To the Max: Iconic painter Peter Max visits Hilton Head Island

Most mornings, the artist Peter Max will travel to his studio just a few blocks from Central Park in New York City. He has an in-studio deejay who play his favorite music, anything from Chick Corea to The Beatles. He'll open the lid of the case that contains 70-some paints, dip in a brush and touch it to the canvas.

"I don't know where I'm going. It's like a pianist composing music. He'll play a note or two and before he knows it he has a song," he said.

The name Peter Max became synonymous with psychedelic art in the 1960s. His work became so ubiquitous that it would be seen on phone books, stamps, posters. He's an icon, but hasn't settled into icon status. He still paints most days. He travels most weekends out of the year. He still holds exhibits, such as the one that runs through April 29 at the Karis Art Gallery on Hilton Head Island.

"It's my work; it's my life," he said. "It's what I've always done. I'm happy that I can live a creative life."

Max's family fled Nazi Germany and settled in Shanghai, China. His early childhood memories are of the monks next door painting Chinese characters on rice sheets, colorful parades with gigantic paper dragons, trips to the market to buy American comic books and visits to the cinema to see American musicals.

His parents nurtured his artistic side during his childhood. His mother would lay out art supplies around their pagoda house and tell him to start painting -- don't worry about the mess.

After several moves, his family settled in Brooklyn, his dream of coming to the United States finally coming true. Once in America, he started formal art training in Manhattan, initially focusing on realism. He started a small arts studio with friends and started doing advertising work. Inspired by the counter-cultural movement, Max's work started to move more into psychedelia. He capitalized on new developments in print making and turned his original art into vibrant, colorful posters.

"Colors are beautiful, like music is beautiful," he said. "We love sunsets; we love flowers. It's just very attractive to the eyes."

By the late '60s, his work had become mainstream, like the counter-culture itself. He had become a rock star in the art world. He appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and the Tonight Show. His face adorned a cover of Life magazine with the headline "Portrait of the artist as a very rich man."

Max licensed his work to corporations, showing up on everything from socks to clocks. He helped spearhead the restoration of the Statue of Liberty with portraits of the American icon. He's painted on the White House lawn and has been the official artist of the Super Bowl, Grammy Awards and the World Cup. He figures he's painted about 150 celebrities, most recently a portrait of singer Taylor Swift that he presented to her.

He's 74 years old now, but doesn't have plans anytime soon to slip into a leisurely retirement. "I feel like I'm 42 years old," he said. "I feel like I'm in good shape."

And he'll do exactly like he did when he first started painting as a boy in China: Wake up, take a brush, find paint and start creating.