Mistake House: You titled your recent exhibition at Smack Mellon in Brooklyn Everything in the Universe is my Brother after the title of a poem by Sun Ra, an American writer and jazz musician who embodied the Afrofuturist movement in his work. You also captured his likeness in your series, The Healers. How does Sun Ra’s “otherworldliness” inspire your work and how do you engage with the movement of Afrofuturism in your practice?
Rudy Shepherd: Sun Ra was an artist not limited by the rigid structures of the past; he was someone who dared to chart his own path. It is this courage that has always inspired me about his work. His conceit that he was not from this harsh cruel planet, where people treat each other so poorly connected with me the first time I saw his seminal film Space Is the Place. It was the first time I came in contact with the ideas now considered “Afrofuturist” and it is something that has filtered into the work that I do. There could be no Black Rock Negative Energy Absorber, no Healer, and no Healing Devices without Sun Ra. He showed me that there are many ways to talk about politics and that science-fiction is just as effective a model as more direct approaches. This was also confirmed in the writing of Octavia Butler, another person included in the Healer series.
MH: You shared, in an article in The New York Times about your portraits of criminals and victims, that you felt a hesitancy about painting the Charleston shooter, Dylann Roof (McDermon 2017). You recognize that painting both the perpetrator and victim is controversial; yet, you find it important. Can you expand on why you think it’s important—perhaps even necessary—in your work, to humanize even those who have done terrible things? From your point of view, what does this humanization achieve in our increasingly polarized media and society? Do you regard your humanization of people in the news as a civic responsibility, as an attempt to get to the truth of the human (or dehumanized) experience?
RS: My hesitation at making a portrait of Dylann Roof stemmed from something he said after being apprehended about how he wanted to start a race war. He wanted to further polarize people. My portrait project is all about empathy, taking the time to mourn the loss of the people killed by Dylann Roof, but also and—this is where it gets radical—to try to comprehend, in whatever flawed way we’re able, why he would do such a thing. To see that he will suffer the rest of his life for the choices he made on that day.
Now this is not to forgive anything that he has done, or suggest that he should not be punished for his crimes, but my question is: Is it possible to think more deeply about this situation, about this person, to still see him as human with the potential to do good in the world? The media would suggest that this is not possible, that we should think of him as crazy and forget about him. But I think that is part of what lead to this situation in the first place. I think Dylann Roof represents a whole generation of kids that feel disenfranchised, emasculated, impotent—and that these violent attacks on innocent people are a cry for attention, for agency they lack in their lives. If we don’t think deeply about these incidents and their underlying causes they are going to keep happening.
MH: In the portraits, often the only way for the viewer to discern between victim and perpetrator is by reading the title of the work, in which you offer minimal, headline-like context. For example, “Josef Fritz, locked daughter in basement for 24 years fathering 7 children with her against her will” (2008). How do you view the relationship between the text in the title and the actual portrait? How important is the written word in developing the concept in your paintings?
RS: The portraits and their titles are two separate things that build up together to create the meaning of the piece. My intention in creating the portraits is to find and represent the humanity of the people in the pictures, whether they are the victim of some terrible crime or the perpetrator. I find that the media tends to flatten people’s lives out to be mere illustrations of stories. I’m interested in who these people are on a deeper level. Who were these people before this inciting incident? What brought them to this moment? When I exhibit my work, I show the portraits without labels right next to them so that for a time the viewer does not know who these people are, they are human again. If the viewer is curious and reads the title, they will get to fill in the story about what happened to these humans, but in that gap between looking and reading, the person’s humanity is re-instilled, even if only temporarily.
MH: Your work with portraits often wrestles with Gothic tropes–the monster within—yet resists producing caricatures of demons and angels, perpetrators and victims of crime. Your portraits are often described as tender, humanizing, and empathetic. In your process of transforming photographs into watercolor portraits, how do you psychologically reckon with the subjects you paint so that you do not simply absolve or vilify the individuals and instead elucidate their humanity?
RS: Early on I realized that watercolor was the perfect medium for this project because of the effect it was having on the portraits I was making. It brought a sense of sentimentality to the portraits that conflated people’s sometimes extreme emotional connections to the subject matter. As I’ve mentioned several times now, I am trying to get people to be empathetic about someone they have potentially already made up their minds about. To do this I have chosen to reframe the person, take them out of the photographic reproduction we are used to consuming, and recreate them by hand. This translation is full of pathos and as much as I try to remove it, some of how I feel about the person is translated into the drawing. That being said, I stay away from caricature and vilification and challenge myself and the audience to deal with the complexity of each person’s story.
MH: In this issue of Mistake House there is a supplement exploring findings from a recent project on the Principia College campus titled, “Moral Discourse in a Post-Truth World.” In the past, you have said that the exploration of the nature of evil in your work involves “investigations into the lives of criminals and victims of crime” (Mixed Greens). Would you consider your creative practice as journalistic in that it is engaged with the investigative task of uncovering and describing the truth? Or, are you perhaps engaged with the act of truth-making?
RS: My job as an artist is to pose questions. To challenge the status quo, the way we have always done things and ask whether we can do better. I leave the journalistic work to the people trained to do that work. My work as an artist, a political artist, is to push our culture forward to a better place. It is a role artists (and I mean this in the broadest sense of the term) have been doing since the beginning of time. Since we were documenting the day’s hunt on the walls of caves, artists have been looking at the world we live in from a step removed and questioning what we see.
MH: Your work intentionally offers no resolution to the issues of guilt and innocence, or social and political frustration. The work forces the viewer to draw conclusions and engage with the subjects it suggests. What insights or conclusions have you drawn about the nature of evil since you began engaging with your artistic practice?
RS: I don’t know that I have come to any conclusions, if anything I have more questions now than when I started. One thing I know is that within each of us is a dark side and dependent on our circumstances and the situations we are put in, more or less of it is expressed. It is part of the reason I am obsessed with cult leaders and documentary films about cults. It seems that in each of these films the leaders of these groups set out to do something positive, spread the love of their god, build a community and live in a better way. But it seems that every time, the darker side of human nature tears the whole structure down and creates a situation worse than the one they meant to escape. The human ego seems to be the destroyer of all things good. Boy, I could sight some examples from my one life to prove it, but I think I’ll pass on that.
MH: In a piece by The New York Times, you say that you are “trying constantly not to just flatten [life] out” (McDermon 2017) When you depict both criminals and victims in the same non-biased way—as a means of showing the complexity of human nature—is there a certain headspace that the work requires? Your portraits radiate empathy for humanity; as the artist, where does that vulnerability transport you both emotionally and mentally?
RS: I feel like I have answered this question already, but one thing I would like to add is that it can be really challenging emotionally to do some of these portraits. When I am making a portrait of someone who was tragically killed I feel their pain, their families’ pain and that emotion pushes me to do my best work, to honor this person in a way no one else will take the time to do. At the same time when I sit down to make a portrait of someone like Dylann Roof, I am confronted with a whole other set of emotions. I am challenged in a real way to think about the ethical implications of what I am doing. Is this the “right” thing to be doing? Is art really the place to be having these discussions? From my experience it tends to be the only place life is discussed with this level of complexity.
MH: You have explained that your paintings exploring the gray areas between innocence and guilt evolved from the Black Rock Negative Energy Absorbers project at a time when you started thinking about the “dark side of human nature, that part of all of us that causes us to mistreat and distrust one another” (McGrath 2011). In your words, the Black Rock series of sculptures attempts to “expunge negative energy from the viewer” who sees and feels the effect of “tragic events that continue to unfold in the world around us.” Can you speak about the evolution of your concept from creating a physical, three-dimensional form and space (to release negative energy) to engaging with the two-dimensional renderings of faces of humans who are subject to and responsible for the evil that generates this negative energy?
RS: While working on the smaller Black Rock Negative Energy Absorber sculptures in 2006, I saw this New York Post headline that showed this young black man, Ronell Wilson, under the headline “Fry Baby.” This egregious sensational headline caught my eye because of the look on the young man’s face and the little portraits of police officers below him. It turns out that Ronell Wilson was accused of killing the two police officers and the reason he was on the cover was because the day before in court he had stuck his tongue out at one of the widows. To see a newspaper so blatantly disregards someone’s humanity like this was upsetting to me, but as I looked into the story it was hard to see Ronell Wilson as some innocent victim of the media’s cruel ire. In this case there were no clear good guys and bad guys, what Ronell Wilson did was terrible but what the New York Post did was also terrible. What struck me is how what the Post did by shaming this man so publicly was going to affect the way people look at me and other people (black men) that look like Ronell.
I didn’t know how at the time, but I knew it was somehow related to the sculpture project. So I bought a copy of the paper and hung this page on the studio wall. I eventually decided to make a painting of Ronell Wilson and that was the beginning of the Criminal/Victim project. Twelve years later, the project has morphed in many different directions but at the core it is still an investigation into the complexity of these types of stories. The drawings and paintings of people and situations are an attempt to speak directly and indexically about the problems going on in the world by naming and articulating them one at a time. Whereas the sculptural work, both the Black Rock Negative Energy Absorber sculptures and the Healing Devices (small ceramic sculptures), attempt to suggest a solution by bringing in an element of the spiritual. If we can’t figure out with our logical mind how to fix the ills of our society, can we call on God, magic, the Great Spirit of the Universe to help? I know among liberal-minded artist types this kind of thinking is not popular, but it, like art, is something that mankind has been using to cope with the unknown since the beginning of time. All cultures around the world have faith traditions and all of those traditions have sacred objects, objects imbued with power to change things in our material world. My sculpture practice hopes to build on that tradition by understanding what has come before and building new forms and traditions for our present time.
MH: In an interview titled “Heroes and Villains” in the Wake Forest News, you touch on the rhetoric of mythology and religion in your art; specifically, the Black Rock Negative Energy Absorbers (McGrath 2011). Can you speak more to the specific religious and mythological influences on your sculptural work? As a spiritual object that is meant to absorb negativity, your sculptures parallel the criminal and victim portraits, which absorb the negative media attention and reveal a human-being. What spiritual and mythological influences have informed your creative practice when working on the portraits?
RS: I began talking about this in the answer above, but I would like to add the following: Up to now the Black Rock Negative Energy Absorber project has been about creating a fictitious belief system loosely based on things that exist in the world already, from new age traditions of healing crystals to those of various African cultures like the Bamana people of Mali who create Boli—figurines thought to control and shape spiritual energy–and the Latin American cultural tradition of placing an Azabache charm on a child to protect the new born against the evil eye and negative energy.
MH: Can you speak to the significant difference in scale and shape between the Black Rock Negative Energy Absorber exhibited in Socrates Sculpture Park and the sculpture installed behind the Visual Arts Building on the Penn State’s University Park campus? How is the shape of the sculpture influenced by its location? How does the size of your sculptures change the viewer’s perception of your concept, as in the Healing Devices? How does the magnitude of the sculpture interact with the magnitude of a viewer’s “negative energy”?
RS: All of the large public Black Rock Negative Energy Absorber sculptures are meant to be site responsive, meaning they are designed to fit aesthetically in the space where they reside. The BRNEA at Socrates Sculpture Park was in a large empty field with the New York skyline in the background. Its size, shape, and orientation were all designed specifically to sit in relationship to the buildings in the background, as well as not be dwarfed by the big open field it was in. The piece at PSU was a smaller more intimate space nestled between three buildings with a walkway right in front of it and so it did not need to be as large to have a similar effect.
With these large sculptures as well as the Healing Devices and the human-scale BRNEA sculptures I am also thinking about the pieces in relation to the human body. Whether the piece towers over you, is your height, or is something you can hold in your hand is all very intentional and suggests a different type of interaction and relationship between the person and the object. I am using scale here in a similar way to the drawings and paintings, either small to encourage an intimate relationship or over-sized to overwhelm your senses and give a sense of awe.
MH: Before switching your focus to art, you were studying to become a doctor. Does your medical background inform your creative processes, and if so, how? There is an inclination toward empathy in both lines of work, but are there other ways in which your medical lens informs the artistic practice?
RS: My interest in becoming a doctor was all about wanting to be of service. Through art I have found a way to do that which makes use of my unique skill set. At first this was the only connection, but now that I am exploring the idea of Healing Devices and doing performances as
the Healer, the specific idea of being a healer is coming into my work and linking back to what made me want to be a doctor.
MH: You have said that you “sometimes . . . dream of just locking [yourself] in a room with Internet access and painting materials and never coming out” McGrath 2011). While you might not get the chance to enjoy prolonged isolation to work, it sounds like your creative process requires periods of incubation, steeping, and stewing for ideas to fully form. With all the demands of working as an artist, how do you preserve spaces and times to burrow and work creatively?
RS: My current job as a professor at the Penn State School of Visual Art provides me a lot of time to work in the studio, wander around aimlessly pondering the meaning of life. I have all the isolation I could ever want. I am finding now that I have enough time to work and think alone and I am more interested in finding opportunities to work creatively with other artists and musicians. The performance practice has been great for this and has really brought some fresh energy into my practice.
MH: You’ve shared advice on working as an artist. The first and main point: “work hard, work really hard, really really hard” (McGrath 2011). The creative process is demanding at every step—conceptualization, generation, revision, evaluation, and final exhibition—and, like a glacier, most of the work will never be seen. How do you think about your work each day to help you stay motivated?
RS: It is easy to work and stay focused when I have deadlines out in front of me, exhibitions that I am creating work for, and I am working on a project that is conceptually all worked out. It is harder to stay focused and motivated when it is not clear when the next show will be or if what I am working on makes any sense. It is important to me to always be working in new directions, trying out new ideas and challenging old assumptions. So, it is important to go through these challenging phases in the creative process.
During these times I remind myself that it is my work, I can do whatever I want, I do not need to be overly concerned with how it will be received critically (something I can never predict anyway). Sometimes it’s fun, a lot of times it’s not, especially the large Holy Mountain paintings that take 3-6 months to complete. There are days in the studio where I feel like I am ruining the painting or that I will never finish the damn thing. It is important during these times to have discipline and courage, to work when I don’t feel like working, when it’s not fun, and I am not sure I am doing the right thing. Chris Ofili once told me that you have to be willing to ruin a mediocre painting to make a good one.
MH: What excited you most about the piece you did with the Laundromat Project in 2009, in which you set up a drawing station in front of a Harlem laundromat for community members to be creative together and exchange art work? In the 1950s and 60s, Allan Kaprow engaged in pieces which he called “happenings,” occurrences of ordinary life documented in some way. Would you consider this project a type of “happening”?
RS: I like the idea of thinking of that project as a type of Happening. It was definitely a project that existed in that specific moment in a way it never will again. It was part performance, part sculpture, and part public engagement. It was an experiment, one I learned a lot from that shaped future public art projects. It didn’t go quite as planned, but it was the things that didn’t go right that I learn so much from. Failure is an important teacher in art, I wouldn’t consider the project a failure, but I did fail to get as many people involved as I hoped. Trying to figure out why has taught me so much.
MH: Do you ever play hooky (we hope you do)? And, if you do, what is your favorite thing to do when you take off suddenly, as in a dérive?
RS: Yes, I play hooky, probably too much. My most distracting hobby is running. I started off running for fun and to get in shape, but over the years it has grown into this huge pillar in my life and like everything in my life I have taken it to an illogical extreme. I do these things called ultramarathons, which are races that are longer than a marathon, usually on trails in the mountains. So far, I have run 18 of these races included six 50 mile races and two 100 mile races. This weekend I am running a 50 mile race, the North Face Endurance Challenge in Washington DC and in July I will run the Vermont 100 for the third time.