Mike Amann wasn’t interested in overthinking things. The designer, gallery owner, contemporary art collector, husband and new father was more prone to spontaneous acts of creativity than pre-calculated plans. Whatever the project, he always dove right in and went for it.
On a whim one Sunday afternoon in 2002, Mike took his then-girlfriend and future wife Lesley Amann née Smith to meet his parents in Covington, Ky., at the former upholstery shop on Pike Street. His family had owned the (largely vacant) building since the ’80s, but the elder Amanns were under contract with a buyer. By the time the ambitious recent graduate of Western Kentucky University (WKU) was done with the walkthrough, he had convinced his parents not to sell it and let him fix up the place instead. This would become the site of his first official creative collaborative endeavor.
“We had all been talking about our vision of creating a design firm together,” Lesley says about their tight group of friends who would go on to become the founding members of Powerhouse Factories (PHF).They were all graduating from WKU’s small fine arts program and once they did, Pat Jones, Ben Nunery and Clay Brunton moved north to Covington to help Mike manifest his vision for the building.
Mike had a passion for old buildings, so he spent the better part of that year tearing down walls, replacing the ventilation and lighting systems, putting on a new roof and otherwise rehabilitating the former tobacco warehouse-cum-department store/upholstery shop with his grandpa.
Mike and company were young, ambitious and not afraid of making it all up as they went.
“It was a part-time thing for most of us; everyone had full-time jobs but were working on Powerhouse things at nights or on the weekends,” Lesley says. Clearly, the creative collaboration was a labor of love for them all.
In addition to building their reputation of designing and hand screen-printing “gig” posters — printing a whopping 150 editions during each of their second and third years in operation — PHF also did branding work for global corporations, exhibited art in their first floor gallery and even had a little shop filled with PHF-branded merch.
Powerhouse designers (and Mike, in particular) were interested in finding a balance between art and design. Street art especially appealed to the group because it was by nature spontaneous and strongly influenced by design.
There is a certain level of physical practice required to acquire the skill of an artist, and the real beauty is often found in the process.The anonymous muscle memory of craft at some point takes over and conscious thought takes a backseat. Whether one is spray painting a letter on a wall or pulling a handmade screen-print, there is a performative quality in those kind of creative expressions, and Mike found each of them appealing for that very reason.
Powerhouse regularly opened up the gallery to creative people of all stripes during their tenure in Covington, hosting events such as moped rallies, pop-up shops for handmade crafts and book promos for graffiti artists. But as PHF began taking on more and more jobs, the focus for the organization began to shift.
While they all shared a common interest in Rock posters, Jones and Nunery were looking to expand the branding/marketing arm of PHF, whereas Mike became increasingly invested in the fine art/gallery side of the business.
Jones and Nunery left the spot on Pike Street and relocated in Newport, taking the name Powerhouse with them. Brunton moved to Nashville, and Mike spent a year freelancing while deciding what he wanted to do next.
After he met Roman Titus, a photographer with a mutual interest in street art, “creative refuge” gallery BLDG was born. Mike was reinvigorated with the promise of having a working arts space again. He partnered with businessman Jay Becker and graphic designer Chris Ritter and collaborated with international artists like Lucy McLauchlan, Matt Haber and Prefab77 on screen-prints.
Lesley and Mike went to Art Basel for the first time in 2007 and, according to Lesley, “that had a big impact on Mike and his vision of what he thought he could do in this community.”
Although they’d flown down to Miami with the intent of seeing all the major exhibitions at the convention center, they spent the entire week in the Wynwood Art District, where a public art exhibition curated by Primary Flight featuring outdoor murals by 35 artists was taking place. “He was like a little boy on Christmas morning,” Lesley says.
Mike introduced himself to artists who were installing, and when he sent them follow-up emails weeks later, they all remembered him. The gallery owner was memorable not just because he was charming or unabashedly handsome, but because he was genuine.
“People were just sort of drawn to him,” Lesley explains.
Thanks to BLDG’s continued efforts to bring public art to Covington, Mike’s vision was really starting to pick up steam. He secured international street artists The London Police (TLP) and Vhils, whom he’d met in Miami, as BLDG artists-in-residence in 2010 and 2011, respectively. BLDG showcased live mural painting as part of the city’s Art Off Pike urban arts festival, and TLP returned this past summer to create 11 more unique installations — a kind of walking tour of art through the community.
Less than a year ago, when Lesley was eight months pregnant with their first child, Mike was diagnosed with stage four high-grade neuroendocrine cancer — despite being an otherwise healthy 33-year-old.
In the midst of the whirlwind treatment process, Mike welcomed his son Kaizer and continued to contribute at BLDG.
On Nov. 10, Mike Amann passed away at home, surrounded by family.
“It was the perfect ending to a beautiful life,” his wife says. “He was so proud of what he helped to create and he knows that he left things in really good hands.”
Follow updates from BLDG at bldgrefuge.com.