St.Pete artist Bask decorates for Iron Man 3's The Mandarin

How the work of a local artist wound up in the super sequel — and in the collection of Robert Downey, Jr.

Last summer, St. Pete-based artist Bask — aka, Ales Hostomsky — started getting emails from a friend he hadn’t heard from in years, the former owner of a Detroit gallery gone bust who had moved to LA to work in films. When he read that she needed some street art as a scenic backdrop, his initial reaction was to get back to her later and maybe refer her to another artist.

“In the back of my head, I’m just thinking they want some graffiti,” Bask says. “Finally, the [next] email I get from her is like, ‘Hey, the movie I’m working on is Iron Man 3, and Robert Downey, Jr. wants your work in the movie.”

That message got his attention.

“I started tripping over myself to get to the phone,” Bask says.

Within a week, Bask had finished what might have gone down in his personal history as the coolest commission he’d ever landed — a re-creation of his 2004 painting “When It Rains, It Pours,” in which a gigantic bomb plummets toward the Morton Salt Girl — for the laboratory of Tony Stark, the fictional protagonist of the Iron Man films. Except this wasn’t the only painting Iron Man wanted from Bask. By summer’s end he had completed another 13 canvases to decorate the lair of the Mandarin, Stark’s media-manipulating arch-rival (played by Ben Kingsley), traveled to Miami to work on the film set, and even recorded a conversation with Downey as DVD bonus material.

But like most movie-goers, Bask will be seeing the finished Iron Man 3 for the first time after its debut on Friday, and he doesn’t know exactly what to expect.

“As far as what the end result will be, I’ll be just as surprised as anyone else,” Bask says. “The big cosmic gag will be if the film comes out and I’m on the cutting room floor.”

Whether his paintings flash on screen for an instant or play a substantial supporting role, their appearance in the film represents a momentous point along one hell of a journey for the artist. Over beers at Tampa Bay Brewing Company last week, Bask recalled how his family wound up in St. Petersburg after escaping illegally from communist Czech Republic in the 1980s via an Austrian refugee camp. At Dixie Hollins High School, Bask says, he became a young delinquent who cut classes to shoplift and whose exposure to “high art” came from being assigned to perform community service at the Salvador Dalí Museum. By the time he was 19 and had seen friends get shot, Bask wanted a way out and knew that art might be the way.

He took his interest in graffiti, fueled by a growing friendship with Tes One, who remains one of his closest collaborators, and merged it with what he saw happening in St. Pete’s energetic art scene. Gallery exhibitions of painters like James Michaels and David Williams (who in turn might remind viewers of James Rosenquist or Robert Rauschenberg) introduced him to pop art and abstraction’s drips and dribbles. By his early 20s, Bask was selling his own paintings through local galleries and, with what he calls youthful audacity today, promoting himself to other markets in Prague, Berlin, London and throughout the States, including Detroit, where he moved in 2000 and lived for four years before returning to St. Pete.

Now 35, Bask takes the brush with fame implied by the Iron Man experience with a huge grain of salt.

“It’s been a crazy ride. My art has taken me to a lot of amazing cities, and I’ve done a lot of great projects. There were a lot of times when you feel like you’re about to make it, to crossover or get that gig that’s going to be the one — and then it falls through or it doesn’t happen like that,” Bask says. “In my line of work, that happens more often than not.”

When the Iron Man crew called last year, their offer seemed almost too good to be true. After the Morton Salt Girl remake, they wanted 13 more paintings from Bask to adorn the Mandarin’s hideout, staged inside a mansion on South Beach: seven recreations of past paintings chosen from Bask’s online gallery, three paintings based on the film’s graphics (provided by the production team), and three original new works of Bask’s making from concept to execution. Without much finagling, Bask’s trademark style — a raw, politically-minded fusion of gleeful Americana with symbols of destruction and painterly texture — seemed to fit Iron Man’s vibe.

“Nobody ever edited me, nobody said no. They just wound me up and let me go. Later I found out it was because of [Robert Downey, Jr.’s] endorsement,” Bask says. The Detroit friend, it turned out, had shared images of Bask’s art that garnered him the star’s support.

After holing up in his Largo studio for a month to produce the paintings with assistance from artists John and Paul Vitale and Nikolas Kekllas, Bask travelled to Miami to help finish the set. Later, a second call brought him back down to Miami to meet Downey, who snagged the Morton Salt Girl painting as a souvenir and purchased a 16-ft-long painting that Bask and Tes One made together several years ago (based on a mural they painted on the exterior of the old Tampa Museum of Art before its demolition) for his personal collection.

“I’m a comic book nerd, I grew up on comic books. If somebody had told me when I was 13 years old that in my 30s I’d be working on a major Hollywood picture, working with these huge stars, and just being part of this project — it would have blown my mind,” Bask says. “Gotta check that off the bucket list.”

Read CL’s review of Iron Man 3 here.

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