Arts & Culture

Sculptures and metaphors from Stephen Hayes

Stephen Hayes’ goal is to make a living with his art and to make “my art famous and my name legendary.” This is pretty ambitious for a young artist who could not learn to read his first years in school. However, judging by his accomplishments, a significant body of art and teaching at the college level, it seems quite possible. Hayes had a lot of help to get where he is, especially from his mother who worked two jobs to see he received that help.

Recently he was named the Durham Art Guild’s 2017 Artist in Residence. It pays a small stipend, offers studio space at Golden Belt, requires a certain amount of work per week in the studio and one public presentation or workshop.

The artist and I met in a quiet corner of the Durham Art Guild’s gallery and talked about his art, his residency, and his goals. When I first read about his residency, I remembered a large installation of his at North Carolina Central University’s Art Museum a few years ago. It was an impressive presentation about African slavery told through life-size casts of human beings chained together and tied to pallets used for storing or moving materials. Titled “Cash Crop” this was his 2010 thesis show from the Savannah School of Art (SCAD). He explained the piece to me, saying it was about the transport of merchandise and how that has evolved from human beings to goods made by people who work in sweat shops for pennies making clothes that sell for hundreds of dollars. Those things also end up on the same kind of pallet. He added that when he talks about this installation he wants kids, especially, to try to imagine how it might feel to be chained on a boat for six to eight weeks

We talked about the people who had the most impact on his artistic life besides his mother and he quickly said, “It was Isabel Chicquor, who has died. She was one of my professors at NCCU. She came to my house and looked at my ceramics and had me send off slides to Alfred University, which resulted in a residency there.”

Growing up in Durham, Hayes, born in 1983, went to Lakewood Elementary school and could not learn to read. His mother was determined he would read and enrolled him at Camelot Academy; while there he went part-time to the Hill Center, and he graduated high school. He then earned a bachelor’s degree from NCCU and his MFA from SCAD. He told me he always made art and the best gift his mother ever gave him was a real work bench with real tools. His mother would bring old mechanical parts from work, like vacuum cleaner parts, and encourage him to get creative with them. His older brother also taught him how to put things together like a remote control toy car. Found objects are the core of many of his compositions.

At Camelot, they offered one-week lessons on a number of skills and he chose to learn how to crochet. I asked what did the other boys think about his taking up needlework. “I didn’t worry about anybody else,” he said. He added, “I love to make art. I can’t go to sleep without thinking about a project. I want to wow someone with the things I make.”

We talked about graduate school and his honesty saddened and heartened me. He said it set him back for quite a while. He described his first critique. “I made a life-size skeleton from crocheted yarn and coat hangers and then couldn’t explain it in fancy language, ‘art speak’ language,” Hayes said. “The others had made abstract paintings and talked on and on. I want my art to speak for itself. I want the viewer to get it without having to read about it. I want people to feel something.”

He said he was the only African American in his class. “The teachers made me feel like I wasn’t an artist, just an illustrator. I called my mom and said this place is not for me, but she said you hang in. It will be all right.” And eventually it was. He does have some big college debt and that worries him.

If he was tongue-tied in school, he is not anymore. Hayes was very clear about how he feels about his art. I asked what was good about SCAD and he said he watched video demos in the shop and learned how to use saws, how to weld and make sculpture. The best thing for him, however, was his own “studio space 24/7.”

Hayes is actually just finishing the first 13-month Missy Luczak-Smith and Doug Smith fellowship at Charlotte’s McColl Center and now will have six months at Golden Belt. In a short paragraph he e-mailed after we talked, he wrote that he is focused on making work that fuses the past and present and is based on sociocultural and economic themes in American history: capitalism, commodification of human beings and the subsequent brainwashing effects. His recurring imagery is the horse, corn and the pawn chess piece, all of which are metaphors for the racial structure in American society and how we navigate that system today.

He would not tell me much about his next project but said he would like to include music. He works in a variety of media from cast concrete to crocheted twine to blacksmithing. He plans to put some of his finished work on display in the studio, but intends to make big pieces and needs empty walls for his new ideas. Besides making art he hopes this will become an important platform for networking.

Hayes talked constantly about having his own private work space as something he cherishes and needs. “When I don’t have my own studio space, I’m forced to work outside,” he said. “I’m getting off the porch and I can’t wait.”

Blue Greenberg may be reached at