Fine Art Registry™ Member, Steven Chandler
by Dan Koon for Fine Art Registry™
Someday, not too long from now, judging by the way things are going, Georgia folk artist Steven Chandler will be able to rock back and forth contentedly on the porch of his art empire, wave an arm to indicate all he sees and explain, “I owe it all to my dog and my cat. Ya see, one day it was pouring down rain, and…”
But, we’re getting a little ahead of our story. That’s easy to do when talking about The Georgia Red Mud Painter, as Steven refers to his artistic self. Here is an emerging artist who has an intuition about how the Internet has democratized our society, including the art world and he is running with it!
Now, when you think of that category called “folk art,” different things can come to view: iron weather vanes, handcrafted quilts, quaintly decorated bird houses, paintings by simple folk who never came within a country mile of an art school, lots of things fill the mind. But “sophisticated marketing acumen” doesn’t make it into that particular Venn diagram. Neither does “media savvy.”
So, how is one to explain that Steven’s paintings, painted on wood or matte board or pizza boxes have commanded up to $1,000 on eBay? Clearly, there is something about him or the age we’re living in.
Before the Internet, you wouldn’t find two folk artists tearing one another’s heads off, artistically speaking, like the WWE cyber smack down currently occurring between Steven and another folk artist, Chickenbones George from Texas. You can’t really tell how serious the battle is, but if you look at their videos on YouTube, it’s somewhat reminiscent of how Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier used to go at it before one of their legendary championship fights – probably entertaining for both parties and everybody who’s watching. Though Steven makes these for fun, he’s establishing a definite presence for himself and his art on the ‘net.
There’s another aspect to Steven’s art, though, and this cuts more closely to the heart of the matter. There is something about his art that resonates with a growing number of people.
Steven’s paintings always have a story behind them. He’s not content to paint a pretty picture to hang on a wall. His painting Jake Leg Man tells the story of a man drinking a deadly concoction in Jamaica that gives a good drunk until it begins to destroy the drinker’s motor coordination and eventually kills him. Giant Man in a Magnolia Tree is about a giant who gets tired walking about the Georgia countryside and needs to rest, so he sits down in a tree because, being a giant, they don’t make chairs big enough for him. But recently he did a painting that simply posed a question and it generated an Internet fire storm.
Michael Vick Rides Barbaro
Once upon a time there was a supremely gifted athlete named Michael Vick. He could do things on a football field that no one had ever seen. His freaky talents brought him the adulation of football fans everywhere. His contract called for the Atlanta Falcons to pay him $130 million. Endorsements brought him millions more. In other words, here was a guy who had it made, not only for himself, but for his family and his family’s families for generations to come. Unfortunately, Michael’s zillion dollar talent was being controlled by a 10 cent head. And his charmed life has come crashing down around him because of his involvement in the despicable, and illegal, activity of dog fighting.
Once upon another time there was another supremely gifted “athlete,” a horse named Barbaro. Barbaro won the 2006 Kentucky Derby going away and was set to becoming the first Triple Crown winner in decades. Tragically, however, coming out of the gate two weeks later at the Preakness Stakes, Barbaro shattered his right hind leg. His racing career was finished and after months of intense medical care he had to be euthanized.
As Michael Vick’s story was dominating the headlines this past summer, something was gnawing at Steven. Dog fighting, reprehensible. Horse racing, noble. “The sport of kings,” even. Missing entirely from the Barbaro saga were the less noble aspects of horse racing – the selective breeding of horses for speed only, not durability; the shipping horses off to meat packing plants once their racing careers are finished; the doping and cheating that goes on. In other words, cruelty to animals but, unlike dog fighting, of a legalized sort.
Steven’s response was to do a painting, the now famous, Michael Vick Rides Barbaro. Steven put the painting up on eBay like he does with many other of his works, expecting to get some bids and hoping to sell it for a good price. He wasn’t ready for the eruption that followed. The Q&A section where you can write the seller to ask a specific question about an item became an open forum for discussion about the painting, its message, Steven’s artistic style and talents, his feeling about animals, his character, etc. Within days, Steven was getting messages from people saying that they had been offered the painting by another seller, probably indicating that someone had copied the work and was offering it for sale as the original.
Horse lovers, especially a group called the Fans of Barbaro, were particularly incensed at seeing their horse ridden by the disgraced Vick in a prison uniform. Another forum opened up on a horse racing website devoted solely to a discussion of the painting. At least one other site was discussing the painting. As with all great art, people began interpreting the painting from their own perspectives. Some thought Steven was in favor of dog fighting! Some thought he hated animals. Some wanted his hide. Others acclaimed him the new star in socially conscious painting.
Tiring of the flame wars, Steven seriously considered taking the painting down. His supporters wouldn’t hear of it. The controversy raged on. People accused him of playing on Barbaro’s tragic story simply to make money. To prove his sincerity and to challenge the Fans of Barbaro crowd to prove theirs, he offered to keep the painting up for auction but to donate the proceeds to a charity for retired racehorses, got in touch with one and announced his plan.
In the end, his critics’ indignation remained open, but their wallets remained closed: the auction was won by none other than Fine Art Registry™ and will become part of its permanent collection.
Never one to back down from a fight, the Fans of Barbaro may have gotten more than they bargained for. Some of the sentiments they expressed have inspired Steven to memorialize them for all time with a new painting, Friends of Barbaro. Ouch!
The color of the sheets may have changed but Steven makes it plain that the intolerance remains the same.
Early Interest in Art
Growing up an Air Force brat, Steven moved around a lot and found himself having to make and remake his mark in new communities. Born on Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, he has lived in Cape Canaveral, Houston and Vandenberg AFB in California, among others. His father was a Strategic Air Command officer and later worked in the space program; and Steven remembers being taken down into missile silos with his dad as a kid, meeting the crews and seeing the actual big red button. He has seen a lot of rocket launches at Canaveral and proudly remembers his dad being in Mission Control during Apollo 13.
When asked how he got involved in art, Steven replies, “I started kindergarten. One day I crawled up a ladder and with a crayon drew large animals on the side of our base house. I got one of my only whuppins for that.”
“I caught snakes and frogs and spiders and tried to dissect them with my mother’s cutlery. Everyone thought I was weird and I made funny noises and voices to annoy my two older half sisters. I also built large airplane sculptures in the back yard with boulders, wood planks and hobbyhorses. They would stay up for weeks.
“In school I drew constantly –t war zones, airplanes, shark attacks… you could not close my desk top because of the drawings. But instead of praise, encouragement and understanding, I got tested to see if I was crazy. Grown-ups yelled at me for not listening. They started testing me for autism.
“They finally tested my hearing – I was deaf. I had an operation and my ears were drained and I was all better, but I still drew pictures a lot and chased snakes – sometimes rattlesnakes.”
Clearly, Steven wasn’t crazy (except maybe the chasing rattlesnakes part). It wasn’t always a Tom Sawyer life, though. Living on missile base, Steven recalls. “The end of the world topic was always on the Air Force kids’ minds. There was a big difference between us and the civilians of the outside world. Being an Air Force kid in the height of the Cold War was always tinted with the knowledge that where you lived was the first to be targeted when the countdown came, the two keys were turned and the big red button was pushed. The bowl haircuts sucked too – but being around all those cool airplanes was worth it for me and they ended up in many drawings.”
This was where Steven made a connection with an artist beyond his own kid’s sketches. He went on a field trip to the Harry S. Truman Library in Kansas City and there he saw the giant murals of Thomas Hart Benton “Those paintings and the movie we had to watch about him really opened my eyes to painting,” Steven says. “I loved his gestural figures. Later, I discovered many American artists from social realism to be an influence, particularly Jacob Lawrence.”
He planned to go to college at Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, and you might not be reading this article today but for the tragic Challenger Space Shuttle disaster in 1986. After that, the Air Force scrubbed a lot of its program and Vandenberg AFB, near Lompoc, which was on the verge of becoming the West Coast’s Cape Canaveral, rapidly downsized. Steven’s father moved the family to Denver and Steven decided to head to South Carolina where his grandfather had a farm.
In Steven’s words, “I got there and worked hard – slopping pigs, driving hay bales to the cattle on the tractors, mending fences, castrating bulls and many other god-awful things you do on a farm. We ate weird things too….pig balls and cow balls for breakfast, brains and eggs….tripe.
“I was submerged in a culture that I had never thought existed. People said ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No Ma’am.’ The thing to do was talk about red necks and cruise the mall. I argued racism with them and they weren’t sure what I was. I wasn’t a Yankee, but what I was, they just didn’t know. I was hard to classify.
“I worked a lot out on the farm with my granddad’s black farm hand, Eddy. I drew a lot of cartoons while sitting around the kitchen table drinking white lightning and playing cards. The cartoons were usually on napkins and consisted of Grandpa and Eddy getting drunk together. They all thought it was funny. We did have a lot of good times then and I got a lot of stories from it. My granddad was a great story teller and when he talked you were mesmerized. They said he had the Monkey dust, a kind of magic that card players have when they win. He won land, cars and even an airplane.”
“But the roots, they will grow on you for sure. I learned my great-great grandfather fought for the Georgia Second Calvary and was an escort for Nathan Bedford Forrest, the founder of the Klux Klux Klan. My great-great grandfather was struck down by lightning on his horse near the Georgia -Tennessee border during the battle of Chattanooga. Only his boots were left. He is buried in the Civil War cemetery at UT Chattanooga…well, his boots are. It was stories like that, those are my roots and what inspire many of my paintings now.”
Just like it was hard for people to put Steven in a box as a person, it’s hard to classify whether he has been trained as an artist or not. After a trip back to Colorado to consider college he decided to return to South Carolina and enrolled in Lander College in Greenwood.
“I took all the standard classes and did well,” he says. “But when it came to art classes I clammed up. I just didn’t like working around others, and drawing models freaked me out. One day I just quit, went over to a corner, put my Walkman headphones on and started gluing crumpled pieces of paper to each other. That led to my paper bag paintings. People would say stuff to me like ‘you are so crude,’ and I thought they were insulting me. Folk art was mentioned to me but I didn’t know what that was. I just did my own thing and they liked it and encouraged me to keep it up!”
His aspirations were for a career in photography and Steven concentrated on that and graduated in 1992 with a BA in Photography and minors in Japanese language and oriental philosophy.
In 1995, it was back to California, now with his wife, pregnant with their first child, and 500 paintings. There were rough times financially but remarkably, Steven continued to grow as an artist and as a student of art.
“When I was in South Carolina people would tell me you need to take it to New York,” he recalls. “I never did. Instead I always found myself in the working class world where art was considered lofty or else something little old ladies did down at the local arts association or things you see at the craft shows on a Sunday afternoon.
“My dad always said to quit dreaming. He never understood that this was just something I did. I never thought of making money with it or becoming some name. I did read a lot of art bios and theory books and when I would start going over his head or anyone’s head they looked at me like I was crazy.
“I have a working class attitude towards making art in a way though, a folk artist approach. It is hard for me to talk to artists, students or professors who didn’t have to dig in dumpsters for food like me, or be on welfare for ten years with a college degree with honors and have other people blame you for that because you were an artist. They never considered the crappy job market or anything else. The paintings I have made at the worst times in my life are not for sale. They are here to remind me of how bad things can be inside and on the outside. They remind me that there is always hope.”
Steven’s Dog, Red Mud and Art
Though he’s now living the life of a Southern good ol’ boy, on the surface at least, Steven knows that where his art is at the moment is simply that – where it is now.
“Primitive cave art influenced my search for texture,” he says. “Since the late 1980s, I had wanted to do paintings that looked like they were on a cave wall, so I started gluing bags onto canvas. Because of that, I started hearing the term ‘Outsider Art.’ That’s a misnomer and is a label I don’t agree with. Picasso’s borrowing of other styles influenced me, his study of Velasquez influenced my study of artists I admire. I understood from him, that no matter what you are influenced by, if you keep moving forward, your art will evolve.”
This progressive view combined with an open-minded, non-elitist attitude has allowed him to move outside the conventional restrictions of what materials an artist can use.
“I use everything, anything, whatever makes me achieve the look I want. I try not to limit it to any medium,” he says, “but some are easier to work with than others. I prefer natural elements as opposed to processed, but even with that there are exceptions. I have used house paint, because it is cheap and since it will last years on the outside of your house, it should last forever on a canvas. I painted on stretched Motel Six bed sheets, paper bags on canvas for the cave wall effect, South Carolina dirt, old dried crumbled corn bread mixed in paint, California beach sand, oil, acrylic, a lot of charcoal over the years, collage, assemblage, on and on and on…”
Which brings us back to our imaginings of Steven giving all the credit to his dog. How did he come to discover his red mud paint and the appellation, the Georgia Red Mud Painter?
“I was inspired to use the red soil when our outdoor plumbing was dug up,” Steven says. “Then came a bad storm, and my dog and cat tracked red mud all over the place. There was something in it that caught my eye and stirred something in me. There were deep blood-red paw prints all over the place like some primitive-pop cave painting. I had thought of painting with it years before, but never had the space for the mess I knew it would make, but, I had just moved out into the country and I finally had the space to do it. I’ve been fascinated with it ever since my mother would tell me how some of the old southern black people she knew would eat this soil for health benefits, surely something passed down from slave times. Sometimes I’ll drive around the farms out here in Georgia and see a freshly plowed field and that red color, in the light, it is like something out of a fantasy land, it just doesn’t look real. No red in a tube can achieve that color. Regular paint, to me now, is like painting with artificial sweetener. These paintings are archivally sealed when finished. I’ve sat some of them outside for a whole year and they stay the way they were made. I have a ten foot tall Red Mud Man guarding the outside of my house right now. I taught myself how to make this paint and apply it to my art, nobody showed me a thing, except maybe my pets.”
In this introduction to Steven Chandler, a recurring theme seems to be the difficulty others have placing him in a clearly labeled box. And a clue to that conundrum may lie in this insight Steven offers: “I am educated, but not trained, self-taught, but not ignorant.”
You can see his Fine Art Registry portfolio here and his website here.
— by Dan Koon | December 31, 2007 | Print Version – PDF (3.84 Mb)