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Local painter finds inspiration in North End

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  December 15, 2010 11:13 AM

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Michael Dean 1.jpg

(Jeremy C. Fox for

Michael Dean in his Hanover Street home with his painting “Old North Church from Salem Street.”

In Michael Dean’s paintings of the North End, familiar intersections and public squares come alive, made into characters in their own streetscape spectacles.

Intensely blue skies shimmer above the complex surfaces of aqua-and-black oxidized copper turrets or fountains whose flowing water glitters in mid-air.

A North End resident for 10 years, Dean, 48, lives on Hanover Street with his fiancée, Kristina Busa, a sculptor and massage therapist. He began pursuing his dream of painting full time in 2007, after being laid off from his job as a sign-maker in an Allston sign shop.

“It’s been slow, and [there have been some] dark nights of the soul, but there’s also been some success lately,” Dean said.

Part of that success is having a selection of his paintings showing until Jan. 15 at the Boston Common Coffee Company on Washington Street downtown, where he sold four paintings just last week. While his work includes other subjects, Dean said the North End scenes are particularly popular, both with tourists who want to take home some of the neighborhood’s charm to recall their visits, and with current and former residents who want a reminder of home.

Dean pieced together an art education by taking advantage of a variety of adult education offerings and open model sessions at the Museum of Fine Arts, the Art Institute of Boston, the Cambridge Center for Adult Education and Brookline High School.

In his classes, he learned to focus on abstract patterns of light and dark and the interplay of color, so that the particular subject of a painting is less important than the overall effect of the forms and patterns that make it up. That formalist approach is clear in the intense and often complementary use of color in his paintings and in the lively variety of shadow and highlight, but he nonetheless confesses to having a weakness for certain kinds of subjects.

“These copper-fronted tenement buildings are my favorite thing in the world,” Dean said of the distinctive 19th-century style found throughout the North End and in some other Boston neighborhoods. “I think it’s beautiful handwork, and the patinaed copper is especially gorgeous. I just think they’re absolutely striking. I love to paint them.”

Dean starts his street scenes on site, sketching in the shapes with charcoal on canvas, and then takes photos for color reference and completes his work in a small studio he rents in the building where he and Busa live.

He loves painting the North End sights, but his work also includes still lifes, portraits, figure paintings and scenes from the countryside and from other spots around Boston.

Dean paints each day, usually from about 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and regularly attends evening sessions with models at the Artists Group of Charlestown and the MFA. He just completed another series of classes at the MFA at the beginning of this month, and despite beginning to see success in showing and selling his work, he insists that he still sees himself as a student.

“There’s so much to learn,” Dean said. “It’s impossible to say that I am anywhere near the level of work that I want to do.”

Throughout his life, Dean has participated in a variety of arts. As a child, roles as Huckleberry Finn and the Artful Dodger in school plays won him a place from 1973 to 1974 on “Zoom,” an educational variety show for pre-teens produced by WGBH.

The show included musical numbers by the cast and produced an album on which Dean sang, and he has continued his interest in music up to the present day. A guitarist and singer, in 2008, Dean released a CD of eight original rock songs titled “Time for These 8.” Next year he plans to perform a selection of Beatles hits and selections from his CD with a friend in a show they’re currently rehearsing.

But while he enjoys his other creative pursuits, visual art has always been his foremost passion.

“Nothing makes time pass faster,” he said. “It’s a very strange sensation to be painting and time passing so quickly. That’s when you know that you’ve achieved something — when you’ve lost track of time.”

For more on Dean’s work, visit or

Email Jeremy C. Fox at

Michael Dean 2.jpg

(Jeremy C. Fox for

Michael Dean’s painting “Copperfront Buildings Looking down Prince St.”

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