Asbury Park’s own iconic artist of icons, the ubiquitous Michael LaVallee, is a humble man whose larger-than-life work is seen all over town, including the boardwalk’s infamous Wooden Walls Project.
Michael who, you ask?
“My mother may be the only person who calls me Michael,” he admits. Most people just call him Porkchop. “My early work featured different stylized pork chops, so it became my ‘tag’ in a way.”
A more appropriate tag these days might be “Michael-Angelo.” LaVallee is a modern Renaissance man in AP’s ongoing resurgence, a man of many talents helping revitalize the town in both literal and figurative ways. Not only can he conceptualize a large wall mural, but, if needed, he can also build the wall.
Formally trained as sculptor, he has benefited from the more practical side of his craft. Sometimes in exchange for living or artist space, the father of three has paid the bills in construction, whether preparing 3-D drawings or taking on the physical work of demolition and renovation.
“I had a painting company for 13 years doing things like faux finishes and Venetian plaster, ” he adds, as well as stints as a tattoo artist and work with fiberglass at a marina. “All those little threads create an ease in how my art gets done today.”
On the day we met, he left to go help with a countertop at a kitchen remodel, but he doesn’t need the side work these days. He is busy as a full-time muralist with a waiting list of large-scale projects all over town—and around the country.
“I do seven or eight large-scale murals a year which take one to two weeks each.” Recent projects include diverse murals on buildings owned by Peter Siegel of Rent Asbury Park, and interior restaurant walls as far away as Atlantic City and New Orleans. “Every time a new mural is finished I have someone else asking me to do something similar for them.”
He comes by it n
It’s easy to see the influences of his upbringing as the youngest of five raised on the North shore of Long Island. “My family is all artistic in some way. I have an aunt who was a painter and my grandfather was an architect. He gave us drawing lessons. Even though I was super young, I stuck with it,” he explains. “I was meant to be an artist.”
He went on to study sculpture at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where he met his (now ex) wife, Caroline. He earned an MFA at Virginia Commonwealth University. “I was already good at figurative work when I went to VCU, they suggested that I steer away from figurative work and try something new, so I did abstract sculptural work while I was there instead. It made me think differently, to try new ways and styles.”
After grad school, the couple moved to Providence, Rhode Island. “It was the hub of jewelry making on the East Coast,” and his wife hoped to make a living as a jewelry artist. “It didn’t pan out. We considered an art college in New Hampshire, and then Caroline suggested we get a winter rental at the shore.” They spent
An opportunity to help with a renovation allowed the couple to save enough to buy a house in Brick for their growing family. “It was during those years that I started drawing and painting again. I kept coming back to Asbury to check out the galleries, and had a place here where I made furniture.” He moved to Asbury full time 10 years ago when he and his wife separated.
His first show was in an upstairs room of the Dublin House in Red Bank. “After that, I started showing at the B Gallery in Asbury Park, where I had a room dedicated to my art. I also was involved at Asbury Art which was operated by my friend Brad Hoffer… as I said, mostly paintings of stylized pork chops.”
He describes his artwork at that time as simplistic. “I could make a lot of art because the painting was fast.”
The two men began collaborating on a monthly show, which expanded outside the gallery walls onto the street. “There was nothing going on in Asbury Park at the time so you could basically do what you wanted. We started exhibiting stuff outside, like making birds to hang in trees.”
That, combined with the work of his home interior painting business, honed his art. “Through that, I taught myself how to paint better, and the simplistic paintings got more involved, especially when it came to figures.” Much of his art during this period explored the female form, especially as it was objectified in early advertising.
Inclusion in a book about erotic art gave him exposure to a wider audience in the United States and Canada, and as far away as Amsterdam. But he shifted his focus again, even as others were questioning why he would buck the trend of his success.
“I get bored, and like to keep it interesting,” he explains. “That’s why I took up my first spray can.” Alley walls in Asbury Park became his favorite canvases. “I knew how to paint, but outside walls are wonky, so I had to learn new techniques.”
He comes by it differently, too
Porkchop, and the Wooden Walls Project by
“There were so many buildings torn down at that time we called Asbury Park ‘The Home of the Dirt Lot.’ There were lots of places to paint graffiti. I was spray painting on a wall in an alleyway one night and basically got caught by the police.”
The arrest, ironically, led to an invitation from Walter Reade, the owner of the Baronet Theatre, to paint murals there. “I painted a woman’s face with sea stuff in her hair and Brad did sea creatures.” The project grew from there.
The next big canvas for the pair was the on the boardwalk. “Madison Marquette gave us permission to paint the interior of the Casino—all of it—and Brad and I split it up into the Asbury
In time, the idea morphed into the Wooden Walls P
Much of that original body of work has been destroyed by the elements, as well as the necessary demolition of buildings in the current redevelopment.
“It’s inevitable that a place on the ocean will get built up,” he muses about the survivability of public art in the revival of a community. “I get it, a corporation needs to make money. But our American culture in general does not really put art at the top of the list of priorities. Other cultures embrace art as essential and not just something for rich people.”
An Evolution of Form
Those “other cultures” include those of the ancient past. While there is no end in sight for the commissioned murals, his other work, featured at the Scope Art Show in Miami this past December, includes “
For Porkchop the focus of the latest installation is less a shift in focus as it is a coming full circle. The work deepens many ideas and influences that have formed his art over the years, and incorporates his skills working with wood, foam and fiberglass. “I’ve always had a fascination with divine creatures, who protect or interfere depending on what kind of person you are.”
“Just as Christianity re-appropriated the pagan traditions of the time, I see religion as evolving through time,” he explains. “People already have a connection to the ancient images I use. I take the same spirit and give it a new context.”
This includes the letters and words incorporated in his work. “I have always loved the way text looks. Originally I used words that people could read, although it was often in a foreign language. Then I decided to make up my own letters. The point is to get people to think about what they think the letters mean.”
It is not lost on Porkchop that his works draw on enduring images, even as he is producing art that is, at its core, intended to be temporary.
“At some point the Wooden Walls will be taken down and auctioned off, or put somewhere else. I‘m not precious about the pieces I’ve done. If people enjoy it for a while, that’s enough. It’s the act of doing it that’s cool for me.”
Porkchop’s work can be seen at Parlor Gallery’s 10th anniversary celebration this Saturday, February 9th, from 7 – 11 pm.
Also of note, Parlor Gallery is about to enter the 4th year of the beloved public art endeavor at the Asbury Park Boardwalk, known as the Wooden Walls Project.
Porkchop’s work will also be on display at The Red Truck Gallery in New Orleans on February 15th and again at Parlor Gallery in May. You can also find Porkchop on Instagram @porktomic, and on Facebook at
*The feature photo at the top of the page was taken from the old Baronet Theatre in Asbury Park.