Stephen L Hayes Photo provided

‘Open Up a Dialogue’

Georgia artist Stephen L. Hayes is a sculptor, multimedia creator and the most recent recipient of the Gibbes Museum’s 1858 Prize for Contemporary Southern Art. Hayes’ work regularly criticizes the intersection of capitalism and racism, with the hope of breaking the images and stereotypes of Black Americans. He is perhaps best known for Cash Crop, his traveling exhibit that examines enslavement’s continuing impacts on American society, which puts these themes on full display.

After his recent Gibbes recognition, we caught up with Hayes to discuss his process and his art’s message. The interview has been edited for space.

City Paper: You use a lot of found materials in your work. How do you decide what to use and what not to use when searching for material?
Stephen Hayes: For the most part, it’s not really a search for materials. A lot of times, I’m just driving around, and I’ll see something on the side of the road, get out of the car and get it. But, there’s also a place here in Durham called the Scrap Exchange, and they sell objects that people are getting rid of, kind of like a Goodwill.

CP: Do these materials help inspire your ideas or do the ideas guide you on what materials to use?
SH: It’s 50/50. Sometimes I’m making something, and then, I’ll remember, “Oh, I found this piece, it would be perfect to go in here.” I always like to say, “If I can’t find it, I’ll make it, and if I can’t make it, I’ll find it.”

CP: You’ve said that artists are as much translators as they are creators. Can you explain that philosophy and how it influences your art?
SH: Art has this cool magic that it can do. It can make comments, it can ask questions, it can unite people with different views … In a lot of my work, I want to change the way I’m being viewed or the way someone who looks likes me is being viewed. You see me as a tall African American male with dreads, and most of the time, they only think, “He plays basketball or does some kind of drugs or whatever.” I want to change the way that is being seen.

I’ve traveled the world and seen so many different things. One of my best friends is a white guy, and no matter where we go in the world, we both have two different experiences. People will look at me and ask me for drugs, but they won’t do the same thing to him. I’ve never done a drug in my life.

Cash Crop, 2010
Fifteen life size models of people as a symbolic representation of the fifteen million Africans imported to the New World from 1540 to 1850.
Wood, cement, fabric, oil ink, foam, metal, and twine
Dimensions variable
Photos courtesy of Stephen Hayes
Cash Crop, Stephen Hayes’ art exhibit, has been traveling for over a decade

CP: A lot of your work, including Cash Crop and your tapestries, features a lot of repetition and symmetry. Why do you use that visual motif, even when depicting atrocities like the trans-Atlantic slave trade?
SH: I’ve seen that image of how they put people on the ships, and it made me think about how people still benefit from that today. I started to put that image in some of my iconography. I put the slave ship [image] inside an ear of corn. Corn is a modified organism — when I put the slave ship in corn, it’s talking about how we as people can make a modified organism, how we’re being programmed to produce a certain outcome. I use three images throughout my artwork: a horse, an ear of corn and a pawn. My work deals with capitalism, consumerism and brainwashing, and the idea is how the Black body is represented today.

CP: Cash Crop has been traveling for over a decade. Did you expect this exhibit to go on for as long as it has?
SH: [Laughs] When I made that exhibit, it was for my thesis, so I didn’t know the amount of weight that I created, what I had created, when I was creating it.

CP: Why do you think it’s resonated so well with the public?
SH: I think it’s a story, and it’s a truth that needs to be told and isn’t being said or taught in the schools. The overall experience it creates — I think that’s why it resonates. I created a one-on-one experience for a person. These statues look them in the face, and they have another story behind them talking about today and it’s changed today and it’s evolved.

Liberty, 2020
Mixed media installation
*Created for a Untitled Street Series in collaboration with artists Jamila Brown and Percy King. Stephen L. Hayes created the main green statue.
12 x 6 x 6 feet

CP: Your work references the Black experience in America often. What do you try to bring to such a huge conversation through the art?
SH: [I want to] open up a dialogue for other people, a cross-generational, intercultural dialogue, and basically change the way people that look like me are being viewed.