Breaking it Down: America was poised for a burnout

“I’m honestly glad for the break,” said one restaurant owner when I recently interviewed him about the effects of social distancing on his business. “I’ve been going full-out for so long, having a forced vacation is kind of nice.” Even if it’s the universe forcing it on you? “I’m sure I’ll feel different soon, but for a few days, yes.”

“I’m relieved to not have to go out, honestly,” another recent interviewee, who suffers from social anxiety. “I needed a break.”

Although the changes the coronavirus may wreak on society, the economy and just plain old reality can definitely be stressful, it is possible that many Americans are embracing quarantine and self-quarantine because they just needed a break.

Americans are known for a work ethic that far exceeds most other developed nations. We work more days a year. We have institutionalized expectations of two weeks of vacation a year, compared to six in most European countries. We put in more hours per week. If you have a hobby and you live in any other given Western country, you pursue it for fun and gratification, spend some money on it and perhaps share it with your friends. If you have a hobby and live in the US, people have almost certainly suggested you monetize it – on the side, or as a future career (kudos if you’ve resisted that pressure). “Ooh, those things you make are awesome, you should sell them on eBay!”

As a nation, far too many of us were waiting for a chance to take a breather. No one wants an indefinite breather, of course, but a little quarantine may be good for our collective soul and reveal just how burned out the current economic system – now due for a serious overhaul of undetermined proportions anyway – has made all of us. The wealth gap isn’t something most of us have much time to really consider, because we’ve all been kept too busy working. A communal stop could be the sort of thoughtful pause we need; and the wide-ranging anticipated negative side effects, especially for the poorest in our society, might combine to incite a reconsideration of the lifestyle we have collectively adopted over the last couple of generations.

“I finally got to spend some time with my kids.” “I had a basement full of fun projects I just got to dig into for the first time in years.” These comments and others show that there was an imbalance waiting to be corrected, and maybe the force of necessity, like a bloodless societal revolution, will prove the instigation for a reconsideration of our core values and life choices as an economic society.

Coronatine?: I blame zombie movies

The Corona virus is a real bug, and social distancing absolutely makes sense as a method to slow the spread, buying time for the medical infrastructure to prepare supplies, treatments and tests, and to not be overwhelmed with a surge of patients any greater than absolutely necessary.

But the way complete and total isolation has been embraced, in many cases with disregard to common sense – the way so many people seem to think that any exposure could lead to certain death – the speed with which people have come to understand how to quarantine and embraced it as a survival technique. For all of that I blame zombie movies.

Zombies were still a niche part of pop culture when the movie Outbreak soared to germ-borne fame around the time of the ebola scare. Since then, TV phenoms like “The Walking Dead,” and top grossing movies like World War Z, 28 Days Later and Resident Evil have permeated everyone’s awareness.

In zombie movies, if you get bit, you’re done. It may take a scene or two, but you always turn. Seeing this play out time after time – seeing the heroes who survive by not getting bitten, at least for a while, and playing the game of “I would totally have survived, because I would have not done that stupid thing, or would have wrapped every inch of myself in duct tape, or whatever” has all prepared us to jump right in to the idea of pandemic protection. Social isolation? Learned it from Will Smith (or Vincent Price, for you older folks). Avoiding strangers? A Quiet Place has important lessons. Scavenging for toilet paper? Study the second or third season of “The Walking Dead.”

So, if your friends are treating coronatine as if having your healthy, uninfected self come over for a visit should be handled through a clean-wipes-encased door chain, blame George Romero. And if you think that our collective attention to hygiene will save the world, well, thank the collective auteurs of all those bloody, jaw-snapping corpses.

Angélique Kidjo Raises Voices in the Light: The artist reimagines The Talking Heads’ album at The Vets

African pop star, international world-music sensation and 2020 Grammy winner Angélique Kidjo is returning to Providence on Saturday (Feb 22) to perform her reimagining of Remain in the Light, the landmark album by RI-conceived band The Talking Heads.

Kidjo has visited Providence before, performing in Kennedy Plaza as part of a FirstWorks event that was a precursor to PVDFest back in 2015. “People were transfixed,” said Kathleen Pletcher, executive artistic director of FirstWorks. “She makes everyone want to be dancing.” Kidjo has also performed at the Newport Jazz Festival in the past.

Remain in the Light, was selected because of the lyrics and themes of the songs on the album, and also because some of its more afrobeat notes hearken back to musical styles typical in Africa. The songs allow Kidjo to weave together content about gentrification and social control, modernization and the struggle around beauty standards with musical evolutions that mirror those themes. Although the album is from 1980, the themes are at least as relevant today. Hits being reinterpreted include “Once in a Lifetime” and “Houses in Motion.”

Kidjo is also well known as an activist, with a focus on women’s advocacy and girls’ education around the world. She conducted an educational talk back as part of FirstWorks’ “Raise Your Voice” series, in partnership with Classical High School, on Friday, Feb 21. The talk, and the entire series, are aimed at combining education and the arts, “Using the arts to amplify different perspectives and voices that aren’t always heard, and bring them to the fore.” Pletcher says, “The educational element has become the beating heart that is so important to FirstWorks – reaching over 5,000 students with a curriculum that uses the arts as a different way into subjects, topics and academics, providing a gateway to help launch classroom learning.”

Kidjo is especially known for the engagement level of her live performances. “An album is like having a business card,” she told Pletcher, “but what happens on stage is what I love.” “That’s her through and through. As electric as she is on stage, her voice literally and powerfully tells her story – she’s doing far more than singing other people’s songs. “The shared sense of community that happens with people in an audience can foster further conversation around some of these bigger issues,” says Pletcher, explaining the larger goals behind both Kidjo’s work and the series of FirstWorks performances.

Kidjo is the recipient of the prestigious 2015 Crystal Award given by the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and the 2016 Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience Award. She has performed with several international orchestras and symphonies including the Bruckner Orchestra, The Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and the Philharmonie de Paris. Her live show was captured at the revered Austin City Limits and made its television debut in January 2016.  

Other upcoming FirstWorks artists, seeking to entertain but also strike conversation on a much deeper level, include Haitian artist Daniel Bernard Roumain, who will give a talk back about redemptions songs over Haitian food at RISD’s ProvWash auditorium on February 26 at 7pm, as prelude to his violin concert at the Unitarian Church in Providence on February 29 at 6pm, where he will perform with six local powerhouse musicians. With a presentation on the March 25 at Providence College and a conversation at RISD on March 28, Miwa Matreyek, whose mixed media video art “Infinitely Yours,” is part of the Earth First series on environmental justice and “Enters your mind in a whole different way,” according to Pletcher.

Angélique Kidjo’s “Remain in Light,” takes place on Sat, Feb 22 at 8pm. The VETS, 1 Avenue of the Arts, PVD. More info at first-works.org

Rhody Rambles: Happenings About Town: Openings, anniversaries and we got our comic on

Bites by Bre had a brelightful debut in October. The new eatery sports a cozy but eclectic style, featuring solid, classic furniture, rounded walls and curvy nooks, and the sharp details of its new, full renovation. Those who sampled the culinary tidbits and triumphs presented at The Olive Tap in Wayland Square back in the day will be especially pleased to know that this new location’s origin story springs from those Olive Tap evenings, where the food was prepared by Bre Goldsmith. Only now, she is free from the constraint of using olive oil in everything, opening wide new culinary vistas. The new restaurant had a full open house on Friday, November 1 that featured eclectic small bites and kitchen tours. It will be open every Friday, by reservation only, with a pre-fixe menu made to fit those who’ve booked their seatings in advance. Go to bitesbybre.com for more info on each week’s meal.

Skye Gallery opened their first national show with work from around the country to the theme of Redemption. The work explores how society can return from the brink and cope with misdeeds past and present. Heavy with societal commentary, the gallery has included artist talks and spoken word performances (Hello, Mr. Orange!) to augment the art. Featured artist Kamal Al Mansour came in from San Jose for one artist talk. See story at motifri.com/redemption

SENE, the film, music and arts festival, celebrated a recent fundraiser at RI Spirits in Pawtucket, part of the distillery’s series toasting — and contributing to — local non-profits. Festivities included raffles and sneak previews of some films anticipated for 2020, when all films are expected to be extra sharp.

RI Community Radio celebrated its one-year anniversary, with a full day of original programming, including some by regular Motif contributors Rudy Cheeks and Bill Bartholomew. The celebration was at Fortnight Wine Bar where the wine and tunes flowed in harmony.

Photo by Gina Mastrostefano

The biggest recent event in Li’l Rhody (which included the release of comics named Li’l Rhody and Rhode Warrior) was RI Comic Con. This year, celebrity panels all took place in the Omni Hotel, and streamlined scanning in and out plus ever-evolving crowd control seems to have removed many of the worst traffic bottlenecks at past iterations of the event. William Shatner, who managed to break RI Comic Con three years ago, held a Q&A panel that didn’t break anything. His entertaining presentation allowed only a few questions, from which he riffed off into descriptions of motorcycle journeys and whale song recordings delivered with impeccable Shatnerian diction. Nichelle Nichols and George Takei extended the Star Trek nostalgia trip with their own presentations, and Takei took the opportunity to discuss his new graphic novel and his childhood in internment camps, and to make an exclusive announcement (unless you count his previous announcements on the topic) of support for Pete Buttigieg in pursuing the Democratic presidential nomination. 

Chevy Chase (who has amazingly never come closer to a sci-fi, fantasy or superhero film than his little-watched romp with Daryl Hannah as an invisible man back in 1992) headlined the event, along with the pleasantly spry vintage Trekers. Other highlights included panels dedicated to “Stranger Things” (which sold out and was closed to the press) and Harry Potter (also sold out and closed to the press). Christina Ricci gave a charming panel Q&A that started with a Wednesday Addams vibe before sliding into Lizzy Borden territory, carried on a wave of New Englandism. 

The vendor space continued its tradition of providing sensory overload, with displays stretching 20 feet into the air and in every direction (sensory-safe spaces were available nearby, and accommodations for ADA visitors of all sorts were ubiquitous). Vendors also adorned the time-loop circular mobius strip around the Dunk. Artists’ Alley, Tattoo row, the Star Wars photo zone (rigorously managed by multiple R2 units) and a top-floor kids zone all returned intact. Fan and cosplay panels also kept things flowing, and as is the case every year, the greatest highlight of the show was watching the hundreds of cosplayers, from intense to inspired, from humorous to terrifying, from tight to expansive. Harley Quinn and anime inspiration was plentiful, with Aliens and angels weaving in and out of a crowd of Black Widows, Wonder Women, Batmen and Captain Americas (who frequently greeted each other with, “There’s America’s Ass!”).

After three rolicking days, it’s clear that Comic Con has found its sustainable mojo and continues to bridge the worlds of geek and pop-culture to create a mainstream-yet-not phenomenon. Check out motifri.com/xxx for photos and videos.

Time to Dance, Sugar Plum!: ‘Tis the season for holiday dance to hit the stage

Photo Credit: Meri Keller

Whether it’s a vicarious urge to keep ourselves warm, or because something about graceful movement conjures associations with the holiday season, or just because “Happy Holidays” makes you feel like dancing — or at least like watching others dance — this is the dance season. Here’s some of what’s coming up:

Island Moving Company has their exciting mansion-based retelling of the classic Nutcracker story. “Characters move the audience from one room to another in the magnificent spaces within Briarcliff Mansion,” says marketing director Shauna Maguire.“This show sells out. The mansion is beyond belief.” Find Clara and friends at 548 Bellvue, Newport. It runs at various times and dates between Nov 27 and Dec 6, islandmovingco.org

The State Ballet of Rhode Island weighs in with Coppelia. This marks SBRI’s 60th year, and they’ve been bringing interpretations of Coppelia to RI since 1969, through four generations of Marsdens (82-year-old artistic director and founder Herci Marsden is still ruling the roost, with the help of her daughter, granddaughters and great-granddaughters). “We’re especially excited about the leading dancers who we have this season: They’re amazing,” says Ana Marsden Fox of performers Sarah Hamel and Devin Larser. “People tell us it’s become their tradition. We have some audience members coming for a second or even third generation,” Marsden Fox explains. This will be the fourth time the tale in which dolls come to life (a common problem in the holiday dance universe) takes the stage at Cranston’s Park Theatre, 848 Park Ave. It’s on Dec 6 and 7. stateballet.com

Providence’s Festival Ballet brings their annual traditional Nutcracker performance to PPAC. Between the location and the storied, esteemed history of the company, expect an opulent experience. On Sunday, December 15, kids can also enjoy brunch tea with Clara at Bravo Brasserie on Empire St before the show. Runs Dec 13 thru 15 this year, with Clara’s Tea on Dec 15. festivalballetprovidence.org

Providence Ballet Theater has their annual holiday entrant, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, taking place in the Nazarian Center at RIC, 600 Mount Pleasant Ave, on Sat, Dec 20, at 4:30 and 7pm. providenceballet.com

In New Bedford, New Bedford Ballet will be presenting The Nutcracker with a whaling city twist — dancers will include sailors and Native Americans, and one of the guests at Clara’s house will be author Herman Melville. We can’t wait to see the harpoon dance! Dec 7 thru 15 at the NBB Community Theatre, 2343 Purchase St, New Bedford, Mass. newbedfordballet.org

On the collegian circuit, Brown, RIC and PC will be twinkling their toes this season. 

Brown has 15 different pieces spanning a wide variety of genres. About half are new student work, and they will include step, hip-hop, classical ballet and a smattering of other genres. “We’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of dance [as a formal program] at Brown,” says Brianne Shaw, marketing coordinator at Brown University. “Specifically this year, we’re not only featuring new work by current students, but we’re also featuring alumni work and classical work to celebrate that anniversary. Julie Strandberg, who founded the dance program, is still with us and is producing this show.” Find them at the Ashamu Dance Studio in the basement of 83 Waterman St, PVD. Thu – Fri, Nov 21 -22.

PC has its seasonal Blackfriars dance performance. Wendy Oliver of PC says, “We’ll have guest choreographers from around the area. We have Jean Appolon, who’s doing a modern dance piece with a strong Haitian influence. We also have three contemporary choreographers, Danielle Davidson, who teaches [at PC], Gisela Creus, from Spain, and then Orlando Hernandez choreographed a modern tap piece and is also doing a tap solo. And Cayley Christoforou, who lives in Salem.” Oliver is also choreographing a piece of modern dance with a political theme, called “Debate.” That’s at Angell Blackfriars Theatre, Smith Center for the Arts, Eaton St, PVD, at 7pm Fri, Nov 15 and 2:30 Sat, Nov 16.

RIC will present End It!, an exploration of human trafficking in modern society through dance. Think of it as counter-programming if you’ve had too many damn sugar plums in your dance diet. That takes place at RIC’s Forman Theater, in the Nazarian Center, 600 Mt Pleasant Ave, PVD at 7:30pm on Fri Dec 6 and Sat, Dec 7.

Talent Spotting

At a RISD art sale some 30 years ago, there was one student selling t-shirts who stood out from the crowd. “He had single-sheet copies of a manifesto called ‘Phenomonology’ that came with the shirt,” says Ethan Maytum, the former Brown visual arts / semiotics concentrator who remembers being one of the artist’s very first customers. “No one else was presenting skate art with a well-developed philosophy. At the time no one else was doing anything similar. It went on to become iconic.”

That artist was Shepard Fairey, and Maytum picked up the manifesto, some stickers and five shirts, including an homage to Claes Olenburg’s lipstick sculpture (with Andre the Giant’s face), an appropriation of Some Girls, the Rolling Stones album cover (with Andre the Giant’s face in a blonde wig and lipstick) and the mark of Andre’s hand on the back (“I wore that one until it fell apart,” says Maytum) and the rarest of all, a classic Bill Graham-style Hendrix concert poster (with Andre the Giant’s face) on kelly green. Neither student could have known that was an early sale in an iconic movement that would be appreciated by skaters and surfers the world over.

“As a student interested in critical theory, I found the pop-cultural
references and iconography made his work stand out from all the others.”

The two stayed in touch, and eventually Maytum was able to bring the original shirts to Fairey’s studio in California so Fairey could photograph the artwork, which had otherwise been lost to travel and time. The two reconnected at Fairey’s show last week, just a few blocks from that first sale, bringing the trailblazing design’s life-cycle full circle. 

Slice of Wall with Your Slice of Pizza?

In 1988, RISD student Al Read bonded with a fellow skateboard fan and new student who went on to make a giant impression on the art world. As the years passed, Al moved from pizza chef at Fellini’s to owner of the highly regarded Nice Slice Pizza, which embraced Brown and RISD students for years from its cozy Thayer Street location. Early in Nice Slice history, Shepard Fairey painted an original artwork on the wall of his favorite pizza place in 2009, while visiting Boston for his 20-year retrospective, as a gift to Read and his customers. “Al was thankful, but actually, I was getting prime real estate in the coolest spot on hip Thayer Street in Providence,” Fairey says on his website’s blog (obeygiant.com).

The art work features
Angela Davis along with a number of common themes Fairey has played with,
including Andre stencils and the Obey motif, along with smaller portraits of a
special lady, all tying into a speak-truth-to-power protest vibe.

After years in that
location, dramatically rising rent caused Nice Slice to bring its cutting-edge
pizza to a more affordable location. Nice Slice found a new home on the West
Side, where many nice customers followed.

But what about the mural, literally
painted into the old location? Its value had no doubt risen significantly with
the fortunes of its auteur, but its sentimental value to Read was immeasurable.
So he cut it out – wall and all – and took it with him. If you visit Nice
Slice, you can see this local treasure bolted against the back wall in the
sleekly designed new location (ask about the furniture too while you’re there,
all custom designed and created by Read).

A Head of Her Time

The subject of the new mural is AS220’s Anjel Newmann, known as Medusah Black when she’s performing her music. She took a few minutes to answer our questions about what it’s like to suddenly be on the side of a building.

Mike Ryan (Motif):
When did you find out you’d be involved in this project?

Anjel Newmann: I think it was last summer, but I wasn’t all that involved at first. Bert [Crenca] and Ruth [Harvey] and Shauna [Duffy] and others were really involved in the planning. They sent him [Shepard Fairey] an article I’d written about the Futureworlds program [an annual theatrical program by AS220 Youth]

and he found a quote in there
that he really liked, and they sent him some photos and images of me, and one
of them I guess spoke to him. Later he sent some drafts and we gave a little
feedback on the wording, but it really was amazing.

MR: How
did that feel?

Really amazing, but really weird. I’m definitely honored, but I also want to
make sure that all the attention is reflected back on AS220. It’s not really
about me. So I’m humbled and slightly embarrassed, and I certainly wondered,
you know, why not Bert [Crenca, founder of AS220] or somebody. But if it’s
going to help and push forward the causes I care about, if it’s going to help
AS220, that’s what I really care about.

How did you get involved with AS220, and what do you do there now?

AN: I started as a very young person in their youth program and came up really as a hip-hop artist. I just kept getting more involved until they brought me on as the director of the youth program. Recently I became the director of programs, so I’m fostering all our activities and leading the racial justice initiative along with our executive director, Shauna Duffy.

How does that initiative work?

AN: We
just went down to Texas for some intensive training. The goal is to make sure
that our spaces are not just inclusive, but are actively for all races and
cultures. The philosophy is in place, but we have to make sure it’s not just
intention – that we’re really making sure art and culture is being formed by
the people who truly live in the city. It’s really part of the All Access
Campaign – to make sure everyone can come to AS220, whether they’re in a
wheelchair, whether they have kids who need to be cared for, or if they’re from
a culture that feels less familiar.

Did you get to meet with the artist this week?

AN: We
met a few times, and he was really interested in having all of us be a part of
the process. He’s a cool dude. It’s one thing to know someone by their work,
but getting to know his philosophy and feel his energy, that was really a whole
different level, and I felt very included.

Did you get to work on the actual painting?

think I would have messed it up. And I’m afraid of heights. So, no.

How do you feel about being a pretty permanent part of the city now?

AN: The most important part for me is that
people understand that it’s for the next generation coming up. The heart and
soul of AS220 are the young people. It’s all about setting up systems so they
can take over. They need to take this place where they want it to go.    • 

Accessing All AS220 has to Offer

A share of the funds raised go to support AS220’s All Access Campaign, which has raised $4 million of its $5 million goal. This campaign targets numerous improvements to the flow and public spaces on Empire St, some of which have already been made. The bar and restaurant areas have been completely overhauled and connections between that area, the black box theater and the performance space and gallery have all been streamlined, fitted with new art and made more efficient. There’s a prominent new set of display windows along Empire, and the entire building is being made ADA accessible, which will include a new elevator. The campaign also enables “a fund that will help support programming for years to come, so it kinda is support for everything!” explains director of development Ruth Harvey.

Obey Art: Fairey brings new giant face to PVD

Note: Read our additional coverage on Shepard Fairey and his visit to PVD here:

Talent Spotting: The artist’s first sale

Slice of Wall with Your Slice of Pizza?: Shepard Fairey’s art at Nice Slice

A Head of Her Time: An interview with mural subject Anjel Newmann

Accessing All AS220 has to Offer: An update on AS220’s All Access campaign

Shepard Fairey chose Providence. It’s where he began his career, and it’s now the location for his 100th public mural. AS220 worked with him to find a space – sponsored by downcity real estate firm Cornish Associates – and to find an appropriate subject. That mural was created last week, and Fairey was in town all week to celebrate it, to celebrate the opening of his internationally traveling show, “Facing the Giant: Three Decades of Dissent,” to celebrate the intersection of community and art, and just to celebrate life.

might know Fairey for his protest-oriented, message-driven artwork. You might
know him for the striking mural that’s adorned the back of AS220 since 2010.
You might know him as the quiet mastermind behind the swarm of “Andre has a
posse” stickers that started in PVD 30 years ago and was carried around the
world by members of the skater community. And you almost certainly know him for
his campaign-defining Obama posters.

grew up in South Carolina and came to PVD in the late 1980s to attend RISD
(where he now serves on the board of directors), staying for a few years
afterward before moving to LA. I had the chance to talk to him about his latest
visit to Providence.

“My first introduction to AS220 was when they were putting on inexpensive rock shows for bands that I loved. I had a couple of friends who I don’t think would be welcome characters in too many other places… Just giving access, when art is great for individuals and great for the world, is so important,” Fairey (pronounced “Ferry”) says of his relationship with AS220 and the shared goal of making art more democratic. For the subject of the mural, he focused on spoken word artist and AS220 youth director Anjel Newmann (aka Medusah Black), including a quote from her: “Creativity is the mechanism of self-liberation.” 

all the fancy wordsmithing I try to do in my life, I never quite nailed it the
way she did,” says Fairey, who expanded on the quote. “When people have
self-liberation they become more generous, and it can become the mechanism of
societal liberation, because the spirit of generosity and collaboration emerges
from feeling heard and feeling secure and empowered.

always happy to have my work in a gallery, but also I know that it’s difficult
to find walls. [It’s great] getting a mural where people can stumble upon
something in their daily life and just enjoy it, or take their mind off their
problems for a second, or makes them think for a moment about what it means to
have a non-white person celebrated in a piece of art in a world that’s
frequently dominated by privileged people. To have these sayings about
empowerment… To be both inviting and graphically appealing, but also touch
upon some challenging issue is what I’m trying to achieve in my work. I feel
lucky that I get to do that. Public Enemy said it: ‘Reach the bourgeois, and
rock the boulevard.’”

rocked the boulevard under his secondary guise as DJ Diabetic, both at the public opening of
his show and in a special appearance at Troop in Olneyville on Thursday,
October 24, where he had a packed house sweeping tables aside to let out their
dance moves. “DJ Diabetic is a name that was given to me as a joke before I
even spun records, because in the design studio I was always the one jumping to
curate the selection… so when I started to actually DJ on a regular basis in
late 2002, that name just kinda stuck. It’s alliteration of course, but you
know, I can run with it in a playful way: ‘DJ Diabetic, skipping the jelly,
bringing the jams.’ But I love music, I love what it does in terms of bringing
you some visceral enjoyment, and also making you think with the lyrics. And
there’s the styles – choices in music come with associated lifestyles, personal
styles, clothing styles, political styles. It’s like a whole ecosystem. And
then putting mixes together – it’s almost like audio graphic design. If graphic
design is taking elements that you like, that you think work independently, and
then figuring out how they could be even more powerful in a composition… And
going through the trial and error of figuring out color, image, typography –
putting together mixes is the same way for me. It’s like a problem-solving
addiction to go through that trial and error. If I lost my sight I would
definitely be spending a lot of time on music. I mostly just DJ, but I have
done some primitive production and worked on a music project, so yeah, I love
music. A lot of visual artists are great musicians and vice versa. I think if
somebody has got that mindset there’s a lot of crossover. I get that visual art
is my number one, but music is a really passionate hobby for me. There is a
rhythm to each of them.”

asked about the influence punk rock has had on Fairey’s work and life: “I like
a lot of different kinds of music. But punk rock was seminal for me, because
punk rock was about an alternative ecosystem. If you don’t like the mainstream,
build your own thing. Do it yourself. Coming from South Carolina, where everything
was very traditional and conservative and structured, this was like a window
into a new world and freedom that I had never considered before, so it was
life-changing. Now I think what punk rock did for me, other forms of music have
had that same effect, that same ethos, from Black Sabbath to the Rolling Stones
to Dylan; it was all just about moving forward and creating free space for new
ideas. Like hip-hop, in the mid-to-late ’80s was the new punk rock. Jazz was,
as Reggae was in Jamaica.

“A lot
of the stuff I played last night [at the show at Troop] was shake your rump,
but a lot of it was also pump your fist. I consider a band like NWA a
revolutionary group. I don’t agree with all of their misogyny and things like
that, but that spirit of punk rock freedom is there in NWA the same way as it’s
been in something like Black Flag.”

describes the collaboration with AS220 as perfectly aligned with his own belief
that art – all art, not just visual art – is a means of collaboration that
creates stronger communities.

reason I started with street art was because that was a guaranteed way to have
the art interact with community and create conversations and just know that
even if people weren’t talking to me they would be talking to each other, that
there are molecules colliding and conversations happening. Art as both a manifestation
of individualism and a beacon for conversations around shared humanity. There
are very few things that have that duality.

wouldn’t make art just to keep in a drawer in my studio or hang in my room. I
make art to share with people and sometimes to talk about challenging topics
but to make sure that we’re all considering things in relation to each other. I
believe in bottom-up not top-down, so art I think is empowering, having a voice
is empowering. Anything that makes people feel like they have an opportunity to
be participants rather than just living their lives as spectators is very
important to me. It’s too long to answer all the different ways in which I try
to manifest that in my art, but the delivery systems of my art and the things
that I try to support with funds from my art – a lot of community organizations
– the very reason why I’m working with AS220. To me it’s essential.

are plenty of opportunities [now] for me to get what a lot of artists want out
of art, which is something to help your ego and say, hey this is very real
simple basic existential thing of ‘Hi, I’m here, I exist, please acknowledge
me!’ I can do that and have that good therapy come out of that and do things
that I think are good for other people at the same time. Art doesn’t have to be
selfish. A lot of people, maybe out of insecurity, choose to be a little
selfish about it. But it can definitely be something that lets you build your
own self esteem while doing good things in the world.”

A fan
of Fairey’s, artist Michael Natiello, who runs a pumpkin project (the Great
Jack O’Lantern Blaze) in New York, came to PVD to present a carved homage to
Fairey’s work, prompting me to ask Fairey, “How does it feel when other artists
reference your work?”

think it’s amazing when people reference my work because it shows the power of
the work. Because you know they’re not doing that reference just for my sake,
they’re doing it as something that other people know as well. So whether the
reference is critical, satirical, complimentary, I know my work has made an
impact. I’m really excited when I see that. I saw someone made an Obama thing
in the hope style but they put “nope” underneath it. I was asked, ‘Does that
make you mad?’ I go, ‘It makes me question their judgment. But it doesn’t make
me mad, it actually makes me happy that they’re giving power to what I did as a
grassroots activist, even in their attempt at criticism, and they’re not
understanding that.’ That’s why I don’t like to say our current president’s
name. I don’t want to give him even that much power.”

I first met Fairey over 25 years ago, when he was introduced to me as “the crazy person who was putting up stickers all over the place.” At the time he seemed to take that as a compliment. A quarter century later I get to ask him how he felt about it. “There are genuinely crazy people out there,” Fairey says, “But there are a lot of people being called crazy because the person defining them that way is afraid to ever draw outside the lines themselves. And so I find it’s a bit of a compliment when I’m considered crazy, or obsessive or whatever other things that someone might consider pejorative, but which I understand are a way of saying I’m not totally normal. Normal keeps things stagnant, and a little crazy keeps things moving.”

Catch this graphical concert for the eyes and brain at 233 Westminster St in PVD. The pop-up gallery displays the selection of favorites from across 30 years of work through Nov 16. A portion of all proceeds go to support AS220. Gallery hours are Tue- Sat, noon – 6pm. The new mural can be seen from the gallery but is on the Founders League Building at 91 Clemence St.

Read our additional coverage on Shepard Fairey and his visit to PVD here:

Talent Spotting: The artist’s first sale

Slice of Wall with Your Slice of Pizza?: Shepard Fairey’s art at Nice Slice

A Head of Her Time: An interview with mural subject Anjel Newmann

Accessing All AS220 has to Offer: An update on AS220’s All Access campaign