Double the art, double the fun

Twin performers paint, play at Sterlingfest

By: Cortney Casey | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published August 10, 2011

 Plucked from the audience, fan Julie Klaus of Sterling Heights contributes to a painting during Empty Canvas’ performance at Sterlingfest July 29.  The Midland duo consists of Mike McMath, right, who sings and paints, and his identical twin, Scott McMath, who sings and plays guitar.

Plucked from the audience, fan Julie Klaus of Sterling Heights contributes to a painting during Empty Canvas’ performance at Sterlingfest July 29. The Midland duo consists of Mike McMath, right, who sings and paints, and his identical twin, Scott McMath, who sings and plays guitar.

Photo by Deb Jacques

Advertisement

STERLING HEIGHTS — Double-takes became commonplace as Sterlingfest revelers strolled past Scott and Mike McMath’s post outside the Sterling Heights Public Library July 29.

Singing emanated from the area, and Scott was merrily strumming the guitar — but his mouth didn’t move. Onlookers often gaped for a moment before realizing the singing came from Mike, busily painting a picture alongside his identical twin, his back to the audience.

With Mike wearing a headset microphone and facing an easel for much of the show, the effect is a bit like ventriloquism, laughed Scott.

“A lot of people, it takes them a little bit to figure out what’s going,” he said.

The McMaths are Empty Canvas, a Midland-based duo that makes the rounds of festivals, fundraisers and other events, producing both musical and visual art.

The concept arose from the brothers’ shared love of both forms of expression. “There were times when he was just working on a painting and I’d be sitting there practicing guitar,” recalled Scott, who thought, “I’d bet people would like to see this … (usually) you don’t get to see an artist make their mark. It’s a pretty intensely private thing.”

Mike tried it on a whim once, just to gauge the response.

“I started to do it at an event — just out of the blue, I picked up a canvas,” he said. “As soon as I turned my back to the crowd, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

The multi-tasking isn’t as difficult as it looks. “It’s actually easier to remember the words doing that than when I’m playing in the band,” he said. “I’m using both hemispheres of the brain, I guess. Once I get into it, it’s just kind of an out-of-body experience.”

Empty Canvas isn’t the McMaths’ first foray into public performance; for about eight years, the brothers, taught by their mother to harmonize as children, were in the band Empty Pockets, playing a few weekends a month and opening for Alice Cooper and other touring groups.

“That was a fun ride,” said Scott, “but then we kind of started focusing more on something no one else was doing in the country.”

As Empty Canvas, they’re commissioned to perform anywhere from one hour to, in Sterlingfest’s case, four, playing both originals and covers, including requests from spectators.

They share some of the singing, and Mike occasionally picks up a guitar, but for the most part, Mike handles vocals — and the paintbrush — while Scott provides the music.

“If Led Zeppelin and Simon and Garfunkel got together with the Barenaked Ladies and had a kid, that’s us,” quipped Scott. “We try to have fun, make our music selection really diverse.”

Throughout, Mike plucks people from the crowd and approaching passers-by with brush in hand, instructing them to paint while he continues singing.

Julie Klaus of Sterling Heights was one of the first onlookers called up to “help” July 29, and she did so with enthusiasm.

She said she read about the McMaths’ appearances in the Sentry, and after watching videos of their past performances online, came out specifically to see them.

“I went, ‘Boy, that sounds like fun,’” she said. “I’m just mesmerized. I just think it’s so cool. I love how they pull people out of the audience.”

Not everyone was as gung-ho about contributing. Some balked, apparently fearful of destroying Mike’s work, but most eventually acquiesced.

“There’s a hesitation before the brush hits the canvas. … I don’t know if they’re reluctant volunteers or victims,” laughed Scott.

By the end of the McMaths’ July 29 performance, a lightly sketched outline had evolved into a colorful depiction of the Upton House, complete with Sterlingfest balloons soaring into the sky overhead.

The city owns the painting, and the Cultural Commission plans to meet in September to discuss its fate, said Community Relations Director Steve Guitar.

“I think they want to auction it off, maybe at next year’s Sterlingfest,” he said.

Empty Canvas was so well received that organizers are considering adding a small stage to the art fair area — which, until this year, had been devoid of music — to accommodate such acoustic-style performances in the future, said Guitar.

“That added a lot to the fair,” he said.

For more information on Empty Canvas, visit www.emptycanvaslive.com.

Advertisement