This week The Gallery at the Piano Factory is featuring the work of MFA graduate Steven Spencer. His exhibition covers a wide range of themes from Fenway park to simple ripples in water. His most impactful pieces incorporate elements of Jazz, struggle, race and rehabilitation. These beautiful collections relate to his story: a story that begins with serious crack addiction and homelessness and ends with an MFA college degree and gallery show.
“When I began painting I was homeless out in Philadelphia. I was drawing people’s pictures to get money. And this woman came by and asked me to paint her daughter’s picture.”
“And I was like, ‘Lady, I can’t paint your daughter’s picture. I draw; I don’t paint.’ And she was like, ‘Sure you can.’ So she went the store and bought all this stuff. She gave me a couple hundred dollars and said, ‘Paint the portrait and I’ll give you a couple more dollars and you can keep all of the stuff.’ So one I tried, it didn’t come out right; the second one I tried didn’t come out right. So I worked all night long until I made one that came out right.”
“So the next day she was so pleased with painting that she gave me four hundred dollars and she let me keep all of the stuff. Now I’m sitting there painting. And I painted a picture of the park and put it next to my bench.”
“And this lady from a gallery came and she said, ‘Ya know, this one that one and this one, pick those up off the bench and come with me.’ And I’m like, ‘Who are you?’ and somebody told me, ‘This is the lady from the gallery.’ So I took them into the gallery and all three of them sold. And then shortly after that I got out of the park and went home and was accepted back by my family for a little while and that was that.”
Spencer’s painting West End School relates back to his childhood as an important marker of time and history. On a personal level, he uses his paintings to better understand his own past and how it ties into his identity.
“This one is very important. This is a third grade experience of mine. When I was in the second grade, I was in a black school and they condemned the building so we had to go to a white school. But they wouldn’t let us in. It was November 9th. So in November they wouldn’t give me a desk, they would give me a milk crate. This was in 1964. And the teacher wouldn’t teach me. She would ignore me. So I had to learn how to listen, because my father said, ‘If you come home with a bad report card I’m gonna beat you.’ So I used kind of tricks to learn what the teacher was saying so that I could pass.”
“The first day I got there, the teacher was writing all these things on the board. I didn’t know what it meant until she said it to the class. She put the definition of white and black up. So white was all good: pure, snow … And black was all bad: evil sinister.”
“And these kids went home and told their parents. So when they came back to school they had more names to call me. So I had a bad self esteem issue and this continued until the seventh grade.”
“There were other black kids in the school, but they separated them all into different white classrooms. So they would just torment us. And the jazz phone is just telling the story. And so a lot of us became drug addicts and alcoholics because of this low self-esteem.”
“I painted everyone as eggs because I was fragile. They were fragile, too, because this was their first time being racist. And it’s my first time receiving this treatment.”
Like in many of his other paintings, Spencer weaves the narrative through the medium of visual art with a heavy reference to music’s story telling ability.
“I was trying to create my own original jazz painting, but it came out as more of a Blues painting.”
Although he pulls inspiration from his own experience, his work speaks to larger issues relevant to current social conditions. One piece in particular, entitled Cupping, easily brings to mind the problems concerning the increasing homeless population relative to the country’s economic struggles.
“I’m from New Jersey and I tried to connect some of these paintings with Boston. But this one here is called cupping. I am exaggerating the fact that I used to bum money. So I used the back of the Whitehouse to describe the fact that I was going to change anywhere.”
Cupping is a great example of a painting that will read as something completely different for someone unfamiliar with Spencer’s personal history. An assumed theme of the painting could relate to the separation of classes and the growth of the homeless population.
Although Steven’s stories are powerful, there is something wider, something more political to be said about the painting on its own.
Cupping is hung amongst others on the same wall in the Piano Factory that relate to Spencer’s story of homelessness and addiction.
“I call this one Pee. I was one day outside sitting down drinking a beer and I fell asleep in an alley and I woke up to a dog pissing on my leg.”
“I remember this and I never will forget this. So instead of setting this where it actually happened, I set it in the Boston area because it could happen anywhere.”
Pee is a great example of Spencer’s sincerity. His blunt approach concerning his own journey allows a glimpse into the struggle of what some actually live through.
“This one right here is called Relapses. This is what you look like when your smoking crack. You get paranoid, you’re always looking around and your eyes get bigger than they usually are because you come across skitzy.”
His painting A Huge Alcohol Problem effectively creates a monument out of his addiction through scale.
“This one here called A Huge Alcohol Problem. This whole wall here is actually a biography of my life before recovery. I exaggerated the bottles to explain how this gentleman here, me, has this huge alcohol problem.”
“It’s to show how disastrous it was and it was causing all kinds of problems. So everything is empty because I’ve drank it all.”
The series depicting Spencer’s struggle was unexpected. What had initially attracted my interest were his pieces relating to Jazz and I fucking love Jazz.
“I officiate the older Jazz because that is the origin. So I like to do paintings of Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington and people like that because, while I’m doing the painting I’m trying to stretch into contemporary art. I used photographs to paint from, but then I manipulated them so that they were mine.”
“Listening to Jazz actually gets me through the day. It’s just like what alcohol and drugs do for some people.”
Almost half of this exhibit features Spencer’s work using Jazz imagery. And it’s awesome. His passion is clearly conveyed though his attention to detail and effective use of color. It is definitely worth a look in real life. His gallery is open at the Gallery at the Piano Factory until July 30th.
Photography by James Owens
PAINTING BY STEVEN SPENCER
GALLERY AT THE PIANO FACTORY
791 TREMONT ST, BOSTON MA
617 437 9365
HRS: FRI 6PM-8PM