Michael Kalish Uses License Plates to Raise Awareness about COPD

World-renowned artist and sculptor Michael Kalish recently unveiled his latest monument “24M: The DRIVE4COPD,” which illustrates the dimensions of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. In the edited version of our interview with Kalish, learn why he got involved in campaigning for this cause and the symbolism behind his creation.

by Ilyssa Panitz • More.com Celebrity Reporter
michael kalish image
Photograph: DRIVE4COPD

More: You are teaming up with the folks at DRIVE4COPD for a very special reason. Why did you want to get involved?
Michael Kalish: I have never done anything like this before. But then I learned that 24 million people may have COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease], a condition I knew nothing about until recently. The numbers were so staggering I wanted to articulate that in what I do, to get the word out.

More: Explain to me the correlation between license plates and this campaign. 
MK: There is a very direct relationship. Who would have thought the idea I created 18 years ago would be perfect for this? I work with license plates, and here I wrap them into pinwheels, which symbolize a person’s ability to breathe, and also how this exhibit will move across the country.

More: You created a total of 24 pinwheels. Why 24?
MK: That number symbolizes the 24 million people who may have COPD and just don’t know it. Because that number is so alarming, I wanted to carry that theme through the entire piece. I used 2,400 license plates from all 50 states to drive home the number 24 this campaign is highlighting. [In addition, the number of license plates from each state used in the monument reflects the estimated percentage of that state's population with COPD.]

More: This exhibition kicks off in New York and then hits the road?
MK: It will go to Dallas, Tampa and Los Angeles because those cities' states have the most people with COPD. For instance, California has 2.7 million residents who may have COPD and New York has 1.7 million.

More: How and where are you able to collect so many license plates?
MK: Getting the license plates was an interesting and unique part of this process. I got vintage plates from New York and Hawaii and other states that had many colorful plates. I even discovered organizations that collect license plates, similar to the way people collect stamps. It took a total of six months to collect all of these plates.

More: How long does it take to create a pinwheel?
MK: The pinwheels are six feet across and eight to 14 feet tall. This work was about a year in production, and I had 22 people—structural engineers, architects, artists—who helped put it together. It was a big process.

More: You have a passion for using license plates in many of your pieces. Why license plates? 
MK: They are bold, colorful and symbols people are familiar with. I wanted to create a new medium and I think it is now a significant medium that people enjoy seeing. It is serendipitous, and also ironic, that what I have done for years fit perfectly with this campaign.

More: When did you develop this love for license plates?
MK: I used to play the license plate game when I was a kid because we would take a lot of road trips. License plates also represent Americana and pop culture, two things I love very much. I started accumulating license plates years and years ago.

More: Before hitting the big time, you were once a struggling artist. What was that like?
MK: I was a struggling artist in New York City, if you want to add fuel to the fire. But looking back, there was no better place to be or to learn.

More: Did you ever think you might not make it?
MK: No, and I hope that doesn’t sound overconfident. I also teach my students to find what they are passionate about and do it. There is a great quote that goes, “If you really do what you are passionate about, it is like the world conspires to help you out.” There is no time line as to when the success comes.

More: So this exhibit is personal?
MK: To have this much significance about an important cause we are trying to raise awareness for, well, it's a humbling thing for me.

First Published October 7, 2011

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