By Marc Shapiro
You probably know his Starchild character, with white face makeup and a black star over his right eye, and the Spandex, leather and chains he wears onstage with platform shoes.
But when he’s not smashing guitars and telling you to “lose your mind in Detroit Rock City,” KISS frontman Paul Stanley is a prolific artist.
“About 18 years ago I was going through some turmoil in my life, as we all do, and a very good friend of mine said, ‘You should paint,’ and I kind of thought, ‘Well, I’m tired of throwing stuff at the walls,’” Stanley said. “So I went out and bought paint and canvases and brushes, and I had no idea what I was going to do.”
Within a few years, he was asked to show his work at a gallery, and in the years that followed his work has been praised by art critics, become highly sought-after by collectors and been commissioned by entities worldwide. His portraits, abstract paintings, mixed-media creations and hand-painted acrylic sculptures have generated sales in the millions.
Stanley will make two area appearances this week, one at the Wentworth Gallery at Westfield Montgomery mall in Bethesda on Sept. 14 and the other at the Wentworth Gallery at Tysons Galleria in McLean on Sept. 15. Update: Stanley’s shows have been rescheduled to Sept. 21 and 22.
It should be no surprise that the rocker took to art so well. Stanley hand-drew the ubiquitous KISS logo when he was still living at home and has designed the band’s album covers, concert stages and outfits over the years.
Stanley paints with the same discipline exhibited in his music. If KISS is a celebration of rock ’n’ roll, Stanley’s art is a celebration of life. He’s painted portraits of all the KISS members, created abstract canvases with bright yellows and dark reds, done colorful creations with peace signs and hearts at the center, painted flower sculptures and, perhaps unsurprisingly, painted plenty of guitars and musicians.
“The fact that it resonates with so many people, I think, shows an honesty and a joy in what I do,” he said. “I use a lot of color, and to me, color is really an affirmation of life. To me, every day is a miracle and I’m thrilled to be able to, in my own way, document it.”
It’s quite a body of work for someone who started painting as a way of “purging,” as he put it.
“I just found myself going deeper and deeper and I certainly never painted with any plans or aspirations to show my art. It was personal and purely for me,” Stanley said. “At one point a gallery approached me about doing a showing and I was somewhere in between amused and ambivalent.”
But the show was a great success, and his reputation as an artist kept building.
“I couldn’t imagine having enough art to fill a gallery, and now I don’t know that there’s a gallery that’s big enough.”
And while you won’t hear KISS playing “Hava Nagilah” at an upcoming concert, Stanley, born Stanley Eisen in New York City, considers his Jewish heritage foundational to the person he is today and thanks his immigrant parents for his work ethic.
“My mom was born in Berlin and lived through just a horrific, horrific and a heinous time and, with her mom and stepdad, fled, left everything behind and fled to Amsterdam and ultimately was uprooted from there once again,” Stanley said.
His father was a first-generation Polish immigrant. “I was explaining to my children that that seems to be the ongoing plight of the Jews, and that’s something I hold dear to me and have a very strong feeling of obligation to make sure that my children understand Judaism and the Holocaust. I grew up with adults around me with numbers on their arms. That was part of my life. So my sense of duty is to instill in my children my heritage.”
Stanley, who says he’s 99.9 percent Ashkenazi Jew according to genetic testing, finds Judaism very pure.
“I think that at its core, Judaism is, I think [Hillel] said, it’s really treating people the way you would want to be treated and the rest of it is just exposition on that,” he said. “That resonates beautifully.”
Most recently Stanley has gone to a Reconstructionist synagogue.
“I believe very much that a religion — although the basic tenets should stay — that everything else needs to evolve over time to keep the practicality about it. It doesn’t mean you dilute it, the essences stays the same.”
Shared Jewish heritage was a catalyst for camaraderie between Stanley and KISS bassist Gene Simmons — born Chaim Witz in Haifa to Hungarian immigrant parents, his mother a Holocaust survivor — since they were both the children of immigrants who came to the United States after harrowing ordeals.
“What we’ve seen is that Jews are resilient,” Stanley said. “So I think that Gene and I always shared a work ethic and a core value of what’s right and wrong and a sense that it’s all about hard work and there’s no shortcuts.”
To that end, Stanley says he paints about five hours a day, Monday through Friday, when he’s not on the road. And while touring can be grueling, the Starchild said the same feelings he exhibits in his art are what keep him engaged in the band he’s fronted for more than 40 years.
“It’s joy and gratitude for what I’ve been given and for how I am embraced and accepted and whatever naysayers and adversity I overcame to get here,” he said. “And the fact that I get a chance to get out and celebrate life and celebrate self-empowerment. Look, touring is not fun, but the two hours onstage is the closest thing to rarified air. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
For information about Paul Stanley’s upcoming art shows, visit wentworthgallery.com.
Marc Shapiro is managing editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times.