Stephen Michael Haas is not just an artist, he’s an introspective illustrator.
The totality of his life experiences, both good and bad, come into play on many of his canvases.
Art is a form of therapy for the 27-year-old Harrisburg resident, who had a roller coaster of a childhood: there were periods of great joy intertwined with times of great sadness due to an abusive relationship with an alcoholic father and equally abusive stepdad.
Art was also a coping mechanism when he was younger.
“When I was a kid, through adversity, like, say my stepdad was in a shitty mood and trashing the house or doing something inappropriate, I would draw to feel safe,” Haas said. “Same as when I was at my dad’s house and my dad would be blacked-out drunk, I would lock myself in my room and draw. In a lot of instances, I had art to make me feel safe and secure.”
Haas began drawing when he was 4, thanks to a mother and grandmother who realized his talent and helped nurture it. His grandmother also had major influence on the cartoonist artistic style he would eventually adopt by playing video games with Haas when he was a child. His love and passion for the cartoon form developed thanks to Nintendo games, especially Super Mario World and Yoshi’s Island.
“It was actually like a melting pot of great things all happening at the same time,” Haas said. “…Super Nintendo games were also coming out and they came with an instruction book. I’d watch my grandmother play, she would give me a media journal and I would draw the characters from the instruction books. I sucked at video games; she’d get all the coins and do everything and I would get frustrated and draw instead.”
Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Super Mario and Yoshi’s Garden, is one of many artists to have influenced his art over the years. Haas has also worked off and on for the past decade with Wayne White, an artist and former set designer on the children’s TV show Pee-wee’s Playhouse.
“White’s been a really, really huge influence on me, I’d say he’s definitely been my biggest teacher,” Haas said. “He taught me how to look on a really large scope, and I really relate to him, honestly, more than anybody because his vernacular as an artist is really similar. I saw this documentary a few months before I met him and said, ‘wow, his story is eerily similar to mine’.”
One concept White uses in his work is to craft 18-foot-tall sculptures of cartoon characters.
“I’d say he’s probably the template of what my end goal is to be as an artist,” Haas said. “There is a vision you have to seek out as a young artist and you don’t even know where it is even going to go. But when I was 21 and I found him, I was ‘oh, that’s it, that’s what I want to do’.”
Yet another major inspiration for Haas is fellow-Pennsylvanian, Keith Haring, a pop artist whose street art and graffiti-like work grew out of the New York City street culture of the 1980s. Originally from Reading and nearby Kutztown, Haring’s contemporaries included such famous artists as Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
“He was a really prolific artist who lived and breathed art,” Haas said. “He made an effort to make art everywhere, and (his art) finally blew up in New York City. He’d put his art everywhere and kept getting arrested a bunch, but finally got into the public eye and he started merchandising his stuff, working with kids…”
To pursue his artistic dreams, Haas recently quit his part-time job and started, on the very same day as this interview, a full-time career as an artist. Haas has numerous commissions lined up and also the honor of being the first artist collaboration with Murage Apparel.
The Murage design is in the cartoonist style that Haas loves so dearly, and is full of symbolism concerning awareness, love and being true to one’s self.
“It’s an idea of really owning who you are and being proud of it,” Haas said. “The hearts coming out of his eyes is not about love for another person, it’s more about viewing life from a positive perspective and having the courage to pursue your passion.”
Haas likes to utilize “the same motifs and rifts off of them across as many formats as possible,” whether a painting he produces for his own enjoyment or in a mural he crafts for public consumption.
“I think the more you use the same symbols the more you empower them,” Haas said. “Now almost into a decade of doing this, I can get away with doing things in commissions that other people might not because I have an established style, so that is my voice.”
Although Haas is just in his late 20’s, he’s produced hundreds of commissioned pieces and over 30 murals, including street art that can be found in Baltimore, Chattanooga and his hometown of Harrisburg.
Editor’s Note: For more on what makes Haas tick, boogie on over to our Artist Snapshot.