Renee Stout. Photo Courtesy of Renée Stout and Hemphill Fine Arts.
Beyond the Artistic Veil:
An Interview with Renee Stout
By Candace Randle
Renee Stout is one of Washington, DC’s most recognizable artists. Taking some of life’s most personal and enduring moments, Stout creates pieces that are impossible to ignore. Her work has been featured at multiple venues across the country. Although she has been crafting her skill since early childhood, Renee considers herself an artist who is still evolving. Earlier this year, the High Museum of Art, based in Atlanta, named her the 2010 recipient of the prestigious David C. Driskell Prize, an annual award that recognizes a scholar or artist who, through their work, makes an original and significant impact in the field of African American art or art history. As she prepared for her latest exhibit featured through October 30, 2010 at the Hemphill Gallery of Fine Arts in Washington, DC, she graciously took time to discuss first-hand her work, her life as a DC artist, and her inspirations.
The Art Section: When did your career as an artist begin? What, in your opinion, was the tipping point or the defining moment?
Renee Stout: My mother had a younger brother who was a self-taught artist and she grew up watching him draw and paint on any surface he could get his hands on, so when she saw me scribbling (at the age of three) on the toes of my Buster Brown Mary Jane’s, she figured she’d better start purchasing plenty of art supplies. That was the beginning.
What, in your opinion, was the defining moment of your career?
The tipping point in my professional career came in 1990, a few years after I had moved to Washington, DC from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where I was raised. I had been working in the after-school program of a Montessori school and doing my art in the evenings, on the weekends and in the summer when school was out, but hadn’t really been showing anywhere around the city. One day a good friend suggested that I let him show slides of my work to a woman who ran a very nice gallery that used to be downtown on 7th Street, NW until it closed several years back. Back then, I was very shy about approaching galleries and would have never had the nerve to walk into that gallery with slides in-hand, but I agreed to let him take them in for me. Within a few days Barbara Kornblatt, the owner of the gallery, was sitting in my apartment/studio and we were discussing my joining her gallery.
Left to Right: Journal Entry #5, ed. 13, 2009, plate: 11 3/4” x 7 7/8” / paper: 19 3/4” x 15”, aquatint, etching. Root Chart #3, ed. 13, 2009, plate: 12” x 7 7/8” / paper: 19 3/4” x 15”, aquatint etching and mezzotint. Photo Courtesy of Renee Stout and Hemphill Fine Arts.
As an artist, what inspires you?
When I was just starting out, I was inspired by the work of artists I had been exposed to through museums or art history books. I use to love the work of artists like Joseph Cornell, Betye Saar and Edward Kienholtz. However, since then, I have lived a lot of life and I now find that I’m inspired by my own personal experience.
How would you describe your artwork? Is there a continuing theme?
Yes, there is a continuing theme. Back in my early thirties, in order to work through my shyness (insecurity, really) about openly expressing my true feelings in my work, I developed an alter ego as a vehicle to allow me to freely express all that I was thinking and feeling. Through my work, I would tell stories about the alter ego’s adventures. She’s a woman who can “work roots” and interpret people’s dreams, and the art that I made represented objects she would use or interiors she inhabited. I wanted to make the viewers at my shows feel like voyeurs who were peeping in on the personal life of this mysterious woman. As I matured, I found that I no longer needed the alter-ego to express my personal thoughts, but I had become attached to being able to tell an ongoing, ever-evolving story though the alter ego and the rich characters she would interact with, so I continued to do so. All of my narrative artworks had their seeds in real-life stuff, but I was also free to embellish that reality if I wanted to. Part of me has always wanted to be a writer.
Where can an art enthusiasts view your work?
At any given time Hemphill Fine Arts has pieces of mine that can be viewed by appointment. They also have a website that features works by the entire roster of artists (including me) that they represent. But it’s also as easy as putting my name into Google Images and lots of works I’ve done over the years will pop up.
Renee Stout, Truth-Telling Kit, 2008. Photo Courtesy of Renee Stout and Hemphill Fine Arts
When people think of art, they mostly think of New York. What makes Washington, DC a city for artists?
I love New York and its energy and go there as often as I can. However, I refuse to buy into the idea that New York is the only place to make art and be a legitimate artist. Washington, DC is a very metropolitan city with its own cultural identity and energy that artists feed on and get inspired by. Compared to New York, DC is much more manageable to function in as an artist economically. However, I have to tell it like it is and say that DC could do much more to show support for its artists and the galleries and alternative spaces that show their work. We just keep hoping that the powers that be (from the Mayor to the developers) in this city will figure it out and become more supportive of the city’s cultural energy.
What, to date, has been your greatest artistic achievement?
I think that my greatest achievement has been to make a living these past 20 years doing what I love. Being a self-employed artist has been both rewarding and challenging, especially in these difficult times. However, I get to see what I’m made of everyday. As an artist, I like to challenge myself constantly, because I want my work to continue to grow and evolve.
A native Arkansan, Candace L. Randle is the deputy director of communications and public affairs for The RLJ Companies and is the managing editor of PowerPlay Magazine. She currently resides in Washington, DC.
Renee Stout's exhibition The House of Chance and Mischief is at Hemphill Fine Arts in Washington, DC from September 11 - October 30, 2010.
The following article was originally written for PowerPlay Magazine and has been printed with expressed permission and consent from its publisher.