Stephen Hayes Interview

In the main gallery space of the Hege Library stand fifteen life-size, manacled, plaster-cast figures, representing the fifteen million people shipped from Africa to America beginning in 1540. On the back of each of these figures is a woodcut that renders the layout of a slave ship, depicting approximately 600 Africans packed and transported as goods for monetary gain. In the library’s Atrium are additional prints, drawings, and sculptures that examine gluttony, consumption, and the unjust transport of goods, all with the central motif of a slave ship.

This exhibition is Cash Crop, a mixed-media installation that examines the parallels between the historic Atlantic slave trade and Third World sweatshops of today. Its creator, Stephen Hayes, returned to Guilford this week to proffer an array of events, appearances, and interviews.

Hayes at the plaster-casting workshop he taught Friday afternoon

Stephen is a native of Durham, NC. He received his B.F.A. in Graphic Design from North Carolina Central University in 2006, and is a recent M.F.A. graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta (where Cash Crop was his graduate thesis exhibition). This powerful and affecting installation was then shown at Mason Murer Fine Art in Atlanta, where it received wide critical acclaim (including a feature on CNN).

Cash Crop opened at Guilford on August 20th and will remain on display until December 16th.

In addition to hosting a plaster-casting workshop, holding a ‘meet-the creator-reception,’ and shooting countless videos for various media projects at Guilford in the past two days, Stephen was gracious enough to answer some of Hand/Eye’s questions:

H/E:  You prefer the term “creator” over “artist.” why is this and when did you start using this title?

SH:  I prefer the title of creator instead of artist because I love to make art. I like for my art to speak more than what words on paper would say—for  my artwork to be stronger than the words or at least hand and hand with the words. I feel like today art is more about what it means than what it looks like.

When I was in school and doing critiques, my artwork was really strong. It would sometimes take me a week to make all this work, and when I got to a critique, my classmates would bring in their sculptures, it looked like it took them maybe a day, or even five minutes. Then they’d have this big idea about what their artwork was about. Meanwhile, I’d come in with something amazing, or something I’d consider to be amazing, and not really have much to say about it. It would capture your attention more than my classmates’ work would, though.

I want my work to speak to everyday people not to just t art people. You know, there’s art for artists, and there’s art for people, and I want my art to be for people. That’s why I prefer the term “creator.”

H/E: What’s the biggest compliment you’ve ever received regarding your work?

SH: I get a lot of “thank yous;” people thanking me for what I’m doing, and of course that means a lot. But I’d have to say the biggest compliment I’ve ever received was getting my artwork on CNN.


H/E: Did you consider any other titles for this installation that you’d be willing to share? And if so, what made you decide on Cash Crop?

SH: I didn’t think of any other titles. I was just playing with two-word titles that were really strong. The image of the Brooks ship reminded me of corn. Corn is a cash crop; it’s the cash drop of today. You can eat it. You can use it for fuel and in other products. That’s really what started this whole thing about cash crop. The people who were transported here like goods are the seeds of America. They tilled the land and plowed the earth. They were also a commodity; a cash crop.

H/E: Can you talk about the specific materials you used and their content-related significance?

SH: The materials I used were, cement, steel, fabric, and wood.

Cement is significant because of the abundance of cement. You see cement everywhere, on sidewalks, on buildings. There was also an abundance of people—fifteen million people shipped from Africa to America between 1540 and 1860. The shackles were made from railroad ties, and the railroad is also means of transport of goods. I would walk up and down railroad tracks collecting them. The wood was made from actual pallets. Pallets are how we ship our goods from third world countries today. That’s how the materials are significant.


H/E: Did you have any studio assistants? And what were some of the most difficult aspects of your process?

SH: I had studio assistants to help with carving the ship on the back of the statues. I did seven of them myself, but they took about a whole day each, so I ended up getting help with that.

Plaster takes a lot of time, but it isn’t that difficult. Time was my biggest challenge.


H/E: Is permanence an issue for you with installation work? Do you foresee this installation being permanently on display anywhere?

SH:  Well with my artwork, I would love for it to travel everywhere. I mean, the more it travels, the more exposure it gets. But I would also love for it to have a permanent home. I don’t know where a permanent home would be, but I do like for my artwork to travel. You see new sites you meet new people.


H/E:  Correct me if I’m wrong, but I read that one of the fifteen figures is modeled after yourself. Are any of the other statues modeled after people you know personally, and if so, how did you select models?

 SH: One of the statues is me. I was coming down to the wire. I needed fifteen people for this project, and I decided, “why not just do myself.”

I had asked at least thirty people, but all of them didn’t come through. So I asked some of my family, and I asked my friends. Some people said no and some people said yes, and some just gave me the run around. So when it came down to it I had to do a mold of myself.  But yes, my niece is one of the models—and two of my cousins, both kids—are models for the statues.


H/E: What are your current future plans (what’s next)?

SH: My future plans are to try to work on another show; I’m working on getting funding. The title would be How to Make a Dollar, and (the title) comes from the book How to Make a Slave  by Willie Lynch. This book tells you all these different ways to break down a human psyche. Like, they would beat a father in front of his kids and wife. I want to take what he talked about and to relate it to today—relate it brainwashing in our society. Our kids are brainwashed to want all these material commodities, all these expensive toys that in reality didn’t cost more than a dollar to make. The idea is all about brainwash, about being brainwashed to want all these lavish materials.

My future goals are to travel around with my artwork.


H/E: Anything else you’d like to share?

 SH: I want people to know that Cash Crop is not about entirely about Slavery. It’s about the transport of goods, and outsourcing labor to sweat shops in third world countries.

Thanks so much to Stephen for all he has brought to Guilford, and more importantly, for making his art. If you haven’t done so yet, visit the library to see this exhibition.

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