Steve Prince: New work and the artist’s role in this moment
Steve Prince, director of engagement and distinguished artist in residence at William & Mary’s Muscarelle Museum of Art, is using this pandemic period as a time to be deeply creative in both art and in education.
Prince delved further into his own new work while sharing with the museum’s audience virtually everything from at-home art projects to a virtual art camp for youth. W&M News asked him to catch us up on how he’s using a recent Virginia Artist Relief Fellowship Program grant from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and how he sees the artist’s role in this moment.
How are you using your VMFA grant to expand on themes in your earlier work?
I am deeply honored to have been one of 40 artists selected throughout the state to receive the prestigious VMFA grant.
As a visual artist I have dedicated my life to addressing societal issues circulating around race and class. I have mined the history of our nation, in particular as it relates to my experience as a Black man growing up in the South.
But my work stretches beyond my singular representation, and it recognizes that I do not live in a vacuum and that my body is intrinsically connected to a communal body. Therefore, my work is fixated on finding common ground, space for healing, restoration, and openly grappling with the deep-set wounds and stains in the fabric of America.
This fellowship will enable me to continue producing challenging artwork that dares my audience to remember, to produce work that soberly looks into the historicized past, while creating art that imaginatively reveals who we can be and who I believe we will become in time.
The funds have enabled me to explore new media, travel and foster fresh collaborations to enable me to reach new audiences and expand my visual vocabulary.
For example, I recently delved into the African-American history of Knoxville, Tennessee, and created a few works focused on a street called Vine that was the hub for the Black community post-Civil War well into the ’60s. In unearthing the peculiar history of that town, I was able to see the connective tissue with similar Black communities across the United States such as Bronzeville in Chicago, Treme in New Orleans, Rosewood in Florida, Harlem in New York, Watts in Los Angeles and Black Wall Street in Oklahoma to name a few.
I created a woodcut titled “True Vine,” which on one hand alludes to the iconic street in Knoxville, but also to the spiritual protection signified by “the vine” that girded the Black community through the harshest of times. I continue to create artwork that is about hope and love.
What can we expect to see upcoming from you that’s new and different, and how did you get to those ideas?
I have been studying the world of stage production and performance and thinking about the spatial relationships of two- and three-dimensional art in the context of moving figures to tell a complex narrative. My work is inherently layered with a poly-narrative and deeply symbolic.
I believe the medium of stage production offers me another tool by which I am able to effectively communicate and excite the senses of my audience. I am working on a multi-media dance production with Leah Glenn Dance Theatre titled “Nine.” This work commemorates the bravery and pioneering of nine African-American teenagers that integrated the public high school called Central High in 1957.
Through dance, visual arts, costuming, spoken word, music, projections and lighting design we are creating a piece that operatively functions like a traveling classroom speaking to multiple intelligences of our audience. This collaboration is deeply about how to create a singular voice that is supportive but never dominating — an exercise of harmony.
This medium is challenging to me because I am collaborating with art forms that I have not traditionally connected with, but yet it is familiar because I am adept at working with multiple people and communities to create public artworks.
Are artists called at this moment to reflect especially on racial justice, the election and the pandemic in the U.S.?
I believe that many artists have been consistently doing the hard work of championing for social justice and equality through their creative practices, and as my brother and fellow artist Antoine Prince stated to me in conversation during the peak of the pandemic and racial/social unrest: “This is our time to cry out from the hilltops. This is what we have been working for; this is our time.”
I believe that the artist is a truth sayer, and we have a special gift to be able to see things differently from the general populous. That unique, creative, expressive, imaginative and illuminating force that is within the artist is needed now and has been operating for centuries.
The artist has the power to expose, to unearth, to question, to decipher, but ultimately provide prophetic revelation of the world to come. The world has seen this day many times as if it were Groundhog Day, each decade and generation has been called to answer the challenge of the day. This is our time to answer the call, or we are doomed to repeat this day.
How do such times provide opportunities for new work that is important in both preserving the moment in history and to provoking thought while we’re living in it?
The artist is the visual historian reflecting all of the ills and beauty of our world. When historians of the distant future look back at this time, they will sift through the dirt, rubble and data searching for clues to understand and formulate theories and hypotheses from what we have left to understand who we were and who they have become through evolution.
We are here for a temporal moment, a blip in the time spectrum, so much will be lost and forgotten. But art offers this beautiful complex and nuanced message that is open for multiple interpretations. I have been inspired beyond measure by the voices, styles, concepts and history from the past.
I am aware of my power as a creative and that my gifts go beyond making pretty pictures. I create with a deep sense of urgency and directness knowing that life and death reside in what we say and what we don't say. I choose life, to speak and using art as a balm for healing.