The February sky was dark and Vitus Shell mixed colors hours before the golden light of morning. The previous day, his workspace was filled with visitors and other artists. Now, he painted alone, transforming a pencil outline into a shade of life on paper. As the sun rose, Shell took an x-acto knife and cut the painting from the paper, easing his workflow for that afternoon, when he would paint and pack, before darkness fell again and the next group of Joan Mitchell Center resident artists arrived.
Six weeks earlier, Shell had driven from his hometown of Monroe, Louisiana to New Orleans on Interstate 55 South, a route filled with overpasses crossing swampy waters. After a short hiatus from making art, Shell again had a clear grasp of himself and his work. Now, between telephone conversations and switching CDs, he thought as he drove. His thoughts repeatedly returned to the bridges between Jim Crow and hip-hop for his next show, “Turnt Up 2 Da Max,” which is part of an ongoing series he calls Slim Crowism.
Shell, 34, is a diminutive man, with long dreadlocks and a penchant for wearing shorts. He is a sleuth for visual vernacular who grew up in the late 1980s when music videos were something watched on television, not YouTube, and a lot of rap still had a wholesome quality. Now, the music he hears too often seems to draw from a time when “beats” and “whips” were something to be feared not merely instrumental tracks and cars. Painful and antiquated stereotypes, like the Brute, Buck, Clown, Mammy, and Jezebel, have been updated, dare we say modernized. “You look at hip-hop and pop videos today and start to see all of those images repeating themselves,” he says.
Shell, an avid researcher, combines “what was” and “what is” the visual representation of black people in environments he constructs by enlarging photocopied illustrations from archived magazines and newspapers (with terms like “slaves,” “hair relaxer,” “skin bleacher”) and applying them to canvas, then painting them with yellow ochre acrylic paint for an aged look. Shell paints his subjects—always African-American and usually young—separately on paper. Finally, he fuses the subject to the environment using a clear acrylic matte medium.
Shell’s art is a search for truth: an exploration of black families and a means for him to understand himself through history. His paintings, like Langston Hughes’ poems, speak directly to the black experience, while climbing the ladder of abstraction to the American experience, and then to the universal human experience: love, joy, hurt, and dreams deferred. Shell explains that it’s important for him that people see the work and at least comprehend it. “I don’t always want to feel like I’m talking to the academia or only to people who understand the visual language and perspective,” he says. Coupling imagery with words and symbols, he hopes all kinds of people will see something relatable. But relatable is not enough.
“As artists, there are lots of things we have to do to help our community,” Shell says. “For me, my work has to say something about change.” Through his work, Shell has become a spokesperson for the low-income community in which he was raised, promoting conversations that would normally go unheard or be ignored by outsiders. Positive self-image is one of his major talking points, which is why it’s important to him that his works reach beyond galleries and museums, especially to connect with African-American college students.
Shell grew up on the Southside of Monroe in the Burg Jones Lane Projects. There he saw gold teeth light up dark corners and box Chevys with oversized chrome rims and bass-rattling trunks. In junior high, Shell and his mother moved out of the projects, but the images of those formative years continued to shape him and his art. After high school, he attended the Memphis College of Art, where he majored in illustration and studied with Robert Bain, Brenda Joysmith, and George Hunt. Shell was transitioning to fine art when he met Edwin McSwine in 2000. Shell joined the NIA Artist Collective with McSwine and Frank D. Robinson, Jr. and together the three began the frequent road trips that would further fuel Shell’s development as an artist. Traveling by van and sleeping on friends’ couches, the group gallery-hopped between 2004 to 2007, sometimes traveling as far as New York to see shows and exhibit their work.
Between 2003 to 2008, Shell had 13 solo shows and almost 40 group exhibitions. During that time he’d also earned a master’s degree from the University of Mississippi and been invited to Skowhegan’s venerable nine-week fellowship in Maine. But back in Monroe by 2009, he says, “the work wasn’t coming out right.” “It burnt me out,” he continues. He stopped and started, trying to understand his aim with the work—often asking himself “what is it about” and “who is it for.” He didn’t exhibit for three years. Then in 2012, an art professor at nearby Grambling State University took ill and Shell was asked to replace him, teaching full-time for two semesters. Immersed with art and other artists, he was inspired to pick up the paintbrush again.
Now, on the second floor of a studio on Rampart Street across from Congo Square, where slaves danced and played music on Sundays, Shell stroked the finishing colors on a man. His subject, a college student with thick-rimmed glasses, kneels in his tan cargo pants and black t-shirt, his long hair coming out of the sides of a lime-green baseball cap.
“That look good doesn’t it, bro?” Shell quipped and took a swig of Abita Strawberry beer, still cold from the previous night’s open studio event. Shell was one of 24 artists invited by the Joan Mitchell Center for their Artist-in-Residence Pilot Program. On the eve of his departure, he reflected on what New Orleans had given him—an environment to thrive but also to think about change.
He painted incessantly. But, he also ate po’ boys, watched NFL playoff games, and went to parades. The night before Fat Tuesday, staffers from the Center took Shell and other residents to the home of Darryl Montana, Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas. Early Mardi Gras morning, a crowd gathered outside of Montana’s home, but before the Indians could debut their new suits, shots rang out.
In the studio, Shell’s a habitual just-one-more-thing type of person. Finally, he relented to the rising sun, capped his paints, and washed his brushes out. His drive back to Monroe was nearing, a return home.
“This ain’t real because so much is given,” he says of the residency program, explaining that anything the artists could need or want was provided. Even as he joked that the Joan Mitchell Center staff would have “to put him out” of the plush dwelling, a former bed and breakfast, Shell was eager to return to Monroe, where its people and their custom-painted cars awaited him. “I love it,” Shell says. “That’s what the work is about—the people I interact with everyday.”
“Turnt Up 2 Da Max” opens Thursday, May 23, 5-7 pm, at the JMC Studios (1000 N. Rampart St) in New Orleans. Additional hours by appointment: contact email@example.com or call 504.940.2500.
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