Michael Stipe, another underdog at the art fair

In the video for REM’s debut single, “Radio Free Europe”, the band members can be seen walking in slow motion through the self-taught a...


In the video for REM’s debut single, “Radio Free Europe”, the band members can be seen walking in slow motion through the self-taught artist and Baptist pastor’s Summerville, Georgia home and yard Howard Finster. A landscape of lush foliage teeming with folk art carvings and salvaged objects, Finster’s “Paradise Garden” combined regional traditions of evangelism and do-it-yourself craft and became a place of pilgrimage popular for South Georgia artists, musicians and other creators. . The garden gave REM’s 1983 video a dreamlike quality and a recognizably southern sense of place, which set it apart from other MTV hits of the time.

Finster, whose art also featured on the cover of REM’s second album, “Account,” was one of many foreign artists from the South championed by the band and its frontman Michael Stipe during their first years on the vibrant indie-rock music scene of Athens, Georgia. A drawing of an exuberant duck-like creature by rural Alabama artist Juanita Rogers can be seen on the back cover of the band’s much-admired fourth album, “Life’s Rich Pageant,” and the hilltop installation of metal swirls in Rabbittown, Georgia, home of another self-taught artist, R. A. Miller, stars in a propulsive 20-minute experimental music video, “To the left of the account”, directed by Stipe School of Art teacher James Herbert.

Stipe, who as an art student was responsible for REM’s graphic design and visual identity, was behind many of these collaborations. Along with teachers and classmates, he visited the homes of nearby artists like Miller, Finster, Dilmus Hall, and St. EOM (Eddie Owens Martin), with some visits turning into lifelong friendships. Stipe picked up a few works of art along the way for inspiration or as gestures of support – among them Hall’s portrait of legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, and colored pencil drawings of wrenches and circular blades by the sawmill worker turned wood carver. Person Leroy.

A selection of these objects from Stipe’s collection will be on display and on sale March 3-6 at Raw art fair at the Metropolitan Pavilion in New York, in a special presentation entitled “Maps and Legends” (after a Finster inspired REM song). The exhibition of around 30 works was curated by art dealer and curator Phillip March Jones, whose East Village gallery, March, is dedicated to artists from the South. (An ongoing exhibit there highlights Alabama-based sculptor Joe Minter.)

“People all over the world discovered these artists through the experimental records, music videos and films that REM was making,” said Jones, who considers himself one such insider. “You think about southern rock and what it was, Lynyrd Skynyrd – that’s another thing.”

Stipe, 62, has had a long career as a visual artist himself and, since REM disbanded in 2011, a highly productive one; he published three books of his photography, with another on the way, and getting ready for a multimedia show at ICA Milano. He is also working on his first solo albumfor which he released songs on his website (the most recent, “No Time for Love Like Now”, is a collaboration with Aaron Dessner’s Big Red Machine; a new track, “We Are Who We Were, Who We Will Be (My Body’s Not Dancing)”, will be released this spring.

“Michael is that authentic voice looking for other authentic voices,” Jones said. “He’s someone who is interested not only in Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol and Jack Kerouac and Arthur Rimbaud and Patti Smith, but also in RA Miller and Howard Finster and Dilmus Hall. I haven’t met many people who are like that.

Stipe spoke about his collection from his home in Athens, Georgia, where he has spent most of his time during the pandemic. This interview has been condensed and edited.

How did you first meet these artists and their work?

In the early 1980s, there was no Internet; it was all word of mouth. I was deeply influenced by my professors at the University of Georgia – Art Rosenbaum, Andy Nasisse and Jim Herbert – and through them I met others interested in the work of foreign artists from the Southeast. who were largely untrained, but who were doing this amazing job. . For me, it was a particular interest in art and music. What interests me is that moment of ecstatic vision, the feeling of greater power coming from an artist.

How did you start collaborating with some of these artists?

I ended up integrating their illustrations into the graphic design, which was my job for REM. So we worked with Howard Finster and we used pieces by Juanita Rogers and Ed Rogers, no relation. I struck up a friendship with Finster and with RA Miller – I was invited to visit St. EOM at his home – he was this incredible character, smoking giant fats on his farm where he created this concrete version of the Taj in Georgia from South. Mahal. And then I bought small pieces from these artists. I couldn’t afford much, but nothing was very expensive. And so relationships were forged in that organic way.

What made you decide to feature art in music videos set in Finster’s “Paradise Garden” and Miller’s landscape carrying metal swirls (“Left of Reckoning”)?

The “Radio Free Europe” video was probably more of a reaction to MTV and what the music video was supposed to be. We just said, ‘Damn it, we’re not going to do that. We will do what we want. But we needed, in today’s parlance, “content.” And “Paradise Garden” is this amazing place, filled with all these beautiful, magical moments. So we hired a film crew and went to Summerville and hung out with Howard, and someone came up with a little story about us walking in the garden.

James Herbert, the director of “Left of Reckoning”, was my drawing and painting teacher and he collaborated with REM to make several short films. The one filmed on Whirlpool Hill by RA Miller was supposed to be three minutes long, and Jim was so thrilled with the footage that he made this 20-minute film.

These artists were, by choice or not, fiercely independent in their outlook. And REM was fiercely independent in our outlook, for the most part, and I’m really proud of that.

Were these artists alluded to in the music and lyrics or in some other way? For example, there is a song, “Maps and Legends”, which is meant to be a tribute to Finster.

I wouldn’t say it’s about him but it’s inspired by him. I was a singer and lyricist who couldn’t sing and write lyrics, and I grew up doing it in public with this very impressionistic style, or non-style. I realized on the second album that I needed to develop my songwriting skills and started experimenting with storytelling. I used the people around me to create these stories. You start to see that on the second album, “Account.” And then the third album, “Fables of Reconstruction”, is all stories, and especially characters that are based in the South.

In the text for the presentation of Outsider Art Fair, you say: “I have always been interested in people living on the margins. In the South, they are not only tolerated but often honored and embraced. What draws you to the fringes and why do you think the South celebrates these characters better?

From an early age, I considered myself an outsider. I’m queer, and I realized that very early on. I was from a military family that was picking up and moving around all the time, so we had this very different lifestyle from others. I was different, and I’m attracted to people who are also different. I don’t even really like the term ‘outsider’, but there is a sense of self that historically runs through the South – certainly in the case of artists. There are other stories where we might question a lot of that.

You could have identified with a number of different places, but you have adopted Athens as your home. Why is that?

I was born in Georgia. My uncle went to college in Athens – he was an activist deeply involved in a lot of things in the 60s and early 70s here. And my grandparents lived here in retirement, and when my dad retired from the military, he and my mom moved here. I was living with a punk rock band outside of East Saint Louis and had no money left, so I came to Athens. I was not happy at first. But thanks to art school, I found this community that really recognized me – and within it, I was able to flourish as an artist.

How has Southern art brut influenced your work, from sculpture to your recent photography books?

I would say there are two things that have helped me tremendously as an artist and a lyricist. One was to trust your instincts, to go your own way. And the other was to recognize and acknowledge mistakes. If I can use the language of many of these artists, God lives in chaos – in things that aren’t quite what you expected.

I’m very object-oriented, and that comes across in my work as well – there’s recognition from artists like Thornton Dial and Lonnie Holley. Holley is a great example of someone who is a polymath expressing themselves in all these different ways, with music and objects. In my next exhibition at the ICA in Milan, there will also be a combination of sound installation and objects. I love this balance between the tangible and the intangible – there’s a magical place where they meet.

Why are you parting with the works that will be at the Outsider Art Fair?

I’m just at that point in my life where I’m letting things go and pushing them into the world, rather than bringing them. For my entire adult life, I would stop, drop my bags, pick up and go somewhere else to do the next thing. Over the years, my home here has become a dump of my own making. I am now reassigning a lot of things, some of them quite precious, beautiful and inspiring.

Was there a piece of foreign art from the South that was too significant to part with?

In my workshop I keep a piece of Person Leroy, a sculpture made of broken chairs that he sculpted and colored with pencil, next to a postcard of a Brancusi sculpture. For me, there is a very clear link between the two artists.

I also have a small sculpted figurine that Howard Finster gave me. It was a piece he had carved – carved, he would say – for one of his children or grandchildren, before he had his ecstatic vision that set him on the path to becoming an artist. But he recognized my interest and my friendship. I will keep it forever.

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