Visual Arts

New York's Museum of Modern Art is about to give Phoenix painter Michael Little some bigtime exposure

Ask around downtown Phoenix, and just about everyone seems to have a story about Michael Little. He's a painter by trade, but better known as a character — formerly homeless, now living in a house with a Tim Burton-esque striped tree in front. The guy once swapped a painting for a pot of coffee.

Little paints quickly, busting out volumes on a weekly basis. Filled with bold color and simple figures, his canvases have a churn-and-burn style. He often paints cartoon-like images; boys with bunny ears wearing goggles, portraits of big-eyed, raven-haired girls, pianos, fish, and anything that strikes his fancy. The paintings are appealing, easy to digest, and popular. He's definitely not the best painter in town, but he's got talent and passion — and he sells enough to make a living.

His paintings could soon make him more. Later this month, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City will show a documentary Little has made about his life.

As always, with this guy, the backstory is at least as interesting as the work itself.

On a Friday afternoon in January, Little is plopped on his porch steps, tying the laces to his paint-splattered Converse, telling the story of his filmmaking success. The new Radiohead album blasts from inside. The house is littered with old appliances, televisions, tools, electronics, and paint supplies spilling onto the porch. Tentacles explode from the edges of a large sign that reads "In Gallery." This is prime artist real estate (Little rents, but still), just across Fifth Street from MADE art boutique, Hoodride, and The Lost Leaf.

The whole documentary thing started when Little was hanging out with his half-brother, Steven Yazzie. Now, in a lot of ways, Yazzie and Little are opposites. Yazzie is established, a rising star who has shown nationally and recently had a solo show at the Heard Museum. Several years ago, Yazzie taught Little to paint. Last year, Yazzie was asked to make an autobiographical documentary for the "Citizen Storytellers Project," a part of a series produced by WGBH in Boston, featuring short documentaries, shot with video-capable cell phones, made by Native Americans from all over the country. They won't air on TV, but you can watch them later this summer on and at yet-to-be scheduled promotional screenings. Also, each participant owns the rights to their documentary and is free to YouTube it.

Stephen Yazzie was busy with other projects at the time, so he gave Little the phone. "I was, like, 'I've got this phone but here's the deal, you need to finish this project,'" Yazzie says.

Little recalls getting the phone but didn't take his big brother's instructions seriously. "I had no idea what was going on until I got a call from this guy . . . Who's, like, 'So, you get done with the movie? You got anything ready to turn in?'"

He spent the next three days shooting. "I didn't really think it was going to be that big of a deal at all. I was just, like, 'Cool. I'll just make a little documentary about myself and see if I can tell a story,'" Little says.

The producers were impressed with Little's work — specifically the self-composed score, a melodic indie-folk sound that lends emotional depth to the piece. They invited him to New York City to meet other documentary filmmakers. Little's girlfriend coughed up the cash and they made the trip.

That would have been cool enough. But the story gets better.

In New York, Little happened to meet a woman named Sarah Rashkin who knows Sally Berger, the assistant curator for the film department at the Museum of Modern Art, and handed the DVD to her.

"We liked the spontaneous nature of Michael's piece — the way he spoke directly to the camera, and revealed his passion for painting as well as his vulnerabilities," Berger says. "His is a unique and inspiring autobiographical story."

Two months later, Rashkin called Little with the news that his film would be one of 10 included in the February 20 screening of CELLuloid: Cell Phone-Made Documentaries. (Apparently, cell-phone docs are all the rage. Even Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Arts is jumping on the bandwagon with cell phone-guided tours.)

It's no secret that MOMA is a big deal. For the past 80 years, the museum has shown everyone from Van Gogh to Picasso to Cindy Sherman. Granted, Little's actual paintings won't be on display there, but the exposure could lead to huge things. (One of the producers from the original project has already put in a bid for The Navajo Astronaut, one of the paintings that appear in the film.)

"It still hasn't even hit me," Little says. "People are more excited than I'm excited about it."

But a quick smirk crosses his face when he's asked about his brother. "I've always been trying to catch up to him because he's way ahead of me in painting — that whole older brother thing — just trying to beat him at painting sometimes and get back at him for nothing."

It's obvious the two share a healthy rivalry but, ever the gentleman, Yazzie says he is "thrilled for him and the exposure of his work."

Little may be acting humble, but he's not dumb.

"I've been holding onto the paintings that were in the movie just in case," he says, "just to see what happens."

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Lilia Menconi
Contact: Lilia Menconi