Zoom in, it’s a pile of Del Taco hot-sauce packets. Zoom out, it’s a collaged portrait of Darth Vader. This isn’t a hallucination, or some strange subliminal message; it’s the pop art of Mike Coffey, a Las Vegas signmaker who collages in his spare time. And what began as a symbolic outlet for hardships in his life has become a significant part of his identity.
“A number of years ago I hit a creative rut,” Coffey, 38, says. “I became increasingly more frustrated and decided to shelve the paints and take a long break until I could clear my head and refocus my energy in a new direction.”
When Coffey’s artwork stagnated during the recession, he gave it up altogether. But then, in 2010, Clerks and Mallrats director Kevin Smith got kicked off a Southwest flight for being “too fat to fly,” and the artist had an epiphany. “At the time I was going through a ton of personal issues, and found myself being able to relate size-wise,” Coffey says. “I was eating poorly, and I had accumulated tons of mild sauce packets around the house. Being a fan of Smith and feeling bad for him, I got this ridiculous idea to make a portrait of Darth Vader.”
But it wasn’t ridiculous; it was resonant, a fusion of two iconic aspects of modern life. He had no problem giving away “Darth Scorcho” and started on other characters in the series: Leia made of Taco Bell packets called “Think Outside the Buns,” a Yoda named “Relish the Force,” Boba Fett, or “Dog with Mustard the Bounty Hunter,” and others of Obi-Wan, R2-D2, C-3PO and a stormtrooper. “I’m all for bad puns,” Coffey says of the titles. But laughs aside, the art had an unintended effect: it turned his life around.
Coffey pokes fun at himself when he talks about his artistic process. “I’m a crazy person,” he says of his habit of spotting unique colors and textures among mail and magazines, sauce packets and foil. It’s a scavenger hunt of sorts, finding materials in credit card offers and Doritos bags. “I look for inspiration in everyday life, everything from getting the mail to picking up dinner at the grocery store. I’ve always been attracted to art and design and packaging, so even when I’m in the grocery store grabbing criss-cut fries from the frozen section, I think, ‘I could use this bag.’”
His studio is a small, well-organized portion of his garage, where he files his repurposed finds and works under the gaze of his earlier pieces. And by the way, “It’s hard to make a female character out of trash,” he adds.
As for the Star Wars theme, it just made sense. The first movie came out when he was born, and the trilogy was an integral part of his childhood and adolescence. Coffey first took an interest in art as an 11-year-old, and got serious in high school, painting a mural on his bedroom wall, then expanding to canvas and later sculpture. “I used a lot of bright and complementary colors, bold lines and a lot of movement,” says Coffey, who was inspired then by Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and psychedelic art of the 1960s. “A lot of chaos, a lot of ADD.”
Today he’s inspired by a similarly vivid aesthetic, following artists like Southern California illustrator Josh “Shag” Agle, Juxtapoz magazine founder Robert Williams, hot rod artist Coop, and Tara McPherson, who paints stylized, candy-colored portraits of women. He admires outsider and lowbrow art, two genres that describe his own work.
The sauce-packet odyssey isn’t about money or recognition. Coffey works at home and doesn’t seek attention for his creations (a friend of mine found him on Instagram). He’s shown once at a Fullerton, California, art museum, and isn’t opposed to another show, but is mostly concerned with making art for himself.
Having “saved the best for last,” Coffey intends to finish his Star Wars theme series with portraits of Chewbacca, Han Solo and Luke Skywalker before moving on to new subjects, including Judy Garland made of an encyclopedia and an old Sears catalog, and a “human interest series” collaging compelling people he meets. The first will be a friend of his uncle’s, a weathered, white-haired roofer with a stone gaze and a scraggly beard.
But it will always be those experimental early portraits that gave him new purpose, helping him to gain confidence, lose weight and thrive once again. “It sounds kind of funny,” he says, evaluating his life today. “But I finally feel grown up.” And he’s not done growing.
“My art is a time capsule of what I was going through in my life,” Coffey says. “It’s a diary in some sense. Whether I sell another piece or give it all away for free, I would never stop. I scratch the itch because I have to.”