Kevin Sampson has an enormous talent for creating powerful works of art that are empowered and beloved by his community. Sampson, a self-taught artist, found an early penchant for drawing while he was a law enforcement officer in the City of Newark, New Jersey. His adeptness at drawing the human figure led him to become a police sketch artist, which was a very in demand position within the force. Later, Sampson’s skills at forensic sketching would be harnessed in Wanted, a project by artist and activist Dread Scott that created fake police wanted posters that expose the racial profiling used by law enforcement agencies.
Sampson’s work is largely connected to socially engaged themes including identity politics, war, and civil rights. A major motif in his work is the memorial. He creates intricate vessels from found objects that have personal significance to either Sampson or his subjects. These vessels become spiritual energy containing the collective consciousness of the community at large.
In 2013, Sampson’s epic installation An Ill Wind Blowing, encapsulated the frustration of a nation and the broken American dream. The ship’s three sections represent the glaring socio-economic divide of the United States.
The front of the ship represented the large corporations, the middle represented the social elite, while the rear symbolized class struggle and racial disparity. The vessel also featured a “basketball hoop” where visitors could write their own political frustrations on a sheet of paper, crumple it up, and throw it into the fishing net resembling a hoop.
In 2015, a giant mural called Fruit of the Poisonous Tree, which was painted on site at Andrew Edlin Gallery’s former space in Chelsea, took on a myriad of complex issues that concern both himself and his community at large. From his days serving and protecting as a police officer to his current work as an artist, Sampson has always been in tune with his community. Today, he’s well known in Newark for his public art as well as being a devoted teacher and involved with many neighborhood events.
Kevin is a busy artist these days with solo shows and projects across the country. I recently had a chance to ask Kevin a few questions about his work and what drives his inspiration and vision.
Do you consider yourself a Humanist artist?
As I understand Humanism, it’s about giving value to humanity by working in concert with human values, all the while understanding that all humans are to be treated with the same understanding and respect.
If this is the case, then this does apply to how I live and work. I am a community based artist, one that feels a responsibility to that community and people in general. As an African American it is a natural fit, as I seek to highlight the hopes, dreams, and problems of the (world) community as a way of staying in the fight, for the rights of all.
Do you consider the figure to have a vital role in your art?
Rarely, most of my world uses other means to feature the human condition. I tend to construct vessels, which illustrate a political thought or a spiritual connection, to either this world or the world beyond.
What is your artistic studio process like?
I am not a studio based artist “I live with my work” meaning that I don’t have a set place to work (I work all over my house.). I don’t set aside time for the studio, instead I work outside, inside and all around the town. I am a process orientated artist; I work by reading by my constant contact with the public. When I finally construct my work it is already done in my head. And I rarely have the need to see my 0wn work after it is done.
Do you feel that contemporary art should have a commitment to issues that affect our daily lives?
I have been teaching for over 30 years one of the things that I do, is make my students read the news, to follow it religiously. To become acquainted with social issues and causes particularly if they are artists of color. I do feel as though the world is sorely in need of protest and commitment to the many issues that affect this world. But I don’t expect every artist to have this commitment. But I do like it when they do.
You take on very direct issues in your work, what are some specific reasons that you’ve chosen to address and create a visual dialog for these issues?
I am the son of a civil rights leader, my father Stephen Sampson who was a self taught historian drilled into my siblings and my head commitment to civil rights of all. So it’s in my DNA and my father haunts me daily and keeps whispering in my ear his desire that I continue to fight for African Americans in particular and all people in general. Its just how I roll, religion and politics are interlinked in my head through the history of the African American.
Your work often has a prophetic vision of the future. Can you describe how you react and interpret the current state of the world into your sculpture and drawings?
What I really try to do is to “spirit Necklaces of a vanquished peoples magic”, meaning that through my work, with out being obvious, I try to create objects of power that show the problems of the world, while offering artistic solutions that cause these problems to transcend their circumstances. I attempt to create beauty where this is none as well as retrieving objects discarded by my community in an effort to give this objects (which hold memory) a new life…a new voice.
What’s next on the horizon? Any new shows?
I show constantly, I am currently showing at the outsider art fair this weekend, at my gallery of 23 years, Cavin-Morris Gallery’s booth. I have another show at Cavin-Morris Gallery, NYC in March.
I am showing in Philly with Philadelphia Sculptors on board the USS Olympia docked at Philly’s sea port in June. I have been giving the ships chapel to create an installation inside of.
I am also working on a Major Public art piece, for the Power Company PSEG (McCARTER Switching station) a new building with a strong public art feature.
The city of Newark and its Mayor Ras Baraka are creating a wonderful Public space at this site, it is being administered by Danny Simmons of Corridor Gallery Brooklyn and Victor Davson, Director of Aljira Gallery in Newark. I will be creating a 14 foot sculpture (along with a group of artists) that will be permanently installed on this site at Fairmount Ave in Newark.