Tradespeople will argue that there is an element of art in what they do.
In the case of Michael Sexton, that argument is, literally, concrete.
Sexton is a local fine artist and a contractor who has worked for upwards of 10 years in the Tulsa market putting upscale finishes on the walls and ceilings of the city’s most refined dwellings.
Canvas to Concrete
He doesn’t look like an artist, but he doesn’t look like a contractor either.
Sexton’s Carhartt overalls and steel-toed boots more accurately reflect the motor-head blood running under his inked-up skin than the white walls of a gallery. His refrigerator is covered with pictures of his motorcycles and hot rods of old, and a ghost-flamed beast of an automobile occupies his driveway.
“The top used to be flecked like a bowling ball,” he said, looking at it through his kitchen window. “It’s the last one, just a few inches too long to fit in the garage.”
His soft, thoughtful voice is the only thing that betrays his pedigree.
Having come up in an artistic family, he attended the College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, Calif., while working as an apprentice under artist J.D. Moore. He then apprenticed in Florida with sculptor John Chamberlain and painter Wilder Rich.
Returning to Tulsa, Sexton rose to prominance for his abstract paintings.
Art dealer Royce Myers, Royce Myers Art Ltd., 1706 S. Boston Ave., has represented Sexton since 1999.
“He is personally a favorite artist of mine. I have two paintings of his hanging in my lake house,” Myers said. “I have sold paintings of his that have ended up in big houses in Las Vegas. His paintings have also appeared in ads for Fabricut,” a designer fabric supplier.
Sexton said his foray into the world of complicated faux-finishes and decorative painting was a natural progression born from two things: his familiarity with large-scale work — he painted the mural that adorned the walls of downtown’s Nelson’s Buffeteria, now Elote, and his canvases are rarely smaller than he is — and a need to pay the bills.
Scaling Up, Then Down
Sexton started his faux finishes in commercial settings.
“In the beginning I did mostly commercial work, nightclubs and restaurants,” Sexton said.
His business grew, and at one point, he had a business partner and a 12-man crew, he said.
Sexton decided to scale down his work, moving to the intimate, detail-oriented scale of residential environments.
These days, he works out of his pickup truck, his home and a modest studio lofted above his garage. In an almost comical twist, the walls of his studio are bare wooden studs.
Sexton said the move afforded him more creative freedom, and more time for his art.
“It would be easy to get caught up in the finishing work and neglect my artwork,” Sexton said. “So in the last two years I decided to focus more on detail and technique versus high volume. One of the benefits of working on my own is that I can do more experimental, complex finishes. You can’t teach a crew how to do some of them.”
Sexton’s willingness and desire to experiment in his work is often a selling point in his art.
“He’s a great artist in the sense that he’s very open to new ideas and to other people’s ideas,” Myers said. “You can tell him, ‘I want this painting for my lakehouse, and I want it to reflect water, or to feel like something,’ and he just gets it.”
Melissa Higgins, an interior designer who has worked with Sexton for 12 years, said his interior finishing work held the same appeal.
“The thing I love about Michael is that I can come to him with something I saw in a magazine and describe it to him, and he can figure out a way to create it,” she said. “I think that speaks to his talent and to his versatility. I really love his innovativeness.”
Higgins said apart from his flexibility and willingness to collaborate during the idea stage, she was also drawn to the quality of Sexton’s work.
“He is such a perfectionist about his work, and so careful about being respectful of people and their things. Unfortunately, there are a lot of contractors out there who are not.” Higgins said. “His professionalism and his attention to detail really win people over. Every one of my clients that he works with absolutely love him. It boils down to respect.”
Not Your Momma’s Finish
Sexton’s services range in price from mid-range to upscale, and what he charges largely depends on what product he is using.
“These aren’t your basic Home Depot finishes,” he said. “Some of these products are $150 a gallon. My stuff is the real deal.”
The product referenced above, he said, is authentic Venitian plaster. From Italy.
Sexton said he was drawn to the history of craftsmanship behind the product.
His range, however, isn’t limited to the old world. Using a glaze and a mild chemical reaction, he can make a wall look, and feel, like elephant skin.
He is also one of the first in town to become known for his use of a relatively new product called Lusterstone.
“The Lusterstone is a cool product that is a good mix of old-world look and new,” Sexton said. “You apply it with a trowel in layers, and then you can rub it to give it this sheen. You end up with a look that is classic and modern at the same time.”
Higgins said his range of materials allows his work to fit in any environment.
“I used to really lean toward using him in contemporary settings, but lately I’ve been able to incorperate his work into more traditional settings,” Higgins said.
Like anything artistic, Sexton’s ideas can sometimes be a hard sell.
“I think sometimes people get intimidated by the idea of an artist doing something in their homes,” Higgins said. “But a client will give me colors to work with, and I’ll call Michael and say, ‘We need examples made up of this type of finish in this color.’”
“It’s such a cool way to create an upscale, eclectic feel in a space,” Sexton said. “It’s a matter of showing people that we can take a glaze and turn it into elephant skin.” ?′