Full disclosure: we’re real fond of Rudy Shepherd. While it was his moving, vital, magnetically honest art that originally caught our attention, it turns out Shepherd is also a straight-up delightful human being. Good-humored and disarmingly genuine, you might forget for a minute that he’s also uber talented. His work is rich in nuance, emotionally complex but relatable on an utterly human level. Meeting him in person, Shepherd comes across as a thoroughly thoughtful, low-key, conscientious sort of artist with a minimal, super-focused studio space awash in natural light. You get the sense that this guy’s quietly committed to his mission of the moment—whether it be his poignant performance work, sculpture, or paintings like his debut edition.
And there’s so much more to be said about what Shepherd does. You might start with our blog post on his special, paired 20x200 edition. Or perhaps peep The New York Times, who profiled his work earlier this year. Then we'd highly encourage you to see his art in person. He’s got a solo show slated for early 2018 (January 13th - February 26th) in the main space at Brooklyn’s Smack Mellon, and is also included in an upcoming exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York called Art in the Open: 50 Years of Public Art in New York (opens November 10th 2017).
Below, Shepherd talks art as dialogue, eclectic studio jams, and the class that changed his career trajectory—plus much, much more. – Team 20x200
Where's your studio?
What's your favorite tool in the studio?
It's either my trowel, which I use very rarely, but seems like the quintessential sculptor's tool and made me feel legit when I bought the first one, or this little cheap paint brush I have been using almost everyday I'm in the studio for the past 10 years. It's just the perfect size and stiffness and fits in my hand just right.
What do you wear when working in the studio?
Oh, some days I look like a real weirdo, especially when I put on my red rubber Birkenstocks that my wife has said I can only wear in the studio now.
What's on your in-studio playlist?
I'm all over the place, from podcasts (WTF, Ram Dass, Politically Re-Active and many more) to NPR to a wide range of music from rap, to bluegrass, to black metal to Bassnectar. I have to keep a lot of variety in the mix to get into the zone from day to day.
What's the first thing you do when you arrive at your studio?
Sadly, it's set up my laptop. I'm so dependent on that thing. I use it for looking up source images, email correspondence, preparing sound elements for performances in Ableton Live and, as mentioned above, listening to music.
What's your work style? Late nights? Intense creative bursts? Slow and steady wins the race?
I am a total creature of habit. I find real comfort in my routine, which is to wake up, go for a run, maybe hit the gym, come home, eat breakfast, make lunch, then head to the studio, work as long as I can stand, and then head back home, make dinner, and chill for the evening. Rinse, wash, repeat, day after day after day. When I'm teaching, this happens on all my off days during the week. In the summer this is Monday-Friday. I always save Saturdays and Sundays to spend time with my wife and kids.
Illustration, sculpture, performance, ceramics, installation—you work with a lot of different media. Is there a particular one you feel anchors your artistic work? Any media you're eager to explore more?
Hmm, these days painting seems to be the thing I do most and when I don't know what to do, I draw/paint something. Seems weird to say it, because I went to school to study sculpture, and that is mostly what I teach, but I love the process of painting and love engaging in the dialogue I have been able to create with the work.
In the last couple of years I have been doing more and more performance, collaborating with musicians, making sound, and learning how to speak with my body, and it has been such a fascinating experience. Definitely something I am eager to continue exploring.
What impact has the current political climate had on your practice?
My work is always engaged with the political climate within which it is created, whether that be in documenting the things that are happening or offering up alternative ways to be. These days, things have been so dark and heavy and I feel like we all are just exhausted by Trump and his daily attacks on sanity. This has caused me to delve deep into that aspect of my work that seeks to offer up magical elixirs to the dark mercurial forces at play in our society right now. This takes the form of the Black Rock Negative Energy Absorber sculptures, the Healing Devices and most recently, an exploration into the Holy Mountains, which has involved researching and making paintings of them as well as driving around the American West this summer to visit and connect with them in person.
What's your favorite way to procrastinate in the studio?
Oh, the usual: Instagram, Facebook, make coffee, eat. (Ed note: Rudy also has a guitar and amp set up in his studio; he confessed to us he'll play sometimes to stall on working.)
Which artists' 20x200 editions do you most covet?
I'm a big fan of Ann Toebbe's work. We went to Skowhegan together in 2000 and I am just a huge fan of the paintings she is making right now. I saw them for the first time in person at the Saatchi Collection in London and was blown away and very proud for her.
Whens, Hows & Whys
When did you first realize you wanted to become an artist and how did you get there?
I first decided I wanted to be an artist in 1996. I was a junior biology major, pre-med at Wake Forest University. A friend of mine had suggested I take David Finn’s sculpture class for fun, so I did. I had not taken an art class since about 3rd grade, but he let me in the class because I was curious. The class started out with several formal exercises working with clay, then wood, and eventually plaster, all were fun and a nice break from the rigor of my science classes. But it was his slide lectures and the critiques that really hooked me in. It was here that I was introduced to the artist David Hammons. It was here that I found a voice. By making art about something, I could start a dialogue about that topic. At first it was about what it means to be black. I was in the South, so history was my playground. Through found object sculptures, public art, performance, and, by my senior thesis exhibition, video installation, I talked about the story of the South and related it to my own personal narrative. Over the last 14 years my practice has gone through many changes, but my primary interest in creating dialogues and engaging with issues of race and identity has not changed.
How do you get over creative blocks?
I never seem to finish a project and thus have nothing to work on these days since my work has become so serial, but in the past what I have done is explore the long list of crazy ideas on the back burner.
What do you like best about 20x200?
I love the idea that 20x200 makes art accessible to normal people. I know a lot of my friends and family have express interest in purchasing my work and I love that I can send them to 20x200 to buy something they can actually afford. It's art for the people.
Why do you think it's important to have a dedicated work space for your art? What advice would you give to artists looking to build a creative work space?
Having a dedicated studio space is a luxury these days, especially in New York City, but if you can afford it it is real gift you can give to yourself. It is a place to dream, a space apart where you are free to explore your ideas, try things out, make a mess without worrying about what anybody thinks. There are very few things like this in life today and I treasure it.
I would recommend an artist start wherever they can—whether it be a room in your apartment, the kitchen table between meals, the garage or maybe eventually a studio space outside of where you live—and make whatever work you can in that context. I have had big beautiful studios and I've worked on the floor in my living room or the kitchen table, but I never let it be an excuse for not doing what I love or not giving to society in the way I feel like I can.
The 411 on Rudy Shepherd
Rudy Shepherd’s work explores the nature of evil through the mediums of painting, drawing, sculpture and performance. This exploration involves investigations into the lives of criminals and victims of crime. He explores the complexity of these stories and the grey areas between innocence and guilt in a series of paintings and drawings of both the criminals and the victims, making no visual distinctions between the two. Going along with these portraits is a series of sculptures called the Black Rock Negative Energy Absorbers. They are a group of sculptures meant to remove negative energy from people allowing them to respond to life with the more positive aspects of their personality.