Michael Jackson had a thing for military jackets, as the display at Julien's Auctions makes clear.
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On this November day, Julien's Auctions resembles what Michael Jackson's closet might have looked like, albeit a much shabbier version. It's the opening of "The Collection of Tompkins & Bush: Michael Jackson" exhibit, and the Beverly Hills showroom is almost wall-to-wall military-style jackets. A week later, on Dec. 2, some very rich collectors will clean out the place during a live auction.
But perhaps none of those collectors is bigger than Michael Bush, who, with his late partner, Dennis Tompkins, designed for Jackson for nearly 25 years — a collaboration that would follow the King of Pop to the grave. Bush and Tompkins' designs make up the bulk of the collection, which also includes Jackson memorabilia that Bush purchased over the years. Prices range from a few hundred dollars to $120,000, the latter for a jacket Bush and Tompkins made for the Bad tour.
Only a few hours into the opening, the crowd is sparse. Today Bush is wearing a heavy, gold-beaded jacket decorated with different incarnations of Jackson's mug. The Ohio native recalls that he met Jackson in 1985, when both men were 27.
At the time, Bush and Tompkins had been working for ABC, Tompkins in the wardrobe department, Bush on a freelance basis. Then Tompkins hired Bush as a sewer for the Captain EO production.
In his newly published book, The King of Style: Dressing Michael Jackson, Bush writes about the first time he walked into Jackson's trailer: Bubbles the chimp grabbed his leg, and Jackson playfully hit Bush in the face with a stemmed cherry. Bush and Tompkins subsequently worked on the singer's "Smooth Criminal" video and later joined the Japan leg of his Bad tour. From then on, the duo designed almost exclusively for Jackson.
"I'm an inventor because of Michael," Bush says. "He saw these facets in me that I didn't know I had. He saw a costume designer in me that I didn't know I had."
Bush's book is a dizzying look at the history of every piece of wearable art he and Tompkins created for the icon, on- and offstage: the light-up Captain EO costume, the pearl dinner jacket Jackson wore to the 1991 Oscars with Madonna as his date, the "iced" Levi's denim jacket covered with 9,000 hand-sewn crystal rhinestones worn for Michael Jackson: 30th Anniversary Special in 2001. Bush actually flew to Austria to buy the rhinestones.
Designing for the biggest, and most notoriously eccentric, pop star in the world brought more than its share of challenges. Jackson had a habit of calling Bush and Tompkins in the middle of the night, asking them to solve riddles, which Bush in the book describes as part of the "molding of our creative process."
And then there was the time he literally gave Jackson the shirt off his back. It was on the "Dirty Diana" set. "He was gonna wear a leather jacket and it just didn't work," Bush says. "He was stepping on a fan. So we went back into the trailer and he says to me, 'Bush, your shirt is winking at me.' And that became rock & roll history, I guess. It's very humbling to know."
The star's taste went beyond European military chic, Bush says, with influences ranging from fencing to ancient Egypt. But the one constant in Jackson's performances was his Florsheim shoes: "He taught himself how to dance in Florsheims." Bush became so paranoid about losing them on tour that he slept with an extra pair underneath his pillow.
From the armbands to the hem of Jackson's pants, Bush and Tompkins aimed to construct clothes that enhanced his body as a dancer. "Michael said, 'My clothes have to dance as much as I do,' " Bush recalls.
And Bush has a story behind every trick of the trade. For the "Smooth Criminal" video, Bush sewed a quarter inside Jackson's tie to give it weight and make it spin around like a blade. For live performances of the song, Tompkins (of the two designers, the craftsman) engineered for Jackson and his dancers shoes that bolted to the ground so they could lean at a 45-degree angle, replicating the video.
The early '90s saw Jackson go from being perceived as a tabloid freak to an alleged child molester. Bush gingerly skirts that subject, recounting only the times he himself was chased by the paparazzi.
"Michael to me was never controversial. It's what the world wanted him to be," Bush says.
But, he acknowledges, he saw the year Jackson temporarily moved to Bahrain as a welcome respite, a period that gave himself and Tompkins some much-needed "me time.
"We had bought a house in Los Feliz that no one had lived in for 30 years. It was almost like, 'exhale.' We could start painting the dining room walls. We could do the dining room draperies."
The last time all three would work together was on Jackson's ill-fated 2009 This Is It tour. A few weeks before the first concert date, Jackson died. Bush got a call from La Toya Jackson asking him to design for and dress her brother for the burial.
"My first thought was, 'I don't think I could do that.' And she said, 'Michael, you know what he would want,' " Bush says.
He and Tompkins knew that one of Jackson's favorite items was the pearl military jacket he wore to the 1993 Grammys. Unable to find the original, Bush and Tompkins had to re-create the jacket.
"It was me and the mortician at Forest Lawn" that day, Bush recalls, fighting back tears. "He stood back and said, 'I know you've done this for Michael. But if you can't handle it, you don't have to say a word. Raise your hand and I'll step in and finish. You have to be 100 percent comfortable in doing it, but the family wants you to do it.' This was my best friend, and I was sending my best friend on his way."
Two years later, in 2011, Tompkins died of natural causes.
And that sudden death of his partner, Bush says, was a factor in the decision to auction off these prized possessions. He insists that he's not doing it for a quick buck (the proceeds from the sale, in part benefit Guide Dogs of America and the Nathan Adelson Hospice in Vegas). It's meant to be a gift for the fans.
"The same thing could happen to me," Bush says. "And if I go and no one knows what this stuff is or it goes into a landfill, it's lost. I'd rather have it spread around the world like Michael's music.
"I have my house. I have my cars. I have my health, above everything. I believe I'm a happy camper."
At 54, Bush proclaims he's no longer designing, pointing to a gold-beaded jacket (also up for auction) as his last creation.
"I wanna go home and make my dining room draperies that I started 20 years ago."
The interior of Michael Jackson's art studio, which he shared with friend and artist Brett-Livingstone Strong
See more photos in "Michael Jackson Art: An Exclusive Look at the Musician's Drawings and Paintings."
Until now, Michael Jackson's art collection was shrouded in mystery. It was said to be stuck in a legal dispute over possession. Then, people speculated that buyers such as Cirque du Soleil's Guy Laliberté were interested. It's been valued at the staggering (and slightly unbelievable) sum of $900 million.
One crucial fact: Jackson's art collection isn't art by other people -- it's mainly drawings and paintings that he created himself. So what does that art look like?
Yesterday, LA Weekly was the first to visit the (until now) top-secret Santa Monica Airport hangar that Jackson used as his studio and art storehouse. The collection is currently owned by Brett-Livingstone Strong, the Australian monument builder and Jackson's art mentor through the years, in conjunction with the Jackson estate.
Though the entire art collection has been mired in disputes and battles for rights, Strong claims that he is working with everybody -- the family, the estate, as well as others -- to exhibit and publish as much of Jackson's work as possible.
According to Strong, he and Jackson formed an incorporated business partnership in 1989, known as the Jackson-Strong alliance. This gave each partner a fifty-percent stake in the other's art. In 2008, Strong says, Jackson requested that his attorney sign the rights to Jackson's portion of the art over to Strong. Now, Strong is beginning to reveal more and more of the art as he goes ahead with Jackson's dream of organizing a museum exhibit
Strong gave us a tour of the hangar, beginning with the Michael Jackson monument that Strong and Jackson co-designed several years ago. It's perhaps bombastic, but designed with good intentions and the rabid Jackson fan in mind. Strong explains, "He wanted his fans to be able to get married at a monument that would have all of his music [in an archive, and playing on speakers], to inspire some of his fans."
The current design is still in the works, but it's conceived as an interactive monument -- fans who buy a print by Jackson will receive a card in the mail. They can scan this card at the monument, and then have a computer organize a personal greeting for them, or allow them to book it for weddings. Jackson initially thought it would be perfect for Las Vegas, but Strong says that Los Angeles might have the honor of hosting it -- apparently, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa recently paid a visit and made a few oblique promises.
The Michael Jackson monument mock-up, featuring miniature pilgrims and a bridal couple
As for Jackson's art, the contents of the hangar barely scratched the surface of the collection, as Strong estimates Jackson's total output at 150 to 160 pieces. A few large pieces hanging on the walls had been donated as reproductions to the L.A. Children's Hospital last Monday, along with other sketches and poems.
In all of his art, certain motifs kept cropping up: chairs (usually quite baroque), gates, keys and the number 7. His portrait of Bubbles, his pet chimpanzee, shows a monkey-like face vanishing into a cushy, ornate lounge chair. "He loved chairs," says Strong. "He thought chairs were the thrones of most men, women and children, where they made their decisions for their daily activity. He was inspired by chairs. Rather than just do a portrait of the monkey, he put it in the chair. And you see, there are a few sevens -- because he's the seventh child."
Jackson, who was a technically talented artist -- and completely self-taught -- fixated on these motifs, elevating everyday objects into cult symbols. Strong added that Jackson's sketchbooks are completely filled with studies of his favorite objects, in endless permutations
But Jackson also created portraits: a small sketch of Paul McCartney, and a large drawing of George Washington, created as Strong was working with the White House to commemorate the bicentennial of the Constitution back in 1987. He also sketched self-portraits -- one as a humorous four-panel drawing charting his growing-up process, and a darker one that depicts him as a child cowering in a corner, inscribed with a sentence reflecting on his fragility
As an artist, Jackson preferred using wax pencils, though Strong adds, "He did do a lot of watercolors but he gave them away. He was a little intimidated by mixing colors." Some surviving pencils are archived in the hangar; Strong moves over to a cabinet on the far wall of the hangar and pulls out a ziploc bag containing a blue wax pencil, a white feathered quill and a white glove that Jackson used for drawing.
Jackson turned to art as times got hard for him. "His interest in art, in drawing it, was just another level of his creativity that went on over a long period of time," Strong says. "It was quite private to him. I think he retreated into it when he was being attacked by those accusations against him." The sketches and drawings certainly reveal an extremely sensitive creator, though it's clear that Jackson also had a sense of humor.
Jackson's art was kept under wraps for such a long time simply because of the pedophilia scandal, which erupted right around the time that he was looking for a way to publicize the works. "A lot of his art was going to be exhibited 18 years ago. Here's one of his tour books, where he talks about exhibiting art. He didn't want it to be a secret," Strong says, pointing at a leaflet from the 1992 Dangerous World Tour.
Prior to that period, Jackson and Strong had met and become fast friends. This marked the beginning of Strong's mentorship, in which he encouraged Jackson to create bigger paintings and drawings, and exhibit his work. The idea behind their Jackson-Strong Alliance was that Strong would help Jackson manage and exhibit his art. Notably, the alliance birthed Strong's infamous $2 million portrait of Michael Jackson entitled The Book, the only known portrait Jackson ever sat for.
In 1993, everything blew up. At the time, Jackson and Strong were both on the board of Big Brothers of Los Angeles (now known as Big Brothers Big Sisters), a chapter of the national youth mentoring organization established in L.A. by Walt Disney and Meredith Willson. They had planned out a fundraising campaign involving Jackson's art. Strong explains, "We thought that if we would market [his art] in limited edition prints to his fans, he could support the charities that he wanted to, rather than have everybody think that he was so wealthy he could afford to finance everybody." When the pedophilia scandal erupted, Disney put a freeze on the project. The artwork stayed put, packed away from public eyes in storage crates.
As for the spectacular appraisal of $900 million for Jackson's art collection, Strong says that it derives from the idea of reproducing prints as well. The figure was originally quoted by Eric Finzi, of Belgo Fine Art Appraisers. "The reason somebody came out with that was because there was an appraisal on if all of his originals were reproduced -- he wanted to do limited editions of 777 -- and he would sell them to his fan base in order to build his monument, support kids and do other things. You multiply that by 150 originals, and if they sold for a few thousand dollars each, then you would end up with 900 million dollars." Fair enough, though now Strong says he has gone to an appraiser in Chicago to get that value double-checked, and they arrived at an even higher estimate.
The story of Jackson's art ends up being quite a simple one, though confused by so much hearsay and rumor. Strong and the Jackson estate will slowly reveal more works as time passes, and an exhibit is tentatively planned for L.A.'s City Hall. Negotiations with museums for a posthumous Jackson retrospective are still underway, but Strong has high hopes. He's even talking of building a Michael Jackson museum that would house all of Jackson's artwork.
We'll leave you with Strong's own description of Jackson at work, during the time where they shared a studio in a house in Pacific Palisades:
He was in a very light and happy mood most of the time. He would have the oldies on, and sometimes he'd hear some of his Jackson Five songs. He'd kind of move along to that, but most of the time he would change it and listen to a variety of songs. He liked classical music. His inspiration to create was that he loved life, and wanted to express his love of life in some of these simple compositions.
I came to the studio one day, and we had a Malamute. I came into the house, and I heard this dog barking and thought, Wow, I wonder what that is. I go into the kitchen, and I couldn't help but laugh when I see Michael up in the pots and pans in the middle of the center island. He's holding a pen and paper and the dog is running around the island and barking at him, and he says, "He wants to play! He wants to play!" He's laughing, and I'm laughing about it as I'm thinking to myself, "I'm wondering how long he's been up there."
Michael Jackson's dedication to art: so strong that he'll end up perched on a kitchen island -http://blogs.laweekly.com/arts/2011/08/michael_jacksons_art_revealed.php