Mingering Mike’s Supersonic Greatest Hits

February 27, 2015 — August 1, 2015

Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th and G Streets, NW)

In 2013, the Smithsonian American Art Museum acquired a collection of over 150 artworks made between 1969 and 1976 by a self–taught Washington, D.C. artist known only by his alter-ego, Mingering Mike.

The Mingering Mike collection comprises artworks constructed as part of the artist’s youthful fantasy of becoming a famous soul singer and songwriter, including LP albums made from painted cardboard, original album art, song lyrics and liner notes, self-recorded 45 rpm singles and more, all tracing the career of a would-be superstar.

 

The works powerfully evoke the black entertainers of the late 1960s and 70s and are a window onto an historical moment when black radio was new and Washington-based performers like Marvin Gaye were gaining national attention and transforming American music. Mingering Mike was among the countless kids who dreamed of being discovered.

The lines between fantasy and reality are fluid in this body of work — Mingering Mike’s exuberantly illustrated record covers feature characters drawn from the artist’s own family and friends as well as reviews” by real musicians such as Marvin Gaye and James Brown, and recordings of the artist’s original music are stamped with claims of having been made live in D.C. hot spots such as the Howard Theatre.

The collection was lost to the artist in the early 2000s and discovered at a D.C. flea market by record digger” and criminal investigator Dori Hadar in 2004. Hadar posted pictures of the albums to an online record forum and the imaginary superstar quickly became a cult sensation. Hadar eventually located the artist, who still lives in D.C., and connected him with art dealer and curator George Hemphill, who arranged the first exhibitions of Mingering Mike’s work.

Untrained as either musician or visual artist, Mingering Mike nonetheless embodies a critical component of the American Dream, conquering tough circumstances by actualizing — to whatever extent possible — a world filled with fame, fortune, and happiness. This exhibition presents the vibrant creativity of this singular artist and powerfully conveys the larger American cultural phenomena that are so fully enmeshed in his words and images.

This installation features an array of objects from the collection, selected by Leslie Umberger, curator of folk and self-taught art.

Video

Date
  • In 2013, the Smithsonian American Art Museum acquired a collection of over 150 artworks made between 1969 and 1976 by a self–taught Washington, D.C. artist known only by his alter-ego, Mingering Mike. During his rare media appearances, the artist always wears a disguise in order to maintain his anonymity.

    The Mingering Mike collection comprises artworks constructed as part of the artist’s youthful fantasy of becoming a famous soul singer and songwriter, including LP albums made from painted cardboard, original album art, song lyrics and liner notes, and self-recorded 45 rpm singles.

    For more on Mingering Mike, check out Can Mike Really Sing?, an episode of SAAM’s web series Re:Frame

    MINGERING MIKE: I started making artwork back in 1968, where my first album cover was Sit'tin by the Window.

    Hello, my name is Mingering Mike, and I'm here at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

    What inspired me to start was the various TV shows and movies back in that era, and I was just saying to myself, "I could do a better theme song than that." I used to write, at the time, maybe like 10 songs a day. I used to write songs just to see if I could do it in the middle of a commercial. Then I wanted to have something to go with the songs, so then I started creating an album. I probably made about over 60 albums.

    The materials that I use were acquired from–it's CVS now, but it used to be called People's. So I used to go in there and get the poster board, and then I would go down to the local store and purchase various paints, and I would get markers and then I would start on the project.

    I never expected anyone to be witness to some of the stuff that I had done. It's been a fantastic ride, and, you know, still being incognito, I enjoy that because I can go anywhere and no one wants to shake my hand or pat me on the back.

    How does it feel looking back at the work that I did 50 years ago? It makes me feel like I'm an old fella'. It's amazing that it still holds up.
    Media Series
    Date
  • Mingering Mike’s Supersonic Greatest Hits exhibition curator Leslie Umberger sits down with the ever enigmatic Mingering Mike (in costume, of course); Dori Hadar, the man who saved the Mingering Mike collection; Tom Patterson, writer and art curator; and Carroll Hynson Jr., local radio personality and '60s and '70s music expert, for a revealing conversation about Mingering Mike’s work, influence, and impact-though not his true identity.

    Credits

    Mingering Mike’s Supersonic Greatest Hits is Powered by Pepco. Additional support is provided by the museum’s Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr. American Folk Art Fund.