Cultural mogul Jerry Powers turns to a new medium: Art

Miami media mogul Jerry Powers at his home on Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2014.
Miami media mogul Jerry Powers at his home on Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2014. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Jerry Powers, the Miami media mogul best known as the founder and former publisher of glossy Ocean Drive Magazine, is funneling his peripatetic energy into a whole new medium: art.

Dipping his brush into bright, primary colors, he paints at his home studio from personal memories of interactions with celebrities and depictions of local historic landmarks. His artistic style borrows from the streets, a la Banksy.

It’s a tricky money-making endeavor for the self-professed risk taker. Though Powers has never taken a formal art class, he said he is drawing on valuable lessons he learned when he served, decades ago, as a part-time assistant to Andy Warhol and even briefly, Salvador Dalí.

“I love it more than anything I have ever done before,” said Powers, 67, jumping around his studio in artful Alite sneakers, alongside the paintings he dubs “Neo-pop expressionalism.”

His not-so-modest goal is to eventually have his paintings fetch $1 million, each. “The odds of this making it a success are a billion to one,” he said. “But I’m going for it.”

Soon, Powers’ artwork will debut in the CONTEXT section of Art Miami during Miami Art Week, in Swampspace exhibit space. One of his works was selected as Art Miami’s official 25th anniversary commemorative painting and will be auctioned at the fair’s VIP Opening Reception in Midtown Miami on Dec. 2. All proceeds will benefit People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

“The painting is definitely reflective, with a positive energy, of commemorating the fair in its 25th edition,” said Nick Korniloff, partner and director of Art Miami. “And Jerry is the perfect person to do that because he represents Miami so well.”

Painting is the latest in a string of largely successful careers for Powers, who started writing for newspapers while still in high school in New Jersey. During college at what was then Dade County Junior College — now Miami Dade College, Powers convinced radio station owner Allan Margolis to let him convert WGOS-FM, a country station, to a rock format, later dubbed LOVE94, and split the revenues from the sale of commercials. In his 20s, he started the Daily Planet, an underground newspaper in Miami — a venture that led to a two-day stay in a Coral Gables jail after he was arrested for selling obscene literature at the University of Miami (The conviction eventually was overturned on appeal).

His next career stint began when Jerry Weintraub — who later produced The Karate Kid and Ocean’s Eleven — asked him to help co-produce concerts in South Florida, and then the Southeast. On stage were stars such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Who and even Elvis Presley.

In 1972, after the birth of daughter Jacquelynn, Powers and his family moved to New York, where he worked in marketing and public relations for Warner Bros. in its paperback division. But he took a few years off in the mid-70s to work with Warhol and pop artist Peter Max, assisting with everything from business ideas to washing paint brushes. Then he got a call to do the same for Dalí and flew to Spain for a couple of weeks to work alongside the mustachioed surrealist. In that same era, he also was the personal manager for singer Jeffrey Osborne, and helped produce two hit singles, Love Ballad and On the Wings of Love.

In 1991, Powers returned to Miami with the idea of launching a local glossy magazine “that no one had done before.” Investing $27,000 of his own money, he rented space in South Beach in a building owned by the late developer Tony Goldman, hired three people and started Ocean Drive Magazine.

The first three covers carried photos of supermodels Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington. Ad sales, projected at $300,000, topped $1 million the first year, he says. By its third year, the magazine had moved to larger space and expanded to 90 staff members. In later years, Powers licensed the Ocean Drive name to additional magazines in London, Toronto and six cities in Latin America.

Powers sold Ocean Drive Magazine for $30 million in 2007, he says, and began frittering away most of his fortune, buying a home in St. Barts he has since sold at a loss; gambling at casinos and flying on private planes.

Powers also embarked on what he considers his singular failure among all his careers. He took on the job of chief executive of cable network Plum TV, with the mission of bringing the struggling network back to life. But it ran out of money, and in 2011 he resigned, just before Plum filed for bankruptcy protection.

After spending more than two years blaming others for the debacle, he said he has finally accepted responsibility. “I took on something I shouldn’t have taken on at the time,” he said. “I went from being a magazine publisher to being the CEO of a TV network. I wasn’t qualified to be the CEO title.”

Yet he sees the positive aspect: It led him to what he is doing now.

“Now I am devoted to being an artist,” he said. “I’ve eliminated almost everything in my life so I can paint. I want to make this happen.”

Inside his Miami Beach home, Powers and his wife Sandi have converted their former home-gym into his art studio. There, easels share space with a table full of colorful acrylic paints. Fresh paintings hang on the walls, adorn the fireplace and are stacked along a wall.

In the several months since the impulse suddenly hit Powers to paint, he has completed 25 works. Most nights, he paints from about 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. He has so far sold two paintings to a neighbor who was walking his dog and saw him working through the picture window in his studio. Currently, prices start at $5,000 per painting.

It’s not a hobby. “I’m going to make a zillion dollars doing it. I’m going to be No. 1 at it like everything else, and I’m going to love it,” he said.

Powers’ artwork, marked by bold colors and often abstract figures, largely depicts his memories, sometimes linked to celebrities. Incorporating Xeroxed photos, he created a painting of Larry King’s mug shot, from a 1971 grand larceny arrest (King was never prosecuted, according to CNN’s website). Yet another painting shows Dennis Rodman with Powers painted out alongside him; and another features mug shots of the late Doors lead singer Jim Morrison, who was a friend. Powers often takes photos with his iPhone or finds photos online and Xeroxes them repeatedly, then transfers them to a canvas, before painting over and around them.

“If the rule book says lines have to be straight, mine are crooked,” quips Powers. His own collection includes works by Warhol, Kenny Scharf and Roy Lichtenstein.

After the showing at Art Miami, Powers’ first solo show will be Jan. 15-25 at Swampspace in the Miami Design District. “He’s in a very gestative stage for an artist, but it’s never too soon or too late to explore someone’s creative urges,” said Oliver Sanchez, founder of Swampspace.

“I don’t think anybody questions his eye or his creative ability, and his ability to understand what the trends are,” said Korniloff, of Art Miami. “And he really lives in the moment — he is what I like to call a real- time guy.”

Related stories from Miami Herald