Winter in America: The Urban Art of Chris Stain
by Chris Stain
I got into art through graffiti when I was 11. It was the mid ‘80s, and my East Baltimore neighborhood was going through changes. It was a predominantly working class block with people from all walks of life. There were bricklayers and steamfitters, steel workers, longshoreman, and factory workers. Some were Native American, African American, some Irish, some Latino, some Polish, Scottish, Italian, and German. However the latest “thing” for my friends and me was break dancing, rap music, and graffiti. With movies such as Beat Street and books such as Subway Art, I couldn’t help but to be swept away with this new youth culture that spoke directly to inner-city kids.
For many years I continued on this path of graffiti lettering as self expression. Unbeknown to me at the time, it was really a form of therapy and a way to stake my claim as a living, breathing individual in a decaying environment. By the late ‘90s I felt a need to personalize my story and the story of others by working more figuratively. I had always been attracted to drawing, but it was too time consuming for me to get the results I wanted. During high school I had been introduced to screen-printing and stencil making. So calling upon these experiences I set out to reproduce photographs of family members and people from the neighborhood by cutting stencils and spray-painting them in different places. I enjoyed the methodical process and the possibilities of being able to tell more of the human story.
One day two friends and I ventured to Washington D.C. to see a WW II poster show that we never found. Since we were already there we decided to visit the Holocaust Museum. The experience was so traumatizing I left in tears. Hoping for something less heart shattering, we walked into the American History Museum, which happened to have an exhibit on Woody Guthrie. I had heard the name but wasn’t so familiar with his work. When I first walked into the room they had encased in glass his acoustic guitar with the sticker “THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS” on it. On the way out I picked up a recording of his music. As I listened to it I realized that the songs he was singing were about people like my grandfather and the folks in my neighborhood, and I thought to myself that I wanted to make paintings the same way Woody Guthrie writes songs. Paintings about this struggle for basic human survival and all that goes along with it.
Along the way I have found other musicians who have inspired me to paint as well. The Winter In America series that I made came from the song of the same title by Gil Scott Heron. Many times I look to music to help take me deeper into my emotions and extract more concentrated feelings for my work. Then I seek out imagery that falls in line with those feelings and attempt to make a concrete visual documentation of my fleeting but noteworthy emotions.
It wasn’t until just recently that I was under the arrogant assumption that just by making the work and putting it out there I was making a difference. In September I began a job as a teaching artist at a school for kids who have had a rough start. It was then that I realized that I can paint until my hands fall off, but if I don’t do something to directly interact with the people I am painting about, then the work has pretty much been in vain. I am currently pursuing a B.A. in Art Education in hopes to teach art in public school in NYC in the years to come. Maybe I will be able to spark something, or just help someone express something, that will help them get by a little bit better.