Painter adorns Asheville businesses with unusual yuletide scenes

RAISE A GLASS: Asheville artist Austen Mikulka infuses his window art with darker, more sobering themes than those typically associated with the holiday season. Photo courtesy of Mikulka

Forget tinsel and popcorn garland. Longtime window painter Austen Mikulka is decorating this holiday season, and he’s decking Asheville’s shops with nontraditional trimmings.

“I like for there to be an element of creepiness to my artwork,” says Mikulka. Though a muralist, graphic designer and even dog portraitist, Mikulka is best-known for his window paintings — bold, eyebrow-raising scenes that substitute St. Nick with hooved beasts and Christmas helpers with drunken elves. “It’s a little twisted,” he admits, describing his style as a cross between the inky, Edwardian-inspired drawings of Edward Gorey and the kitsch figurines of Jim Shore.

That quirkiness resonates with Western North Carolina business owners. Mikulka painted his first window in the early 2000s when he was working in Sylva at a restaurant called Meatballs. Wanting to spruce up the eatery’s picture window, Mikulka designed a pizza-meets-Halloween scene. “I remember seeing these big paintings growing up,” he says. “I wanted to go beyond reindeer and snowmen.”

After moving to Asheville in 2013, he started snagging eight to 10 commissions per year, with most going up between Halloween and New Year’s Eve. At Christmastime especially, clients hand over the creative reins, requesting a look that evokes the yuletide spirit without reproducing tired holiday motifs. The result, in Mikulka’s hands, is like something out of a fever dream (or, arguably, a nightmare). The storefront at Orbit DVD on Haywood Road, for instance, depicts a kid in pajamas watching television. But behind the youngster lurks a “creepy guy with antlers,” says Mikulka. Exactly who or what the creature is has been left up for interpretation, though it’s definitely not Rudolph.

Other scenes include yetis downing hoppy porters and devils skipping with lanterns. At Diamond Thieves Piercing and Tattoo, a grizzled skeleton even dons a big, red Santa Claus costume. “I want each piece to feel like you just opened a children’s book up to a random page — like the story is continuing elsewhere,” says Mikulka. “There’s some fluidity and movement to it.”

That’s not to say his art is pleasing to all audiences.

“A feed went up on WAX one time,” he says, referring to the West Asheville Exchange Facebook page, “and they were complaining that one of my holiday windows was inappropriate because it showed people drinking beer and smoking pipes.”

Mikulka pauses and then laughs. “I was like, ‘Well, the painting was for a bar, dude.’”

WAX also hosted a debate back in 2014, when Mikulka painted a woman crawling on all fours on the side of Orbit DVD. Opponents argued the mural objectified women, and the contention soon stole local news headlines.

“It was totally innocent,” says Mikulka, noting that the woman had to be on all fours to fit the wall’s dimensions. “But that’s where I got my street cred.”

He’s now known for his gritty, provocative style. Though it’s evident that his work comes from a softer, more heartfelt place.

“It’s a very public art, right? When I’m painting, people come by and tell me, ‘Good work,’ or that I’m doing a great job. The best thing is when kids come by and watch,” says Mikulka. “I love that.”

For more information, contact Austen Mikulka at austenmikulka@yahoo.com or 828-989-9847.

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About Lauren Stepp
Lauren Stepp is an award-winning writer with bylines here in these mountains and out yonder, too.

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