Vitus Shell: Something The Folks Down Home Can Connect With
Vitus Shell has seen a lot of worlds. Monroe, Louisiana where he grew up, Memphis, Tennessee where he was educated, and life overall. He loves drawing on that dualism for his work. His pieces don’t just capture ordinary black folk, his work places them on a long-deserved pedestal and demonstrates sensitivity in the same breath. Whether it’s confronting colorism (or even skin bleaching if you want to take it there) with a piece like “Lighter,” or during showings that channel Blaxploitation’s cinematic history, like “3 the Hard Way: HMAAC” which tackled toxic masculinity and BAIA promoted. Vitus himself wonders how he’s so fortunate that he’s pushing up murals and not daisies. He grew up in the Deep South and became one of 20 black freshmen entering Memphis College of Art in 1996, at the time the largest number of blacks matriculating. He chuckled at the memory when I spoke with him on the culture shock of moving from small-town life to a place steeped in culture and history–some of it bloodsoaked–like Memphis,
“Master P and Cash Money was king. They were beginning their rise to fame. Going to Memphis was Three 6 Mafia Land. The difference in black folks from town to town [struck me]. We think of the South as homogenous but regions are different. You really can’t tell by how someone is dressed where they’re from anymore.”
“Black folks owned a lot of things in Memphis. That was empowering to see. Drugs did different things to different artists. In Louisiana, it was heroin. I need to figure out a way to incorporate that into my work because my work is a reflection of Southern hip hop culture…”
I asked him to expound on the neo-classical motifs undergirding his pieces. Black people are actually black people, as they are in real life. He gives them dignity, a certain recognition. In Shell’s hands, a mother isn’t merely a night-shift nurse or a brother isn’t only a postal worker. They’re bedrocks of the community simply by living and breathing,
“When I’m out , I observe people all the time and the greatness that I see in them. We’re told so much negativity and we normally don’t pay attention. We’re superheroes, we do great things and don’t appreciate it as much as we should. We get praised for athletics. But we take our greatness in other fields for granted. Others see the greatness and commodify it. Little bits of greatness. When I make work, I have conversations with my models. Even the mug shots series–talking with them, we may be disappointed in them being there [in jail] but can reflect on [our] shared histories.
“We deserve to be human. We can’t just be a barber, a mother, a son. We are seen as a supervillain. We’re seen as hypersexual, hyper-violent people at all times. I create work about black folks just being. We can’t just go out and barbeque. Go sit in Starbucks. There must be an ulterior motive…”
Shell wants his work to be easily recognizable, not by his signature style or anything gaudy, but by it’s familiarity, particularly if you’re a child. He was once that kid, being recognized by teachers and community figures alike for his gifts from a young age. He hasn’t forgotten that wide-eyed wonder of childhood, remembering that he’s been drawing incessantly since the tender age of three when most kids can barely wrap their fingers assuredly around a pencil. He was capturing what he saw, who he knew, and he wants children in his community to have the same opportunity. So he makes an effort to keep his artwork accessible. You’re just as likely to find his murals in a play lot or on the side of a building as exhibited in a museum. His goal is to make sure his work is something the folks down home can immediately connect with,
“Out in the field, hopefully, I want them to see that the person who produced this work comes from a similar background, that he looks like my cousin, looks like my dad…
“Making art [my] career, it was the stuff that I saw coming up. There was a woman in Memphis , Brenda Joy Smith, and she had a live-work space. A gallery with a studio and living space on top. And I started putting together that this is something I can do [too]. [I see] the beauty in people, and I’ve been making the same work since I was 7 or 8, drawing the people around me…”
He also goes to lengths to ensure that he’s not doing more than he should do with a piece. He doesn’t try to make the black man more than human unnecessarily, or try to depict black women as superheroines when they are living life as they ought to be able to do,
“I’m cautious when portraying the black woman because that’s not my world. I do try to have conversations and I am trying to make work that my mother can view and get a sense of it or my cousin or my aunties. That they can see the work and get something out of it. Even if it’s just seeing someone that looks like themselves in the work.”
When asked who his influences are, or whether he has a favorite piece of artwork, he readily names venerable black artists, some of whom aren’t necessarily famous, or are just getting their due, even posthumously, and thanks the local woman who made his career possible, Ms. Joy-Smith, who didn’t mind illuminating the imagination of a young man when so many others at a certain level might not have bothered,
“…I like bodies of work. I like Kerry James Marshall’s bodies of work about Chicago’s project housing. Barkley Hendricks and Kehinde Wiley. I think a lot of people are finding out about Barkley even though his work has been shown in the Studio Museum since the 70s and 80s.
“Charles White, who taught Marshall and Hendricks…Charles White was one of the artists I knew about early. I was happy that Brenda was able to share [his work] with me.”
He’s paying it forward in his way, grinding as a graphic artist during the day and submitting to calls for work at night. Always making sure that his work stays visible at just the right height.
1 Joan Mitchell Foundation, Mixed Media, 2006 * 2. 3 the Hard Way: HMAAC, 2019
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Tash Moore is bicoastal Detroit booster, social entrepreneur and activist deeply passionate about promoting diversity & inclusion in all spheres. She currently spends her time between Detroit & DTLA.
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