Purple Art

[June 2 2016]

An interview with B. Thom Stevenson on his joint show “Do You No Me” with the late Outsider artist Mary T. Smith at Shrine Gallery, New York

“Do You No Me”, at Shrine Gallery in New York’s Chinatown, is a paired show featuring paintings by contemporary artist B. Thom Stevenson and the late Outsider artist Mary T. Smith. Scott Ogden, the gallery’s owner chose the two based not only off of their visual similarities, but also because of correspondences within their practices. Mary T. Smith who was born in Mississippi in the early 1900’s had a life-long, deteriorating hearing disability, which in turn impaired her capacity to verbally express herself. Her artwork became her means of communication through which she filtered the people and things she saw around her. Similarly, B. Thom Stevenson reworks the imagery and language from the books and films he’s grown up with and reimagines them in his work.

PAIGE SILVERIA — Where did you get these telephone polls?

B. THOM STEVENSON — From my Father-in-laws farm. They were under these pine trees in the back yard. He uses them around the property to make fence posts and to level off the field after he’s plowed it. I get a lot of material from my home town. It’s hard to find telephone polls in New York City. Most of them are metal.

PAIGE SILVERIA — Where are you from?

B. THOM STEVENSON — I grew up in a very rural town in central Massachusetts, and I come from a big family. I was a farm kid and would pick stones, bail hay, trim pumpkins. We always had a dog and birds. There’s definitely added personalities with the animals. My Mom is an amazing craft artist, and my Aunt was more formally trained. One of our bigger crops were pumpkins, and my aunt would paint signs to advertise. I use the same paint she did. There were all of these tin, and wood materials that she would paint on. It’s where I get this idea of using basic materials.

PAIGE SILVERIA — Like this corrugated metal?

B. THOM STEVENSON—  I went on my honeymoon in the Bahamas, and this guy was painting Bob Marley portraits on corrugated metal. And it just really hit me pretty hard. I had all these vivid memories of my grandfathers corrugated metal shed, where he kept his pigs, hay for the cows, a rusty old tractor, and this big hand painted pumpkin sign during the off season. So I came back and it’s really difficult to find corrugated metal in New York.

PAIGE SILVERIA — There’s a lot of it here, covering up the whole wall. Transporting it must have been a pretty big endeavor.

B. THOM STEVENSON— Just getting this metal was the fucking hardest part. My wife and I picked it up at like six in the morning in a Zip Van. It was all coated in this oil to prevent rusting. Once we had it back at my studio we realized it wouldn’t fit up the staircase; the material is 12-feet tall. So we brought all of the dish soap and industrial degreaser, big scrub brushes, folding tables and paint and sprayers that we were going to use to clean it down the four flights of stairs, outside of my studio and onto the sidewalk . We did two layers of paint, and then brought it to the gallery to do a final coat.

SCOTT OGDEN — Yeah and no one really even notices it.

PAIGE SILVERIA — How did the pairing with Mary T. come about? Your work has so many similarities, but she’s such an obscure artist.

SCOTT OGDEN — I was speaking with B. Thom about showing his work, but he wasn’t ready for a solo exhibit at the time. Instantly the work of Mary Smith came to mind. Just something about the way that both artists had the same economy of color and lines. She would go down to the dump by her house and pull out tires and old metal and take an ax to it. You can still see the ax cuts in her pieces. What’s also funny about the work of both of them is that she’s definitely painting herself and people in her small town of Mississippi. She painted what she saw. Same thing with B. Thom, he grabs images from things he’s been attracted to or come across. Just responding to what’s around him.

B. THOM STEVENSON — I paint what I see. I’ll do a drawing and then I’ll put it through these filters.

PAIGE SILVERIA — What filters?

B. THOM STEVENSON — I’ll Xerox the drawing, print it, then sometimes I’ll put it through a vinyl cutter, and then photograph that and then reprint it. Destroying the image. Picasso would paint still-life studio images. Most of his work was painted from life. With all of this digital and physical content in this insane world we live in, on top of living in New York City with iPhones and Instagram, you see so much. A huge challenge, but an exciting one, is sifting through this information and digesting it.

PAIGE SILVERIA — Where else do you generally pull imagery and ideas from? Books, the Internet?

B. THOM STEVENSON — Most of the time I have an idea when I’m in the shower. In New York City, that’s the only time you’re fucking alone. When I’m alone, my brain goes to obscure places of memory, and draws abstract connections. I will start searching for books pertaining to the type of image memory I am craving. I usually find some of the best books from Housing Works. That place is amazing, it’s like a treasure trove. People donate their books there to get a tax write-off. Once I find something in a book, I’ll research it deeper on the Net, but I don’t have the same connection with things I find initially on the Internet.

PAIGE SILVERIA — What are some other parallels that you’ve found between your work and Mary’s?

B. THOM STEVENSON — What’s so beautiful about Mary’s paintings is the impulsiveness of the paintings. It looks like she painted fast. I try to make it look like I painted fast. I will paint something over and over in order to familiarize myself with the form, and paint it fast enough to give it that feeling. I try to paint as fast as I can to give it a spontaneity to communicate passion.

SCOTT ODGEN — Your work is more sourced and refined. There’s a certain looseness that I love about self-taught art like Mary’s. It’s not over-thought; it’s someone letting go. She can’t help herself. She’s just deeply committed to making work. Some artists destroy a piece by overworking it.

B. THOM STEVENSON — I always did illustration, not painting. I’m not saying that I’m self-taught; I went to school for art, but I was taught art as a sort of informative tool. As a tool of communication. I had the option of studying painting, but I chose illustration. I wanted to get better at drawing. I think if you lined up all of Mary T’s paintings, you’d be able to figure out her language. That’s kind of what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to develop the language within my work. I pull up other images; the angels, if it doesn’t have text in the painting, I’ll name it after someone. And I say angels, but they’re just this shape that I say is the angel to make it easier to talk about. They’re loaded graphic images. With these paintings, I think of them as drawings. I draw better with a paintbrush.

PAIGE SILVERIA — A lot of the language in your work and Mary’s is indiscernible.

B. THOM STEVENSON —  A lot of my text is from film covers and titles. Like this is from a Japanese-translated version of an American movie called “Dinosaurs.” So I have an Angel here and it says “Dinosaurs” underneath. It’s sort of a paradigm or archetype. And I’m pulling snippets out of bigger ideas: a title of a film, which is also just a word and represents other things.

PAIGE SILVERIA — Where does the title of the show come from?

SCOTT OGDEN — It’s based off of one of Mary’s paintings. There’s this whole history, that Mary was a part of, where southern African American individuals decorated their yards; they call it a yard show. It’s a centuries-old practice. Back in the days just after slavery, before they could openly speak about certain things, this community would use symbols and imagery in their yards that would be recognizable to one another so they could interact without having to actually say out loud, “Don’t go to that house.”

B. THOM STEVENSON —I think it’s also the human condition; it’s instinctual to create and to want to show what you created. To pose the question to the universe, “Do you understand me?” Someone asked me what I would do if I wasn’t an artist. That’s just not an applicable question. How can you define that? Growing up, all of the families in my Grandmother’s area would get pumpkins from her house. And there would be all of these signs up for the pumpkins that my Aunt painted. It was similar to the yard shows, but more functional. Most artists I think create this abstract functionality. My other Grandmother trained me when I was really young to look for yard-sale signs. So I have this giddy excitement instilled in me when I see signs on telephone polls. And that’s kind of what Mary T. was doing, putting up signs. Abstract functionality. I think Mary had this abstract, spiritual, and functional practice.

PAIGE SILVERIA — Plus she was hard of hearing very early in her life, which progressively got worse. As it affected the clarity of her speech, art was a way for her to liaise nonverbally.

B. THOM STEVENSON — Sometimes I get this blockage. I get so excited, but have a hard time communicating it.

SCOTT OGDEN — Anyone on that highway that went past her house would see her signs. There was a certain proud confidence of wanting to put it on display. She’s very public, “Look at this!”

B. THOM STEVENSON — And very graphic too. Designed to be seen from a distance, which is what I’m trying to do too. These signs are from movies. This one is a movie called “Alligator” and it’s about dogs that were being genetically tested on, and the alligator was eating the dog carcasses. And out of it grew a giant alligator.

PAIGE SILVERIA — I hated scary movies as a kid. I never got the appeal.

B. THOM STEVENSON — That’s all I ever watched. There’s this one “Tales from the Crypt” with Danny DeVito who plays a con man who pretends he has a twin, in order to seduce twin heiresses. And they find out and cut him in half. I remember watching as a little kid and feeling like i was getting cut in half. Just thinking about it so hard that I felt it. I love horror for that. It’s such a simple idea. Empathy. It can be appreciated on it’s basic level with out the added intellectual jargon on top.

PAIGE SILVERIA — That idea of simplicity can definitely be seen in your work. Tell me more about the influence of your upbringing.

B. THOM STEVENSON — Well, this image is from a quilt. One of my Grandmothers made quilts, and I’ve been really thinking about them a lot lately. While painting them, I’m just trying to digest the idea of the memory, and think about my Grandmother.

SCOTT OGDEN — You really transform it way out of that.

B. THOM STEVENSON — Yeah I make these applicable to my life now. But this is like a Baltimore quilt, a storytelling block print. People would make quilts out of necessity, and often times more than one person would work on each one, so the artist’s name becomes separated from the work and the work from it’s area of origin. A way to track where each quilt is from is by analyzing the material, the pattern, etc. Usually these women would pull the patterns from the newspaper and there would be a new one each week, so they could see where the artist was living based on which pattern was circulating in that area. I’ve just been really getting into the quilt thing and trying to bring it through my own work. I mix in imagery that was a very big part of my life growing up. Like Stephen King was my Walt Disney. It’s kind of this fucked-up comfort thing.

PAIGE SILVERIA — So what is it exactly that you’re trying to say with your work?

B. THOM STEVENSON — I am trying to say different things depending on the specific work, but in general I am trying to communicate big abstract ideas or philosophical concerns using nostalgic triggers from my own past experiences. I am exploring words as imagery and images as communication tools.

On view until June 12th, 2016 at Shrine191 Henry St, New York.


Text and photo Paige Silveria

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