In late March, when the state went into lockdown mode, Steve Prince got to work.
Prince, a New Orleans native, is the first director of engagement at the Muscarelle Museum of Art at William & Mary; he’s also its distinguished artist in residence. As a direct response to the COVID-19 crisis, he produced a series of free weekly videos teaching people, step-by-step, how to draw a human face using tools that most everyone can find at home.
We caught up with Prince by phone one afternoon in April while he was safely socially distancing in his studio, drawing and conjuring up what’s next for his virtual audience.
Sounds like you’ve filled your quarantine days being creative. Tell us what you’re working on:
I have an exhibition coming up in October at the Stella Jones Gallery down in New Orleans, Louisiana. I’m producing a body of work for that. It’s mostly small prints and drawings. So right now, I’m doing some watercolor monoprints; I’m doing some pencil drawings; I’m doing some charcoal drawings. All those things are going at the same time. I’m also doing some linoleum cuts as well.
Tell us about the Muscarelle in the House videos you produced while everyone was stuck at home:
I had to figure out ways I can continue to do my job in terms of engaging the community. So, I came up with this idea of doing a series of tutorials that people can use in different contexts. It’s open for virtually any age. I tried to create a basic formula that was drawing upon different mediums that are already out there in the public sphere.
There are nods to The Outer Limits, and even Mister Rogers, in your friendly, approachable manner.
I’m doing all these little subtle things that I know different generations will pick up on. I have a little humor at the very beginning where I do something that’s kind of slapstick, but even in that slapstick, I always make a little serious messaging. It’s not just me being silly, but it’s purposely designed to make you laugh.
And you kept the videos very DIY.
I didn’t want it to be something where I had to worry about high technology in order to pull off. I’m doing all the videos in one take. I’m also doing the videos with homemade signs. (I’m showing) you don’t need all those things in order to be creative. All you need is a piece of paper and a pencil.
Please tell me that’s you beat boxing.
That’s me beat boxing. (It’s) a nod to the ‘80s. I use hip-hop as another symbol for this project because hip-hop started with the most basic instruments – it was people’s bodies. And many of the rappers weren’t making their own music, they were sampling music to make new music, so it’s this idea of recycling. So, it’s another form of creativity in the context of, you don’t have a drum or a horn or a piano, can you still make music? And the answer, of course, is yes.
As the museum’s distinguished artist in residence you have an open studio. What do you enjoy about sharing your art and process with the public?
Life is a process. That’s what connects it. As an artist, as a maker, I understand that this process of making art is connected to our humanscape.
What do you love most about being an art educator?
I love art. The love of art starts, I believe, with the love of self and then it’s a love of other people and the love of community. And one thing I love about teaching is that you’re in the context of these small communal pockets of sharing. Being a professor, being a teacher – I view that as not only a special position, I view it as a sacred one.
When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
I knew since I was 5 years old. I also had very clear, consistent support to be an artist my entire life. I have never had anyone say to me, “Oh, Steve, you need to think of another profession” or “You’re not going to make it.”
You have been described as an “art evangelist.”
That term, “art evangelist,” was one that was given to me. I did not create it for myself. A friend of mine named Phil Schaafsma called me that for a couple of years before I accepted it. I’ve done a lot of work not only in the secular community but also in a faith community and with different schools, community centers, different programs over the years where I created workshops and so forth. I use the arts as a means of going out in the community and not just simply planting art places.
What’s an example?
Before I was hired at William & Mary, they hired me to work with individuals in the institution to grapple with the history of the first three African Americans that were resident students at William & Mary in 1967 — that’s 275 years post the inception of this institution. I had 12 students sign up for the class, ranging from age 18 all the way up to 70. At the end of that month, I ended up creating an 8-foot-by-8-foot mixed media piece that was a mixture of acrylic painting, bronze casting and woodcuts, and I had all those people in the class help me work on creating (it). And now it is a permanent piece in Swem Library as part of the president’s collection on the campus.
The human form and the African American experience seem to be a primary theme of your work.
As an artist, I know that I’ve been sensitized to see and to see differently. So, when I’m creating, there’s an element of communication that has taken place that supersedes the figure. But I have purposely dedicated my work to speak about the human concerns in which we’re engaged. And a lot of that sensitivity, I have to attribute it to my upbringing in New Orleans and some of the things I experienced growing up as a young black man in America and things that I went into my adult years with — my interactions of teaching, my interactions with different people, in different instances. The stories go on and on. Therefore I dedicated my work to speak about the history, to speak about our journey, to speak about those things that had been silenced, to speak about the unsung, but also to speak about those who just did tremendous things in the face of just really horrific times.
You call your work “poly-narrative.” What do you mean?
I know that, if a 10-year-old on up were to see my work, each one’s going to see different things. Some of that is based upon your cultural upbringing. Some of that is based on your maturity level. Some of that’s based on what you’ve been exposed to in terms of your experience as a human being. Poly-narrative is there in that there are multiple layers of stories built on top of each other like a palimpsest. As you take the time to look at the work and begin to sift through that which you see, things will reveal (themselves) to you in time.
What are you listening to right now?
Music is major to my life. Growing up in New Orleans, music was all around me and I grew up in a very musical household. I listen to a lot of different (things), like this morning when I was taking my shower I was listening to The Cure. When I got here to the studio, I put on Louis Armstrong. Yesterday, I was listening to Sade. A day before that I was listening to a Gregory Porter. Two days before that I was listening to Run-DMC, so … eclectic.
Who’s on your list of artist heroes?
A whole lot of people, but the first one was my art professor from undergrad (at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans). His name was John Scott. He passed away in 2007. He is the reason why I chose to not only become a professor but to become an artist — do it full time. He was like a second father to me, that’s how close I was to him.
What’s next for Muscarelle in the House?
I’m not going to stop them. I’m gonna keep doing them. They may not be as frequent as they are now, but after we get back in the swing of things, I may do a couple of them a month or something like that.
— Interview by Victoria Bourne; condensed and edited for space and clarity.