed poster artist Patrick Nagle died. He was engaged to a New Orleans girl and passed on the chance—something that never held him back. The decision was a good one since he remained married for 24 years and had two children from the union.
Hunt continued to see his reputation increase and began getting commissioned work from celebrities, business executives and other famous people. He was being paid between $20,000 to $50,000 for each poster, something that put the spotlight on him in such a big way that the opportunity of a lifetime came along in 2000.
“Lindy Boggs was the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican and asked me to create a poster of Pope John Paul II. He was a big fan of contemporary work so she wanted a poster from me to present to him,” he said.
Hunt said he took about a month to finish the poster, which included real gold in the paint, and while he was not paid for that poster, Boggs took him to Italy where he presented the poster to the pope in front of 70,000 people in St. Peter’s Square.
“No one there told me the protocol for the whole thing and I probably broke every rule,” Hunt said. “But the pope had a great sense of humor and immediately recognized that I wasn’t Catholic.
“I was barely 30 years old and didn’t appreciate that opportunity as much as I do now. When I think about the fact I got to meet the pope, talk to him and present him a poster it blows me away to know that I had that opportunity,” he added.
A year later Hunt was contacted by a group of Democratic supporters who asked him to create a poster for Bill Clinton and again he had the chance to meet the president to present him the work.
“Clinton struck me as the most charismatic person I’ve ever met,” he said. “I wasn’t any real big fan, but when I met him and gave him the poster he said he loved it, and then asked if I wanted to ride in the motorcade with him to a speech he was going to make.”
Hunt has created posters for a multitude of sports celebrities, Saints players, Saints and LSU coaches and donated over $200,000 worth of work to charity causes. Some of the celebrities he has painted posters for include the Duck Dynasty cast, Tom Hanks, Dick Clark, Edwin Edwards, Steven Seagal, Willie Nelson and Nicholas Cage.
Hunt has a reputation for being a reclusive artist, something he readily admits, so the public classes he is now offering are something new for him.
“I want to help people become as excited as I’ve been as an artist,” he said. “I learned in my early years that you never tell an artist what they should or shouldn’t do so I plan to simply be an advisor for them and do what I can to help them develop the talent they have.”
The classes will be two-and-a-half hours each and Hunt is charging a nominal fee of $40 per student for the class. To register for classes, call 1-800-426-1379. No artistic talent is required to take the class.