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Longtime Arizona artist Michael 23 leaves a legacy of friendship and energy

By Nick Sanchez
Published: Thursday, June 15, 2023 - 11:15am
Updated: Friday, June 16, 2023 - 7:32am

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Michael 23 holding a camera.
Lob Instagon
Michael 23 holding a camera.

Last week, Arizona lost a unique member of our state’s arts community. Artist and gallery owner Michael 23 posted to Facebook that he was in the hospital after collapsing at work. A few hours later, his wife, Joanna, announced that he had died. 

Michael 23 founded art galleries Thought Crime and the Firehouse Gallery, and most recently owned Miami Art Works in Miami, Arizona. His spaces were known to bring Arizona artists together, providing a place to create and exchange ideas.

Amy Young was involved in the Phoenix arts community for decades. She first met Michael 23 in the early ’90s. He immediately gave her a big hug — then draped a ball python around her neck. Young says Michael 23 was a selfless artist who wanted to elevate the work of others

Michael 23 running.
Sergio Lepore
Michael 23 running.

“If there was a living example of the phrase subverting the dominant paradigm, that was Michael,” Young said. “He wanted people to be able to take away some of the obstacles that make it tough sometimes for people to have the money or the time to work on their creative projects or work and have what they need. Those passions of affordable living spaces, spaces for conversation and performance and more exploration and creativity. He combined all of those elements of friendship and helping you kind of pursue your dreams and passions. It was all part of the same picture for him.”

Young describes Michael 23’s style as diverse. He worked in all kinds of media — building a giant UFO out of trash bags, mummifying fellow artists in fabric and duct tape — and once he even buried himself alive behind the Firehouse gallery. 

“In his own artwork, it was like reflections of digging into art and music and literature and concepts, and ideas and conversation and words and language to build something artistic, and then fueling and creating more artistic energy. So he’s making art in the way that it would reach and affect other people,” she said.

Young says the thing she will remember most about Michael 23 is how genuine he was as a friend and fellow artist. 

People at Michael 23
Lob Instagon
People at Michael 23's gravesite.

“We could be working on a project or working on something community-oriented, and maybe sometimes butt heads, maybe sometimes be passionately on the same page. But there was never a time even in any of that where he was not being 100% true to who he was, and where you would never make eye contact and not see these beautiful, smiling eyes because he just cared about everyone’s different ideas and thoughts and perspectives. Beyond all that, life is crazy and chaotic and silly, and there’s room for everybody. He wanted to make room for everybody,” Young said.

Michael 23 died last week at the age of 53.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The story has been updated to correctly attribute photos to Lob Instagon.

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