Steve Locke’s Watercolors
Steve Locke sold fifty 5 x 7-inch watercolor portraits through social media in June 2015, and an additional hundred similar paintings in August. He asked those who wished to participate to send him fifty dollars and any specific requests. For a few weeks, snapshots of the watercolors radiated from the Facebook and Instagram accounts of Locke’s connections. The images, taken by their recipients, enthusiastically reported their arrival by the US Postal Service. – Shana Dumont Garr, Boston Contributor
The watercolors all depict men's faces, disembodied, accentuated by bold and varied fields of color on white paper. Broad strokes detail the men’s features, and the patches of color at times surround and anchor the face, and at other times float near the crown of the head, seeming to symbolize a thought. The faces’ solemn, neutral, or comical expressions were often at odds with the thrilled tone of the posts. “I am SO EXCITED to add this to my collection,” for example, could accompany a somber-faced man with downcast eyes. Locke’s paintings, whatever the media, are lush, vibrant, and direct. They involve intense subject matter, specifically experiences of racism, homophobia, and the expectation that men are not to express their emotions.
Each painting holds up as an individual work. Meanwhile, the social and affordable way that they were dispersed into dozens of personal collections accentuates the spirit of this series. In some cases, a painting became the first original work of art a participant owned. I talked with four of the people who purchased the paintings to get a more well-rounded view of the impact of the project, and I quote them throughout this blog post.
Carole d’Inverno, a painter, met Steve at the Vermont Studio Center in 2013. She said, “I am holding the post card painting now and I am inspired by the directness, the intimacy, the great palette, the roughness of the paper. It has so much breathing space, no added frills, a starkness that leaves room for questions.
I am left with questions, so I can go back and look again and again.”
A multi-media artist whose works range from lithographs to neon signs, a large proportion of Locke’s paintings are oil on beveled panels. He wrote on his blog, art and everything after, about what prompted him to shift media and begin a series devoted to watercolor in a post titled “that last time we touched the water,” (http://artandeverythingafter.com/that-last-time-we-touched-the-water/). It was a restful time with friends during the summer of 2014, where relaxation and swimming blended with the direct experience of dipping paper in the water and painting on the wet sheets as he watched a friend swim.
Susan Kieffer, a Chicago-based writer who met Locke through mutual friends, said, “I see the watercolor project as a process by which this fluid connection expands to reach more people, as if the paintings float on water rippling outward. And it enlarges the space in which the art occurs.” Locke made over 100 watercolors since the summer of 2014, about half of which he exhibited at the Hudson Opera House in 2015 in an exhibition with the same title, that last time we touched the water (http://hudsonoperahouse.org/events/steve-locke-april-4-may-10-2015/). “My interest in watercolor over that past year or so has been framed by my interest in water as a material and as a metaphor,” said Locke. “I have been thinking a lot about water, travel, the Middle Passage, loss, drowning. That is very much in these and all of the water based work." The paintings are consistent, varying with their emotional range that is conveyed by powerful, specific facial expressions, some awkward, with tongues sticking out, and others pensive and reserved, with mouths closed and gazes averted.
My memory of this body of work will always be associated with the summertime, as it was a bright and hot afternoon in June when I opened the envelope containing the painting that I purchased. It felt like a gift that Locke decided to disperse the paintings in an affordable and public manner. They are the lemonade of his insomnia, so to speak. When he can't sleep, he paints.
When announcing the project, Locke said that many of his friends and colleagues told him they wished they could have seen the exhibition in Hudson, or that they they could afford to acquire his artwork. On his blog he wrote about how, as he painted at the lake, he remembered how he used to dislike watercolor, and he recalled, after many years, the lessons he’d learned from one of his mentors. The generosity of his teacher and his friends fed his production.
Patrick Foran is a former student of Locke’s who now teaches art. He said, “Having Steve's art reminds me that being an art teacher means I have to do more than just teach, I have to make art as well. It's nice having my own mini Steve Locke staring at me and telling me to put down my phone and make something real.” This project involves the sales of artwork with methods that enable many people to support an artist directly and to experience art first-hand. It provides an antidote to some of the issues, such as extremely high price points, that characterize much of the commercial art world.
This is not Locke’s first mail project. He began his ongoing spectators series in 2003 (http://stevelocke.com/Source/spectator.html), postcards with historic images of lynching. He removed the body from the photograph in part to separate the original source of the spectacle from that focus, and also to let our gaze fall on the spectators. The at times proud and joyful expressions of those in the mob are difficult to witness. Locke sent the cards to friends, artists, and others, including names and addresses he found from the phone book. Locke said, "A lot of people have the original mail art pieces like SOME MEN, LES HOMMES D’AFFAIRES, and RAPTURE that I sent out for free at the start of my mail-based practice. I love sending stuff through the mail and I love that notion that someone will get something directly, just by writing some numbers on a piece of paper. I will keep doing them." Locke’s love of the mail is in line with his ability to communicate as readily with words as with his artwork. He is a memorable public speaker and regularly shares salient and pithy remarks about on his Twitter and Facebook accounts.
Rosemary Taylor, an artist who met Locke when they were both students at the Massachusetts College of Art, said, “I am drawn to the human-ness of Steve's work. I find the directness to be confrontational and welcoming at the same time.” I asked Locke to what extent each painting was a portrait. "I think of aspects of someone’s face or the bridge of their nose or something like that. They are not observed and I don’t work from photographs, but I do have a mental inventory of faces. The paintings happen in the moment, so they don’t have a plan or an anticipated form.” He balances color and form so that each work conveys a specific emotion, so raw and sincere that it couldn’t be summarized with one phrase. As Carole D’Inverno said, we can return to the paintings again and again.
Shana Dumont Garr is a writer and contemporary art curator. She is the first Director of Kingston Gallery, an artist-run alternative space in Boston’s SoWa Gallery District, and she teaches art history at Montserrat College of Art.