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Home FEATURES Artist Interviews Steve Powers: A Love Letter For You

Steve Powers: A Love Letter For You
Tuesday, 13 October 2009 10:54
Love Letter is literally a love letter painted on the walls facing the Market elevated train in Philadelphia.
Interview and photography by Adam Wallacavage

Steve Powers has the ability to say 10 things in one sentence, which is good when he is trying to paint something fast, especially large-scale murals. My first encounter with Mr. Powers was in Philadelphia about 17 or so years ago. He was working at a copy shop on Walnut Street. I was with my friend Shawn from school and I remember being both intimidated and amused at the same time. I didn't say anything to him, I just listened to him talk and was quite impressed with the words that came out of his mouth, they were hand crafted as if he was thinking about what he was going say all day and then unleashed it when we came in the store.

My next encounter with Steve was about 4 years later on Canal Street in NYC, I was introduced to him this time by Phil Frost where we were all talking in front of some guy's store who didn't like us being there. He told us to get off his sidewalk because we were keeping customers from coming in. Steve just smiled at him and yelled, "KICK MY ASS!" It was funny because Steve was wearing one of his trademark outfits consisting of some sort of colorful counter-fit designer clothing ensemble, which he probably bought from the same place the day before. I couldn't tell if the guy was going to burst out in tears, laughter, or with his fists flailing. It was perfectly intimidating and funny at the same time. He was saying so many things at once with that line as he does with just about everything he says. His words are a mixture of self-defense and ego but also sincere respect, understanding, and a bit of confrontation used in a way to bring light to situations, which need to be dealt with.

Last Winter I got an email from Steve saying to meet him, "tomorrow at noon" at some address in Philadelphia about taking photos for some project. I didn't bother asking him for what, I've seen enough from him in the past 15 years that I knew it was going be worth showing up for, and it was. What I met him for was a meeting about a grant from the Pew charitable trusts to do a project with the Philadelphia Mural Arts, which used to be known as the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network. The project was to be in part as a celebration of it's 25th Birthday, also marking 25 years of Steve's own 25th anniversary as a mural artist on a parallel yet opposite path. It took a while for the scale of the project to sink in, but with the first two murals done in June I knew this was going to be something never seen before on such a magnificent scale. In August, the project really got started. 10, 20, 30 murals in just a couple weeks with help from writers and artists from all over the country and as far as Hawaii gathered to write Love Letters to a fictional girl from a fictional guy for her to read as she takes the elevated subway line in West Philadelphia from 47th to 63rd and back again. Along with a movie being shot, almost 50 Love Letters are now complete.

I conducted this interview with Steve via text messaging. I thought it would be easy but not really. As much as he loves telling you what is going on in his head, it's impossible to gain direct access to his brain. Trying to be clever is pointless 'cause he knows what you are doing, so half of my questions were ignored, here's what I managed to get out of him.

Adam: Steve, Let's do an interview for Fecal Face over the next few days.

Steve: Bet

Adam: How do you feel about the Love Letter Project as you take the bus home?

Steve: I'm on Amtrak on the quiet car, trying to whisper and I got people complaining at me, "Your on the quiet car!" I say, "What" they repeat themselves louder, and I say, "Why are you yelling on the quiet car?" People just want a reason to be the police. Oh, the Love Letter? That's amazing. You notice how loud Philly sirens are? As loud as New York with NONE of the constant ambient noise NYC has. I'm trying to take a Philly ambulance on Amtrak quiet car, then you'll seeee.

Adam: How does Amtrak compare to Chinatown bus?

Steve: Amtrak has its faults, but you really feel special taking it. I think the stations are a big point of it, but being able to drink and stretch out is major, but when the schedule permits, busses are the truth. I caught the mega bus down here with the Nick - 6 bucks, and I booked a return we didn't use. but we were able to catch the Amtrak back for $45 each and I still feel like we got justice.

Adam: I don't understand why it is so expensive.

Steve: It's pegged more to the business traveler than to the commuter, which makes it prohibitive to most people. To me, to be back in NYC a half hour earlier when my time is worth $100 an hour there, it's a good deal.

Adam: $100 an hour is $2400 a day, I live a month on that in Philly in a big old house and take the $10 Chinatown bus to NYC so much that people think I live there. What am I missing?

Steve: Well really the off hours are free, so its only 1400 a day, and its not what the game charges me its what I charge the game. New York is a great place to make art, when I find time to make it. Then again, even the smallest moments yield important data for making art, and here when you speak you can speak to the world, and not have to raise your voice above a whisper. Oh, and being here and visiting are two different things.

Adam: Do you think Philly sirens are trying to speak to the world, screaming over whispers, or just trying to annoy the passengers on the Amtrak quiet car as the train travels through the city?

Steve: Huh? Sirens and voices on Amtrak can annoy people in similar ways, just breaking the noise threshold you're accustomed to.

Adam: Is having a tiny studio in Manhattan inspiring? I wonder if having too much room is actually counter productive. Sometimes it seems like the people with the most room and tools do the least amount of work. Unless of course it's the entire set of roof tops lining the West Philly EL.

Steve: Yeah, the world is my studio; the 800 sq ft box in Manhattan is just the launch pad. Although I love to work there, I'm usually on a jobsite somewhere else.. Whenever I'm traveling I want to be home and vice-versa. There's a ray Bradbury story about an astronaut with a similar mindset, it resonated with me even before I left home. The only tool you need to get work done is the desperate need to get work done. - Without that your fancy t-square can't help you

Adam: I was impressed by what you wrote in the jumble of letters in the "If you were here" wall. I had no idea about it for weeks after, yet I overheard you talking about how one of the neighbors asked you if you were going to paint a memorial that day. I thought you just brushed it off. The same goes for the subtle tributes you have been sliding into the murals. When does the word "scheme" come into play with your ideas? Is it towards the end of the thought process, or do you know what you are doing the whole time?

Steve: I scheme even in my dreams. I don't scheme on others, that's low rent. When I think of that I think of dudes trying to creep up and take your newspaper off your lawn. I like the spirit of getting what you need by any means, "getting over" if you will, but I'm bound by doing it in a way that doesn't fuck anybody over.

Love Letter is a project by Stephen Powers with the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and is sponsored by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage through the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative. Generous support provided by the Brownstein Group and Septa.

Stephen J. Powers is a New York City artist who at one time wrote graffiti in Philadelphia and New York under the name ESPO ("Exterior Surface Painting Outreach"). He was most well known during the late 1990s for his conceptual pieces as well as his role as the editor and publisher of On the Go Magazine. He has shown at The Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, The 49th Venice Bienalle, The Luggage Store in San Francisco, and had his first museum solo show at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in 2007. In 2003, He founded the Dreamland Artist Club and partnered with Creative Time to commission over 45 artists to paint signs and rides in Coney Island. This past summer he returned to Coney Island with Creative Time and opened The Waterboard Thrill Ride. As a 2008 Fulbright Scholar, Powers painted a love story in the streets of Dublin and Belfast. He lives and works in Manhattan.

http://www.aloveletterforyou.com/

To view more of the Philly murals, check here. {moscomment}

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contact FF

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