Clayton Singleton grew up in Park Place, Norfolk, as a child of the 1970’s. He is a painter and sculptor.
AltDaily: How would you describe yourself as an artist?
Clayton Singleton: I think I’d describe myself as a realist expressionist, if that’s a term. Definitely a narrative guy: storyteller. I tell stories and ask questions. I like to think/ construct visually as if I were a writer… as if the elements of design are words and the principles are fragment/ sentences to use for my poetry and prose.
I don’t know that I’m so much of an innovator when it comes to creating/ making. I’ve always felt like more of a renovator…. I don’t know if I necessarily have anything new to say… anything new to add to the social consciousness… anything enduring… I’m not sure… I do believe my cross-section… my how/ why of it all… may have some voice.
What materials have you worked with and what are you working with now?
I like to dabble, so I’ve worked with clay, stone, metal, paper, Bondo, wire, acrylic, wood and canvas. I also like to use housing building materials. I’ve even used children’s “art class” materials to create visual art. Currently, I’m using traditional acrylic and canvas to create paintings. Additionally, I’ve returned to housing building materials to create Access Panels. These Access Panels are constructed boxes made from building materials found at Home Improvement stores then primed and painted like acrylic on board artworks, then drawer pulls and rulers etc. are attached. They can either hang like a painting or stand like a sculpture.
Easter Sunday, Acrylic on Canvas, 36 x 36 Circa 1996
What artists influenced you in your youth?
I used to walk by or go in the Chrysler Museum from time to time. Out front they had a sculpture of small man with this large woman… I always felt like she ran the show. There was also this larger than life sized nude figure of a muscular man. That piece, I remember, used to cause a stir and finally it was removed. I recall seeing the gigantic white painting of a Black guy in the museum that looked like some of my mom’s friends. Later I learned that piece was “Slick” by Barkley Hendricks.
In junior high there was guy who would come by Northside Junior High. I would later learn his name was Jerry Tompkins. Well, he’d bring slides of art and artists to Mrs. Masterson’s French class and talk about art and artists. His collection included dozens of artists, but I remember Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Rothko, Manet, Monet, Salvador Dali and Jean-Michel Basquiat the most… especially Jean-Michel and Michelangelo. The black and white promo pic of Jean-Michel on a subway stood out to me. He was a young Black guy making art. I had not seen that before. He stuck in my head. I wanted to meet him. I wanted to meet the words he drew with his paintbrush. I wanted to shake the stick figures with which he spoke…. It was a blend of verbal and visual language. Phenom. Michelangelo was cool because the Sistine Chapel showed stories I’d been told for years. The way the people moved… they were more than pictures: they were characters in the orchestrated ceilings… I could hear them make noise and bustle… the moving from one tale to the next. It was a visual song.
Hanging Clothes in the Backyard, Acrylic on Canvas, 16 x 20 Circa 1996
I have been told all art comes from life. If so, what experiences have influenced you the most and led to the direction and subject matter you approach in your artwork?
Basically, my art catalog reads like a diary. My art is, in the end, about my experiences and the ideas developed as a result of those experiences. I think my work has been been mostly influenced by relationship to people. I’ve generally stood on the “outside” of people. My intimate relationships are few. I’ve felt like I’m just “in the room” for the majority of my life. I had really poor health growing up so much of the time I was simply sitting around, standing around or laying around while others were actively living their lives. All of that observing probably served me well. I understand and am very empathetic when it comes to people… but I wish I were able to participate more. Being a bystander was not very exciting…. Would have liked some excitement of “my” own.
Strangely Mork and Mindy influenced my approach. There was an episode when Mork gave each person “a thought” for gifts. This amazed me. When I create a piece, especially commissions, my intent is to affect the buyer/ viewer in such a way that he/ she has an emotional reaction. I need it to be an emotional reaction to which they respond as if I were a crooner serenading them with their favorite song.
Another piece from experience is Understanding the Why. When folk read my work I want them to understand my viewpoint I’m seeking to explain my ideas. My work will feature “lessons” like I’m the teacher…. Lemme share something about how this (idea) works. I’m a teacher. Always have been. I used to get into street fights because I was always “teaching” someone how wack or wrong their ideas were… lol… yeah got into quite a few wins and losses… is what it is. So now the teacher has emerged again and I’m using my work to teach people about our public education system and why “the system” isn’t necessarily “causing students to fail.”
You grew up here in Norfolk. What was it like in 1970’s when you were a kid?
Woooooooooo ha haaaaa the 19 – 70’ssssss J wow!! The 70’s were the –ish! There was true love and appreciation for living life. People were so alive with whatever life they had. We didn’t have much but we were appreciative. We made do with what we had and what we had was enough. Sure you wanted the toys, games, and clothes you saw on TV and in the newspaper…who didn’t want Hot Wheels and Atari? But if you didn’t have it you could always turn on WRAP AM 850 and listen to The Soul Ranger or dance to the “happy” music on the radio.
People used to catch the bus… watch me… when catching the bus you navigate and meet soooo many different types of people… so many life performances of characters. We moved around a lot chasing rents so I learned how to catch the bus early. We played outside in dirt; “at the field” we made teams… and though I couldn’t always play… sometimes I could be the coach or something lol. We were really active people/ kids. Folk looked out for you if you were hungry… and the colors…the colors and designs were everywhere… the wallpapers… album covers… posters… were all rich in designs patterns and texture. We had an orange living room set with the fake palm trees in potted soil and the glass beads leading to the kitchen and wooden beads leading to the bedrooms. We had a b/w tv atop the console record player, along with a fish tank. The walls hung relief sculptures of nude woman next to large spoons and forks… behind the sofa was string art on the wall that matched the orange and white shag rug under the coffee table. Family photos flanked the entertainment center and walls… photos were stuck to the refrigerator and photo albums were inside the console. Someone always had a camera.
There was always laughter and music drowning the lack of money and resources. The Boys Club held us down after school and in the summer with everything from lessons in life to food for the body. We needed each other and we acknowledged it. After I was robbed at gunpoint at age seven, my mom still sent me to the store by myself, lol, but she asked the clerk to put change in a small bag into the bigger bag. We had responsibility for ourselves…but we also had response-ability for each other. Neighbors fed the latchkey kids and we did our homework before going out to play. Life in the 70’s was an orchestra, a full composition of strings brass winds and percussion. All of the mixtures all of the patterns of the overlap and intersections affect me and how I work today.
What was that most important gift you were given as a child?
Simply the gift of creating… the gift of possibility…
My mom used to create… like she’d literally go buy fabrics from the fabric store and construct a suit/ outfit for the next day at work… lol that’s what you do when you don’t have “anything to wear.”
My grandparents had a garden in the backyard and we used to grow vegetables. We’d make ice cream. My granddad used to build lawn furniture using new and random pieces of wood… he’d break out a simple hand saw, a mouth full of nails and a hammer. Oft times without measuring with a rule, he’d line up wood, start cutting, build chairs or stools, paint them white and rest on them the next day.
Creativity. Bringing into existence. That was my most important gift.
We as artists want people to respond to our artwork. What do you want from your audience?
I want them to hear the work. Just listen to it. Just hear the story or idea. Drink it think about it. Consider it. If you don’t dig it fine. Just attempt to see it for what it is not for what you want it to be… I suppose the same way in which I’d love people to respond to me… on merit… without prejudice.
What was the best experience you have had with somebody appreciating your work?
By far one of the best experiences I’ve had is a young lady who came to the studio to pick up a painting of her mom. She literally fell to the floor moved to tears, then to crying out loud. Her mom died after a battle with cancer. The young lady herself is a two time survivor… she said… her eyes… her eyes are looking at me. My job in the end is to move someone to the point of tears. I believe that is our most honest and deepest display of emotion (second to laughter lol). I’ve seen grown men cry at the sight of their kids. Recently I painted a piece for a 70 year old gentleman… his daughter had it secretly commissioned… It told his story. He cried. This elderly Black man who’d been through what I’ve only read about… was touched by something I did for him… we’d never met until that day… I mean what else do you want, you know?
Is there a stack of 45’s we can play in the afterlife? Yeeeesssss lolol… I surely hope there is… let’s see… Temptations- My Girl, Kool & the Gang -Celebration, Lenny Williams – Because I love you, Gloria Gaynor – I will Survive, Devo – Whip it, Zapp band – more bounce to the ounce, Donna Summer – hot stuff, Village people YMCA, Commodores – Brickhouse, Issac Hayes, Stevie Wonder & anything by Stax Records artists lol… gotta have that grit… life is gritty
What artists are speaking to you now?
Chris Rock, Jay Z, Kanye, Ed Sheeran, Muriel Rukeyser, Peter Williams are speaking to me now
What advice would you give to young artists ?
Just do whatever it is you. Love being the you who you are right now… it’ll change as you age and as you grow. Work from your core. Apples come from apple seeds… nothing else. Listen to everything from 88.1 to 107.7, meaning expose yourself to everything and everyone you can. The influence and the follow will amaze you. Make stuff and create stuff. Think. Be daring. Fail. Laugh. Cry. Hang out with your friends. Try strange foods. Reeeaaddddd. Love someone on purpose. Ask a kid what to do. Learn to throw stuff away. Keep what sings to you. Sing your song.
For more of the artist, here is his website.