David Olimpio: While the name “Atticus” of course brings to mind Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, when I took over the journal last March, I wanted to begin to shift that to another hero of American Literature: Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter. For me, your work really captures a spirit I want to champion at Atticus Review, which is the bold confrontation and transcendence of shame. It’s why I immediately thought of your work when I was imagining the cover image for our first print annual. Leader of the Pack has this element for me, as does the first piece I ever saw of yours, Bitter Pill, which resides in my friend’s apartment in DC and which I’ve looked at a million and one times. Can you talk a little bit about the theme of “shame” in your work and what role it plays for you, if any?
Scott Brooks: Thanks much for including me. It’s really interesting you ask me about shame. It’s so prevalent and so damaging yet nobody wants to talk about it (including me). I’ve only done a few pieces directly about shame, one was called Distilled Shame. Other work dances around the issue but, apparently, it comes through even when I don’t intend it. As a gay guy of a certain age, it’s tough to avoid. Up until recently, the church and society has done its best to shame the gay away but, obviously, it doesn’t work. On a larger scale, I think most of us have some element of shame, but don’t recognize it for what it is and thus have no idea what to do with it. Thanks to a wee bit of therapy over the years, I’ve learned to adapt but I still get hit with it on occasion. Some of my work could be interpreted as “shaming” but I think it’s justified. There are actions that we, as Americans, or civilization as a whole, should be ashamed of, including slavery, or our treatment of Native Americans. I explored the latter in All American Boys. Leader of the Pack was more about bullying to me. As someone who was bullied, I can say it’s all connected. I try not to be too didactic, and diffuse it with humor or disguise the players, but shame has a way of seeping out no matter what we do to cover it up.
DO: While we do publish mixed media pieces, Atticus Review is mostly a literary journal. Our focus is primarily on words, on narrative, on story. Your paintings are often described as having a narrative. Do you think of yourself as a “storyteller”?
SB: I don’t refer to myself as a storyteller specifically but yes, my work does tell a story. The symbols and metaphors in my work sometimes support the narrative and sometimes are there just to throw the viewer off. In the past, “art” was created to convey stories to people that didn’t know how to read. Scenes from the bible, mythology, or some point in history were there to help spread the word and keep people in line. Fast forward a millennium, and I make paintings that are viewed on Instagram or Facebook by people that don’t have time to read. Some of my current work deals with “fake” history, presented as fact: Jesus Crossing the Delaware for example, or The Lizard People Arrive in the New World.
DO: Your work is both dark and humorous, which I think is why I like it so much. I’ve always been attracted to art that addresses that tension. Can you talk about what those two elements mean to you? Do you find meaning in the tension between the two? If so, how?
SB: I think of it as dark and light, both in content and in execution. My work often deals with heavy themes such as life, death, politics, sexuality and religion, and the humor I inject is a way to make it more approachable. It may be awkward laughter but at least they’re laughing. The downside to this of course, is that it may not be taken seriously. It is, however, an element of my work that distinguishes itself from work in the past. I grew up watching cartoons and reading MAD Magazine, so the humor aspect is easy. So much art created today takes itself too seriously, so I hope the humor in my work is a refreshing change.
DO: In writing, I’ve found that sometimes confronting the thing that scares you is the best approach to getting at “the good stuff.” Some of your paintings are certainly haunting if not downright scary in what they seem to be getting at for you personally. Do you ever feel scared or vulnerable by a painting you’re creating? What gets your adrenaline pumping? Do you seek this out in your work?
SB: There is always an aspect of vulnerability, in the sense that I may be revealing too much about myself in a specific piece, or that it’s a stupid idea, or why am I even bothering to do this. I get anxious if a painting starts hitting too close to home, so I’ll mask it by throwing in elements of distraction. Very few of my paintings are “self-portraits” but I will occasionally start a painting specifically because of a certain life event. Healthy Competition is one that came out during a rough patch in my previous relationship. There were more but I’ll leave it at that. Fear and vulnerability is just part of making art. To make good work we need to lay it all out there and that can be scary, but there’s no other way. There are a couple good books out there, one is called Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, and the other is The War of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battles -both have been part of my library for many years and I still refer to them if I’m having a bad day.
The other fear is logistical, when I’m struggling to finish a piece or a deadline is looming. At that point, I’m fearful that the paint will be wet during the opening, or if it will get to the gallery in time, or if it will sell. The heart starts pumping faster the closer I get to deadlines. One way I’m avoiding this is to work on pieces with no destination or deadline. It’s working out well but I’m afraid I’m spending way too much time on them.
DO: Would you describe your work as “dangerous”?
SB: I have never described my work as “dangerous,” primarily because I don’t consider myself dangerous. I’m sure viewers label it as such but that’s not my problem. I’m very aware and careful about the imagery I use but, again, viewers project their own issues into art and there’s no way to predict how a specific piece or element will be interpreted. My work was recently used by radical right wing conservatives to further their political agenda in the Pizzagate scandal. Luckily, nobody got hurt. Humor is subjective, so what I think is funny or humorous, and thus harmless, can be interpreted in ways I never imagined. My painting Food Chain was referenced by them as if we are actually feeding our kids shit. The painting is a metaphor but they missed the point. Another painting they referenced was The Patron Saint of Punishment because there are pooties in BDSM gear; they used these paintings to prove their point. So, while I don’t think my work is dangerous, there are very unstable folks out there who do.
On a very basic level, I take pigment, mix it with oil and apply it to canvas in a way that imitates what I see around me. The subject matter and story is important but secondary in some ways. I’m not trying to be naive but let’s keep it in perspective.
DO: Where did you grow up? How would you describe your childhood?
SB: I’m from Mt. Morris, Michigan, a small suburb just north of Flint. My childhood was mostly normal. I’m #3 of 4 kids. We are all close in age and lumped together in most activities. As a group, we were steered into hunting. fishing, and hockey, but I would have much rather have been drawing. We grew up in the 60’s/70’s and spent lots of time outside or in front of the TV. We also had lots of pets, so it got a little chaotic at times. I felt very much like an outsider and spent as much time as I could sketching and drawing. My parents were supportive up to a point but I’m guessing they had no idea what to do with me. I always longed for something and somewhere else. I hated school and couldn’t wait to get out. I was in the same school district from K-12 and “blossomed” when I finally got to college. I moved to DC when I was about 30 and never looked back. I think the most life changing event was my dad passing away. I was 17 and the end for him came after a couple really tough years for all of us. It changed my life and still affects me today.
DO: For a long time, you lived in Washington, DC, but now you live in Baltimore. As somebody who has lived in both of those cities -I love both of them- but I do have a clear favorite: DC. But Baltimore’s a great town, too. How do you like being a resident of Charm City vs living inside the DC Diamond. Is “place” important to you and your productivity?
SB: I was in DC for a good long time. It was a great run but I had my fill. I ended up moving just before the last election so I’m grateful for that. I’m loving Baltimore now and realize I really needed a change. As a fan of art history, I know most successful artists moved around a bit. I know in my own life that good things happen right after I move to a new location or if my life is turned upside down, both of which happened when I moved to Baltimore. Being in a new city has unexpectedly energized me, so it was obviously time for a change. I spend the vast majority of my time standing in front of an easel, so while “place” is important, all I need is a market, a pub, and a coffee shop I can walk to. Here in Mt. Vernon, we have all those things and more. I’m also working on the 2nd floor of an 1850’s row house, as opposed to the 7th floor of a condo, and connected quickly to the city and its history.
DO: I’ve done some amateur modeling for my friend Adam’s art class. If you’re ever in need of a bald-headed bearded guy, I’d love to model for one of your paintings. But I’ll be honest: it kind of scares me, but in a good way. (Okay, that was less of a question, and more of a statement.)
SB: I welcome all models, but can’t guarantee when or if I’ll get you in a finished painting.
DO: Lol, very tactfully handled…
All images provided by Scott G. Brooks.