The works of Masur Museum resident artist Vitus Shell are a mixed media tour-de-force that bring the viewer face to face with the lives that are and the lives that might have been.
article by Michael DeVault | photos by Brad Arender
When Vitus Shell watches the news or reads a magazine, he’s struck by the complexities that swirl about, lurking just beneath the surface and out of view. Layers of history and corollaries pile one atop the other until, at last, the neatness of story is lost amidst the chaos of realness.
By the time Shell puts brush to canvas, the nuances and folds of events have woven throughout him, permeating him until he’s at once equal parts skeptical observer, empathetic spirit, and willing co-conspirator. If there’s a subversive quality to Shell’s works–collages that are decidedly political, challenge the norms, and defy the conventions of contemporary young artists–that quality is underscored by a simple statement that could almost be his artistic mantra.
“I don’t take things at face value,” Shell says. “They’re more layered than that.”
Like the colorful, demanding collages he creates and the stories that inspire them, Shell’s life is a study in layers. At once a proud, Southern man and an African American artist, Shell epitomizes the challenging emotions shared by so many artists, poets and writers. It’s a relationship that the writer William Faulkner once described as “love-hate,” and Shell understands it all too well.
“I’m proud of being from the south, but as an African-American, there is so much of being in the south–grandparents, parents, friends,” he says. The legacies of everything that came before infuse everything that happens today. When Shell hears talk of being proud of heritage, he thinks of his grandmother, Marion Lemons, who grew up near the border of Arkansas and Louisiana, in the tiny town of Jones. She was a sharecropper who, like many African Americans of the day, helped to raise the children of the land’s owners. When the father passed away, her life changed.
“When the husband died, they kicked her off the land–the kids that she raised,” he says. When he speaks of his grandmother, he does so with a kind of affection and respect bordering on hero worship. Lemons brought up not only the landowner’s children, but six of her own as well. When the need arose, she took in her sister’s family as well. Shell returns to the circumstances of her eviction.
“When you are talking about being proud of heritage, are you asking me to be proud of that time too, when my grandmother was a sharecropper?” he asks. The weight of that question is overshadowed only by the framed collage in the corner, the centerpiece of which is an enlarged news photograph of a civil rights march. Through the sepia tones, as if pressing down on the scene, a row of Confederate flags loom. Beneath the marchers, the photo fades into an empty sea of color, a vast unknown future for which the protesters march. Across the scene, a few scattered drops of red remind us the cost it will take for the marchers to reach that future.
A native of Monroe, Shell attended Wossman High School, where he first took to painting, though he began drawing much earlier, at the age of three. Art provided him with a creative outlet and a place to channel his energy at that difficult time when kids are just starting to feel out the boundaries of adulthood.
“Like most kids, I wanted to play sports,” he says of those days early on. “But I was too small for sports.” Two of his teachers, Ms. Snyder and Mr. Meade, fomented his creativity. Recognizing that their young student had talent and promise, they encouraged him to take the next step and apply to art school. Up until that point, only one cousin had completed college. His mother had only completed a year before focusing on work and family.
Nevertheless, Shell applied to three of the most prestigious schools in the south. He knew he wanted a Bachelor of Fine Arts as opposed to a professional certificate, and he sought admission to the Atlanta School of Art, the Savannah College of Art and Design, and Memphis College of Art. Atlanta and Memphis both accepted Shell, and he opted for Memphis, which was slightly closer to home. Even in 1996, art schools weren’t known for large numbers of African-American artists, and Memphis College was no exception. However, Shell’s freshman year coincided with one of the largest African-American freshman classes in school history, and 20 black students were among his classmates. Not only was he a young and gifted artist with a penchant for challenging norms, he was now in Memphis, one of the bastions of the civil rights movement. Marches happened there, and riots too. Martin Luther King, Jr. died there. And even today, the city retains a strong pull in the world of civil rights, with dozens of leaders, ministers and activists still living there.
“It’s interesting that I did land in Memphis, meeting those people, being in those places,” he says. “Of course, that all had an influence on my work.”
Civil rights efforts in the late 1990s were largely assimilationist, driven by the fond television images of the Huxtables and life at college in A Different World. Even the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air presented a portrait of a non-traditional, African-American family who had assimilated themselves into the upper-class country club set. Today, though, with the nation again strained by racial division, Shell finds it interesting that the movement for civil equality seems to have come full circle.
“It’s always about making the connections of the old and the new, completing the circle,” he says. Today, that circle finds him living not too far from where he grew up, near the family and friends who peopled his youth, “right in the middle of what’s going on,” as he puts it.
As the artist in residence at the Masur, part of Shell’s job is to act as an ambassador for art and the museum in the community. During the time he’s been there, the museum has drawn a more diverse audience. That’s an important factor in his work there, if only because Shell views artistic ability as a tool children could use as a passage “out of the hood.”
Recently, he gave a talk at Burg Jones Elementary and, as part of the talk, polled the students on talents. More than 75 percent of the kids demonstrated drawing skills. Talents that, if properly fostered and developed, could help improve the students’ lives and the community as a whole.
“So many kids are missing out on the opportunity to change their lives,” he says. Speaking to those classes, pushing students towards paper and canvas, that’s what Shell sees as his primary responsibility. Consider it paying it forward. “Somebody came before me and encouraged me.”
Though Shell’s works are decidedly confrontational and political, they aren’t all about the plight of racism. One series of works depicts young students from Memphis College of Art and the Univeristy of Mississippi. In each, a central figure is surrounded by the influences and dreams that take all of us to college. One features a young woman, a student at Memphis College. She’s standing tall, shoulders poised, arms cross defiantly. Around her head, sunbeams radiate outward, conjuring thoughts of enlightenment. In the background are obscured hallmarks of feminine frivolity from the past. Advertisements tout changing women’s fashions, accessories and hair styles. Farther down, an advertisement for washing powder and a new stove catch the eye. Yet, there she stands, proud and enlightened, over the caption “Raising Hell.”
A companion piece tracks a similar trajectory for a young, black man. Befrocked in a black zip-up jacket, his head is tossed back, confident and strong. His head, too, is sun beamed, and behind those sun beams are the signs of the past. A white boxer is seen in an editorial cartoon pummeling a comically drawn black boxer. In another cartoon, a black man is collapsed back against a wall, his work broom tossed haphazardly aside, as he smokes a cigar. Ads for slave auctions and cigarettes hawked by Africanized Egyptians dot the perimeter. Along the margin, the young man’s back turned away, is the inscription, “Bad.”
In these works, and in so many more, the message is clear. Shell hopes the takeaway from his art is one of reflection and retrospection. “The purpose is to make both sides think about themselves,” he says.
Through such efforts, Shell believes people will come together, not grow farther apart. And, along the way, if he inspires a few children, he’s thankful. Unlike when his grandmother was bringing up all her children and her sister’s children, black kids today have many role models, from people like Shell, (“I’m not the only one doing this,” he says,) to President Barack Obama, a man who Shell believes has done more to inspire youngsters than most people imagine.
“Kids see that and know they can be more than a doctor,” he says of the president. The quiet subtext doesn’t go unnoticed, though, and one is left wondering what the lives of so many young, black men might have been like if they had been inspired in a different direction early on.
One series of works in particular underscores the cost of life absent of inspiration. In painting after painting, young black men are shown with single word inscriptions–animal, beast, thug, and a half-dozen other epithets frequently lobbed at African-American males. In each collage, the portrait becomes a mug shot, once again forcing the viewer to confront those personal beliefs and biases, and in those moments of pause between each painting, Shell’s work becomes a subtle ellipses at the end of a long discourse on the state of racial politics in America.
The time in the Masur studio back through his MFA at Ole Miss, four years of a BFA at Memphis College, and into the classrooms at Wossman aren’t so long for Shell that he can’t imagine the road not taken. He recalls one afternoon, while he and a friend were walking home from school. They were approached by a man, well-known in the neighborhood for owning a fancy car, jewelry, and nice clothes. “He stopped us and asked us if we wanted to make some money,” Shell says. They knew what making money meant–five or ten bucks for delivering for the man. They ran home, and Shell never looked back. Such was not the case for his friend, who eventually turned to dealing drugs. Shell saw that friend not too long ago.
“He’s been bitten by dogs, shot, stabbed, sent to jail a few times. One of us went one way, one went the other,” Shell says. “That’s where I’d be without art, without family, without influential people who encouraged me to do my art.”
Shell is not one to dwell on the bad things that might have been. He’s got bigger challenges to face than ruminating on the road he didn’t take. “What wakes me up at night is not achieving what I want to achieve. My future keeps me up more than my past.”