A progressive art movement is gaining traction here in the Lowcountry, around the country and even hundreds of miles above the Earth aboard the International Space Station.
Elizabeth Willingham, a senior Studio Arts major at the College of Charleston and an intern at the school’s Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, said she has noticed that the appeal of politically and socially charged art “with a message” is on the rise. At the heart of the message-driven art scene is nationally renowned fine artist Shepard Fairey, a Charleston native who created the “Hope” poster for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. More recently, he designed a patch worn by astronauts aboard the International Space Station.
“Shepard’s art has become very popular with students,” said Willingham. “I’ve seen a lot of my fellow students who are inspired by Shepard being brave with statement art – you know, creating art that generates arguments.”
Though Fairey is probably most famous in mainstream culture for the “Hope” poster, the essence of his work is not what you’d find on coffee mugs or $10 t-shirts. He is a prominent figure in today’s street and fine art worlds and has been cited by numerous art institutes for his stature as one of the most influential living artists.
Charlotte Fairey, Shepard’s mother and a local Carolina One real estate agent, recognized Shepard’s artistic prowess when he was little more than a toddler.
“I first realized Shepard was an artist when, at 4, he picked up a crayon and began drawing airplanes, battleships and even designing golf courses,” she said. “One Christmas, when Shepard was 11, he drew pen and ink pictures of all my friends’ homes, and I gave them the pictures as presents.”
Fairey attended Porter Gaud High School until the ninth grade, when he transferred to Wando High School to take advantage of a looser dress code and enjoy the diversity of the student body. Upon his mother’s request, he took all advanced placement courses, but he really thrived in his social world of skateboarding and street art.
Growing up in Charleston and Mount Pleasant, Fairey often questioned authority and the conservative attitude of the local social hierarchy. Along the way, he developed and nurtured an artistic rebelliousness that he has maintained to this day.
“When I discovered skateboarding and punk rock, I became a big fan of graphic art made with stencils, collage and screen printing,” Fairey said of his high school days.
While at the Rhode Island School of Design, Fairey created his first widely popular art, the “André the Giant Has a Posse” sticker.
“These days, those stickers can be found all over the world,” Charlotte Fairey said. “I think that was the first time we realized he was seriously on the map for the art community.”
Throughout his budding career, Fairey drew inspiration from numerous pop artists, including fellow South Carolina native Jasper Johns, a leading figure in the New York abstract impressionist movement of the 1950s. He grew up in Allendale and is famous for his painting “False Start,” which sold in 2006 for $80 million, still the highest price ever paid for a work by a living artist.
This May, Johns and Fairey will be presenting “The Insistent Image: Recurrent Motifs in the Art of Shepard Fairey and Jasper Johns” at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art.
Halsey Director Mark Sloan said he is honored to have Fairey show his work.
“Shepard Fairey is an incredibly gifted artist and articulate spokesperson and an essential piece to the progression of art,” said Sloan.
The decision to have Fairey and Johns show their work together came about after much consideration. According to Sloan, both Johns and Fairey recycle graphic elements in their work – elements that gain new meaning through juxtapositions and associations.
“Each artist has had a consistent and personal vocabulary throughout their career,” said Sloan. “It’s a big deal for us to show Shepard and Jasper together. I’m interested in seeing what kind of friction develops between their two bodies of work.”
Fairey’s forthcoming exhibition at the Halsey Institute, “Power and Glory,” will focus on what drives America, both literally and metaphorically.
“In my show, I’m dealing with issues of abuse of power and threats to the environment,” said Fairey.
Although the issues covered in his show are not exclusive to the Lowcountry, Fairey pointed out that “Part of my mistrust of authority and my disregard for elitism comes from my experience in Charleston.”
“As a country and culture, we seem to frequently put power and glory on a pedestal without considering that the flip side of one’s power and glory may be another’s suffering and degradation,” Fairey added.
These days, Fairey can be found throughout the art scene, from liberating a billboard in Brooklyn by showcasing his “Hope” poster, to speaking about culture and politics at a communications and journalism school in California. Through art, he is constantly testing what is normal and accepted in our society.
By Cullen Murray-Kemp
Photo by Jon Furlong