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Shepard Fairey and Ralph Steadman touch Louisville’s art scene with lasting imagery and themes

Art by Shepard Fariey with faces, flowers and colorful patterns hangs on the wall of the Common Gallery in Louisville
Scott Recker
Art by Shepard Fairey with faces, flowers and colorful patterns hangs on the wall of the Common Gallery in Louisville

FifteenTWELVE’s Common Gallery hosted two impactful exhibits from several cutting-edge artists. And they are tied to the seven-story Muhammad Ali mural emblazoned upon the YMCA on Chestnut St. 

The vibrant, electric and abrasive imagery hit you fast and stuck with you long after viewing the side-by-side exhibits by Shepard Fairey and Ralph Steadman that recently showed at Common Gallery. Together, they combined evocative themes with sharp messages from two of the most most distinct artists of the last half century.

Thought-provoking activism art from Fairey — who’s widely known for creating Barack Obama’s iconic “Hope” poster — covered several walls at the gallery in the Portland neighborhood as part of the show “Outside Influence.” Fairey’s work highlighted nonviolent resistance against authoritarianism and injustice. “Peace Is Radical, Violence Is Weak” read one of his prints of a hand making a peace sign. Another depicted a flower blooming from a rifle barrel.

The second exhibit, “Ride The Thunder,” revisited the gonzo partnership between the British illustrator Steadman and the eccentric Louisville-born writer Hunter S. Thompson, who first worked together on the visionary 1970 Scanlan’s Monthly article “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved.” As the timing of the show would suggest, much of Steadman’s work in “Ride The Thunder” is inspired by the Derby, cracking the shellacked surface and dialing in on the seedy aspects. His twisted and surreal imagery captured the chaos, and challenged viewers to look deeper at a culture so often revered. But, there also was a surprise, as another Louisville-born pop-culture star got the Steadman treatment: There was a never-before-displayed psychedelic portrait of rapper Jack Harlow.

Although the two exhibits first came together by coincidence, the side-by-side show that ran April 26 through May 7 was very much on purpose. And while “Ride The Thunder” focused solely on the art of Steadman and prose of Thompson, what’s in “Outside Influence” went beyond the work of Fairey, featuring a group of renowned creators from around the world including Saber, Estevan Oriol, Amanda Lynn, King Saladeen, Dr. Dax,Stormie Mills,Slick, Jim Evans (aka TAZ)

“Outside Influence” included more than what was in the gallery, most notably the seven-story mural of Louisville native son Muhammad Ali that Fairey and friends painted on the side of the Chestnut Street YMCA. It was a massive project, and it took many people to make it a reality, but “Outside Influence” was spearheaded by the organization Artists With Trauma and native Louisvillian Eddie Donaldson, also known as the artist GuerillaOne.

The Muhammad Ali mural on the side of the Chestnut St. YMCA in Louisville by artist Shepard Fairey
Scott Recker
The Muhammad Ali mural on the side of the Chestnut St. YMCA in Louisville by artist Shepard Fairey

During the opening party for the exhibits, Donaldson told LPM News that the purpose of the show was “collaboration and connection.”

“When I see this show, now that we’re here, in this moment, I know in my heart that getting people together from different places, that might now have the same beliefs, that might not like the same things, is a good thing, because I’m witnessing it right now, so, for me, the spirit of collaboration and connection is why we do this,” Donaldson said. “This is why I brought other artists to Louisville, so they can see how special Louisville is, and Louisville can see how special they are.”

Donaldson said that one of his favorite aspects of the show was that almost everything was for sale — prices started at $300 — and that he wanted the art to branch out into people’s homes and make an impact for years to come.

“I hope there’s nothing left on these walls when we’re done,” Donaldson said at the opening. “And it’s not just to make money, but it’s that that means I planted seeds, I planted inspirational seeds in the homes of people that are thirsty or hungry for it.”

The majority of the art sold, as the gallery said that about 75% was purchased before the exhibit closed. Although they are still holding on to a few prints from both Fairey and Steadman — inquiries on remaining work for purchase can go to portal@fifteen-twelve.com.

A portrait of rapper Jack Harlow by Ralph Steadman hanging at fifteenTWELVE’s Common Gallery.
Scott Recker
A portrait of rapper Jack Harlow by Ralph Steadman hanging at fifteenTWELVE’s Common Gallery.

‘A symphony of selfless people’

Brad White, owner and operator of fifteenTWELVE creative compound on Portland Ave, said that he was approached separately about the two exhibits, managing calls with one agent from New York and another from New York City. But both camps became excited by the prospect of Fairey and Steadman showing work at the same place and time.

“They were both like, ‘Absolutely, make that happen’,” White said.

White, a longtime local artist and musician, said that handling and hanging the pieces was moving.

“Being able to hang this whole show, and be that close to all of the pieces — I mean, I feel like when I’m in a museum or gallery you have a certain experience with it — but when you’re handling it, and adjusting the hangers and the pieces are this far from you, you pick up all of the details,” White said. “It’s the most intimate way to see art, and it’s been a real honor.”

And that was a major takeaway from the exhibit: getting to be up close to the work of artists that have created ubiquitous images, often seen in books or on the internet. There was a striking component in seeing the art large and in person, exploring the nuances and sitting with the meaning.

One piece, in piece in particular that felt familiar. Clearly set at Churchill Downs, the drawing is of well-dressed, yet sloppy degenerates, animated and discombobulated in front of a gambling booth. Anyone who's spent time in the infield on Derby Day would know it. They've been part of it. Steadman’s work, at its best, is a memory and a mirror.

It harkens back to the decadent and depraved. While often known for his ventures into drugs and absurdity, Thompson was a poignant moralist in his time. After a bender of a Derby weekend, the 1970 story ends with Thompson’s realization that he and Steadman had become the problem they were looking for.

Seeing Fairey’s work up close was just as mesmerizing as Steadman’s drawings. He expertly straddles fine art and street art, seemingly taking influence from both punk rock values and pop art color schemes. Fairey, who is based on the West Coast, clearly creates with the intent for people to spend a lot of time and absorb the values that his art contains. His work in the exhibit was thematic and bold, promoting a more just and better society. The scales of justice bloomed flowers against a vibrant red, black and blue color scheme on one piece, another read, “Legal bribery … it’s not a dream … it’s the American system.”

Naturally, the two star names of the exhibits got the majority of the attention, but there was so much else going on. There was a bright, multicolored heart drawing by the well-known street artist Saber. There was a large, captivating fever-dream portrait of a person with no eyes by Incubus singer Brandon Boyd. There was some unique tattoo-style art from local artist Matt McDole.

While the short-run show came and went as quickly as the Kentucky Derby festival, Fairey’s visit to Louisville is permanently sealed with his mural of “the greatest.” Based on a photo by Howard L. Bingham, the towering image honors his reign as the heavyweight champ and as one of the brightest humanitarians of his era.

During a public dedication for the mural on April 26, Fairey said the effort to make the mural took “a symphony of selfless people to come together and make it happen. I’m just one small part of that equation, and I’m grateful for it.”

While the mural is distinctly painted in Fairey’s style, there was a lot of community involvement in the wording on the piece. Respect, confidence, conviction and dedication are some of the words written on the mural that covers the YMCA where Ali once worked out as a young man.

The YMCA Young Black Achievers also gave feedback about what they hoped the mural would convey. “Everyone helps everyone,” is featured prominently on the piece.

“It really was the precise distillation of my experience,” Fairey said. “Everyone helping to make this happen in the pursuit of elevating Ali’s legacy, the fact that he’s a hero from Louisville, that he might be a source of light, but he’s representative of everyone helping everyone.”

Pieces by local artist Matt McDole hanging at fifteenTWELVE’s Common Gallery.
Scott Recker
Pieces by local artist Matt McDole hanging at fifteenTWELVE’s Common Gallery.

Bringing it all back home

Donaldson, who moved from Louisville to Los Angeles in 1988, has been friends with Fairey for decades. Along with the organization Artists With Trauma, Donaldson was the driving force behind the show. He hasn’t been back to Louisville much since he left decades ago, but he said being in the city for a few weeks prior to the show has inspired him to reconnect with his hometown.

“I’m 10 months sober, and being of service is how I keep my sobriety, so keeping my soul rich is being of service, as well, so that means just being open to collaborating and connecting with people you don’t know, being brave enough to enter new relationships, that the future is unseen,” Donaldson said.

While he won’t be living in Louisville full-time, he said that moving forward he’ll be here often to create more projects.

“I’m here and open to work with people and artists, personally and with Artists With Trauma. I urge anyone out there reading this to go to artistswithtrauma.org, click the button that says my name on it and let’s make some magic together,” Donaldson said.

At the core, the exhibits were about coming together for creativity and human connection. And using those forces to help people heal is the primary goal of Artists With Trauma, a Marina del Rey, California-based organization that “supports a community of survivors, thrivers and difference makers through art and medical collaboration.”

At the opening party, Artists With Trauma Founder and CEO Laura Sharpe spoke to LPM News about the purpose of bringing all of the artists together under one roof.

“We want art to be available to everyone,” Sharpe said. “It has an incredibly powerful healing component for ourselves and for others, and you never know what side of life you’re going to be on, so in this project we all came here together to share our different art messaging and to empower each other and this community.”

The next exhibit at fifteenTWELVE’s Common Gallery will feature work by Rachel Kessler and Miri Phelps. It opens Thursday, May 25. The bands Vincas, Naw and WiiRMZ will also perform that night at fifteenTWELVE’s music venue, Portal.

Support for this story was provided in part by the Great Meadows Foundation.

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