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The Voice of the Black Community

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Stephen Hayes' art challenges perception of Black manhood
'Beyond Any Means' exhibit at Elder Gallery
Published Sunday, March 7, 2021 9:00 pm
by Ashley Mahoney

Stephen Hayes’ first commercial exhibit of 2021, “Beyond Any Means,” is on display at Elder Gallery of Contemporary Art in Charlotte.

Stephen Hayes uses art to challenge and change the way Black men are viewed.

“Beyond Any Means,” Hayes’ first commercial exhibit of 2021, opens at the Elder Gallery of Contemporary Art (1520 South Tryon St.) on March 5 and runs through April 24. An opening reception will take place from 5-8 p.m. on March 5. His work mostly focuses on capitalism, consumerism and brainwashing and how the Black body is being perceived today.

Hayes, a mixed-media artist, uses what he describes as glitz and glam imagery to capture the audience’s attention, but ultimately he wants to create a conversation around the perception of Black men. His work does not have a singular meaning, but rather encourages dialogue based on the viewer’s daily experiences.

“I view artwork as a way to connect different generations and cultures together,” Hayes said. “Art is a way of bringing people together. It is there to probe questions or make statements.”

If Hayes cannot find what he is looking for, he will make it through. His skillset includes sculpting, blacksmithing, welding, print making, carving and weaving.

“I love how he uses found objects and his backstory—even calling himself a creator,” said Elder Gallery of Contemporary Art owner and creative director Sonya Pfeiffer. “Everything he does in his work mirrors both the experience he has had personally and his objective to communicate something really broadly about capitalism and consumerism and modern day brainwashing and manipulation—about how people are manipulated by images of what is held up to be what we should strive for. When you look at the body of work in this current show, it really hits on all of those themes that Stephen has focused on throughout his work.”

The Durham native’s early work after earning degrees from North Carolina Central University and Savannah College of Art and Design respectively, particularly “Cash Crop,” which was shown at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Art + Culture and other cultural institutions.

“That focus [on the Black body in a historical contemporary context] stays in his work now,” Pfeiffer said.

Hayes marked a decade of exhibiting last March with a retrospective titled “American Haze” at Mason Fine Art gallery in Atlanta, the first gallery to show his work.

“I knew it wasn’t going to get that many views, but I still drove all my artwork to Atlanta, put it all up in the gallery,” Hayes said. “I wanted to do it because I felt like it was something I needed to do to say, ‘I didn’t give up after 10 years.’”

Now Hayes is focusing on public commissioned pieces – two in Charlotte, one in Durham, another in Raleigh and a bronze sculpture honoring African American soldiers who led the Union advance in the Battle of Forks Road during the Civil War to be unveiled in November at the Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington.

Hayes also turned a one-year fellowship at Duke University into a three-year opportunity as an associate professor. He joined the faculty in 2018 in the studio arts department.
Hayes’ journey has not been without challenges, and ultimately, he is thankful for the struggle. He credits a residency at Halcyon Arts Lab in Washington, D.C. as key to helping him strengthen his resolve to pursue life as an artist.

He also participated in residencies at the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University in New York, 701 Center for Contemporary Art in Columbia, South Carolina and Charlotte’s McColl Center for Art + Innovation.

“There were points in time where every time opening up my email there was a rejection letter, and I still get rejection letters to this day, but I didn’t give up,” Hayes said. “There were points where it’s like, ‘I need a job, but do I quit doing what I love and become a zombie and just do a regular job that I hate?’ There were so many things that I had to do to get where I am now. There were times when I had to sleep on the floor and when I didn’t have anything.”

Hayes is at a point where he is happy and enjoys the struggle. He channels his energy into helping students determine their purpose.

“In class, I am always asking my students, ‘what’s your why? Why are you creating this? Who are you? What do you want to say to the world?’” Hayes said. “It took me a while to understand what my why was…I’m trying to change the way I am being seen, and if not me, then someone who looks like me—how we are being viewed in today’s society.”


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