Anna-Michal Paul, chalk artist extraordinaireLeor Galilon August 31, 2022 at 6:40 pm

If you’ve ever been to a show at Thalia Hall, you’ve walked right past Anna-Michal Paul’s work. She creates the hand-drawn chalk art that greets concertgoers as they ascend the stairs to the second-floor venue. Her detailed, textured portraits and stylized lettering, which she catalogs on Instagram at latenightchalkshow, are as much a part of Thalia’s identity as the musicians who headline the hall every time they come to Chicago. In fact, because she’s created thousands of promotional chalk designs for Thalia, you could argue that she’s its most frequently booked artist.

As told to Leor Galil

I moved to Chicago in 2012. Dusek’s, I think, was opening up shortly after that. I was hosting there and started doing their beer board, which was basically just writing up their rotating drafts. One of the bar managers one day was like, “You should try this one font—this beer company’s got a really cool font.” So that developed. About a year later, when Thalia Hall opened, Pete Falknor, the manager, asked me to do the chalkboard—they’ve got this massive eight-by-ten chalkboard. 

It was honestly just kind of a job for a while. It was just something to pay the bills with. Over the years, it’s developed into, like, “What can I do next? What can I create?” I’ve started doing more portraits, and I’ve started doing a little more involved pieces, which has been a lot of fun. I was actually just talking to [16 on Center assistant talent buyer] Bobby Ramirez, and we found out that with an average of 200 shows a year I’ve done roughly 2,000 chalk murals. It’s wild to think about.

I grew up in a very artistic family. And [art making] has always been something that’s just kind of been around, and something that . . . I therefore probably took for granted. So I think hearing other people appreciate what I was doing kind of gave me a little boost. Like, “Oh, this is interesting. I can make this into something more.” And I love to challenge myself. I’m a very self-competitive person. I wanted to push it and see what I could do. I think maybe three or four years ago is when I started doing more portraits. 

In second grade, I would draw caricatures of friends in Sunday school, or I would skip certain classes to get to art class early and finish up projects. It has definitely been something that has just been a part of my life. I will say, it was really hard as a young kid—I have five older siblings, two of which are older sisters, and both of them are incredibly talented artists. So I was definitely growing up in that shadow and always feeling like a little caboose trying to keep up with them. They were big shoes to fill. One of them got a full ride to the Art Institute, and the other is now teaching art full-time. 

When they left my surroundings is when I started to really explore more and explore my own internal inspiration—expressing what is truly coming from me, and not necessarily trying to mimic or follow in someone’s footsteps.

My family joke is that I live a very haphazard life. And yeah, I do; life just kind of happens to me. I was invited to live up here with two of my sisters. One was leaving for the Peace Corps, and the other planned to stay in a little two-bedroom apartment in Pilsen—where I paid $650 a month for the whole place. And then seven months passed, and [my sister] Caroline decided to move back to North Carolina. And that was around the time that I got the job at Dusek’s. I most definitely was not focusing on creativity. I was, you know, processing being in the city by myself, being 20 years old, and working at a bar-restaurant—that leads to less creativity. 

It was more of a fun time for me, which is still an expression of oneself. Even the way you present yourself—clothing is also a way that I creatively express myself. I’m really lucky to have been given the opportunity to have a canvas that’s given to me every single day, and being forced into that routine of exercising the artistic muscle of creating. 

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This was always a side hustle. I went from hosting to serving. I worked at a cocktail bar for a couple years. In 2015, I took the jump to go completely freelance—I took the jump to leave the industry and really just challenge myself to hustle. To really look for ways to support myself while still doing creative things: filmmaking, art. 

It just worked! I was still doing graphic design, even when I went freelance. I was looking for any bar or restaurant that needed sidewalk chalkboards done or menu boards done. Thalia was a really nice liaison; people would come to shows and follow up with me and say, “Hey, I’ve got a restaurant and a chalkboard that needs help. Do you want to come make it pretty?” Establishing those kinds of relationships, and creating repeat customers through that, really helped me establish a career. Now, Thalia is basically my bread and butter—aside from, like, street fests in the summertime. 

The night before, I’ll research the band—just a quick Google search of the band name, followed by a poster or album cover, and see what pops up. Scroll through and see what shape, what images, catch my eye—colors, patterns. I’ll download a bunch of those photos. When I get [to Thalia], the most satisfying part is erasing the night before’s [chalk art], believe it or not.

I’ll usually start with the graphic—the image itself. I tend to do the band name last. I’ll use the side of the chalk, and I’ll create this rough ghost-shadow of whatever image I’m putting up there. Then I’ll step back. I’ll envision where I want the words to go, and if it doesn’t fit, it’s a light sketch, so I’ll be able to move it around easily. Then I take it one little section at a time. 

I will look at the colors in someone’s nose, and I’ll use purple and orange and white to fill in these little patches. It’s kind of like putting a puzzle together, now that I think about it. It’s like when you’re on an airplane and you look down at the ground, and you see all these different squares of different shades of green. It’s kind of like that. Just plotting out of faith.

Anna-Michal Paul made this chalk art of Lucy Dacus for her Thalia Hall show on February 15, 2022, when she was performing a string of dates while lying on a sofa due to a back injury. Credit: Courtesy Anna-Michal Paul

The longest one I’ve done was Lucy Dacus laying down on a sofa, which took up the entire board; that took six hours. I would say, on average, I spend about three on portraits—the bigger ones. And then daily ones that are just copy and no graphic, it’s 30 minutes to an hour and a half.

It’s just really nice to hear an artist connect with me through something that I didn’t create, but maybe a friend of theirs created this poster for them, and I’m up here replicating work that someone close to them has created. It’s a full circle. It’s really nice. To be brought into that, and to be humbled in that I almost don’t feel like I’m as big of a catalyst in the creative process—but more of, like, a liaison to bringing out images that represent these bands. I’m prepping people for the experience of going upstairs, like anyone would with a band poster. Interacting with the bands is probably the coolest part, and that makes me feel part of the community the most.

Back in 2016, Angel Olsen came to play at the hall. Everyone knows that I’ve got beef with Angel Olsen, or I used to, but this was the first portrait I ever drew. I was like, “I’m going to the show tonight—picking out my outfit, drawing this picture for Angel Olsen.” I get done, very satisfied; I’ve been doing this for three years. Looking back, it was nothing to write home about. But I get there later that night to go to the show, and it’s been erased. Her portrait is gone off the chalkboard. I have no idea what’s going on. And it turns out that Angel Olsen did not like it and made someone erase it—which I’ve since forgiven her about. Like, she probably has no idea that any of this went on. 

I was so embarrassed that I didn’t even go to the show that night. Like, I couldn’t even face her from a few feet away. That was probably the first memorable experience. 

Anna-Michal Paul chalk portraits from Thalia Hall shows in 2022: Fletcher (July 29) and Alok (June 6) Credit: Courtesy Anna-Michal Paul

Ty Segall, I actually got to talk to him face-to-face. And he’s got how many bands? Six? Too many. So doing my research the night before, I have to be really selective with the images that I choose. I know that now, with him, but at the time I put something up from the wrong Ty Segall band. 

I love Ty, so I’m like, “I’m gonna put some good time into this. I’m gonna make this really fucking awesome.” Instead of just filling sections in, I’m filling it in with patterns and swirls. I’m like three hours in, and someone comes up behind me and says “excuse me.” I turn around, and it’s Ty Segall. He introduces himself—which he did not need to. He says, “I’m so sorry, but that is from a different band of mine.” [Editor’s note: Anna-Michal was re-creating the album art for the Ty Segall Band’s 2012 album Slaughterhouse; the group performing that night was Fuzz.]

He just kept apologizing: “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.” “No problem, dude. I’ll change it into something else.” I ended up turning the face of—it was a skeleton or something—into the face of the fuzz creature, the blue creature on their [2013 self-titled] album. I got it on time-lapse too. So I’ve got little clips of me blushing and talking to Ty Segall while he’s sitting there apologizing to me, and I’m like, “I’m sorry for fucking up your stuff.” And he’s like, “I’m sorry for fucking up your stuff.” That was a pleasant experience.

Not gonna lie—I absolutely take it for granted so often. I think a lot of that is due to the fact that it all kind of happened to me, and it kind of birthed itself. But that being said, I do reach moments of taking a step back and looking at this weird-ass life with this weird-ass job that I have, and things that I would never even have imagined for myself, and it’s really fucking cool. What an opportunity, to get to come into contact with these people that are influencing music, and in one of the biggest music cities in the country. It’s an honor. I’m humbled. I’m all of these things. It’s just cool.

And it’s a huge privilege to be able to do this. Not a lot of people get to walk into work and look forward to fucking up the thing they did the night before so they can make something new. The people that work there are just incredible, and the people that come through . . . nothing but good vibes.

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