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Sweat and Inspiration

By Steve Ramos · July 25th, 2002 · Arts Beat
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On a day meant for swimsuits, eight teen-agers stand outside a Walnut Hills factory building holding paintbrushes and wearing air masks. The heat is brutal, but that doesn't curb their enthusiasm for their work. Part of the ArtWorks summertime training program, the "Power of Art" project unites 15 local apprentices with New York City-based graffiti artist Stephen Powers and four local instructors.

For six weeks, the "Power of Art" apprentices practiced sign painting, lettering and gold leaf design. Now, at the end of the ArtWorks program, the student artists are able to put their newfound graphics skills to the test. They're creating two series of hand-drawn panels depicting teen-agers' battling with various life issues. Based on what they've made so far, the work looks brilliant.

Six aluminum sheets are taped to the building's outside windows. Painted on the colorful panels are a series of comic-like images depicting a young woman, Iris, and her struggle to find direction in her life. "Iris is Idling," reads one panel. Another panel contains the cryptic message: "She's just a possibility." The paintings will dry in the afternoon sun. Later they'll be stored until an October installation in the Cincinnati Children's Hospital's Teen Center. The hot July temperatures will be a distant memory by then, but the student art works will continue to make an impact.

Most people know ArtWorks for The Big Pig Gig, the 2000 event that decorated the streets of Covington, Newport and Cincinnati with 420 oversized fiberglass pigs.

The ArtWorks pigs might attract more attention, but "Power of Art" represents the 7-year-old program at its best.

"This type of graffiti art is close to the music these kids listen to," Long says, speaking inside the project studio. "It's close to the popular culture they follow. It speaks in a language they've heard before. Graffiti was once off the mainstream, but now, the mainstream has come to us."

Powers is a bulky man with close-cropped hair and a round, boyish face. Powers says he's 33 years old, but he doesn't look a day over 20. His Izod top hangs loose over a pair of baggy shorts. He connects with his ArtWorks apprentices because he looks like them.

He's also flesh-and-blood proof of how to turn love into something worthwhile. Powers was an active graffiti artist in his native Philadelphia by the time he was 16. After graduating from Philadelphia's University of the Arts, Powers co-founded the Hip Hop and graffiti magazine, On the Go. Later, he relocated to New York City. The magazine eventually folded, but Powers had no trouble reinventing himself as a serious artist.

His outdoor murals began to attract attention. Jeffrey Deitch Gallery signed on to represent his work. Around the same time, Powers wrote The Art of Getting Over, a personal history of graffiti art and Hip Hop music. Last year he collaborated with graffiti artists Todd James and Barry McGee to create "Street Market," a lively installation of sign-painted storefronts and billboards that was part of the 2001 Venice Biennale. In 2004, James, McGee and Powers will take part in a Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center exhibition. In terms of new millennium art, Powers is considered one of its leaders.

Inside his ArtWorks studio, Powers pays little attention to his career bio, no matter how impressive it is. He talks to the teen apprentices at their level. They brainstorm ideas together. Powers gives guidance, but he allows his student artists take ownership of their work. On the following day, over lunch in a Newport, Ky., restaurant, Powers recounts his own winding path to becoming a professional artist. His story could apply to any one of his summertime students.

"I remember one of my college instructors took me aside to tell me how one of her students was drawing the sports cartoon for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette," Powers says. "She said, 'You could do that.' I remember thinking, that's it? That's the best you think I can do?"

Back at the Walnut Hills factory, Powers is a positive life lesson to his own students. The Venice Biennale brought him acclaim. In Cincinnati, Powers is learning to use that acclaim as a way to inspire others.



Work from the 2002 ArtWorks summertime program will be for sale at a Thursday reception at the Contemporary Arts Center. Call 513-333-0388 for details.
 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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