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1 to Watch: Tom Stanley. Artist heads out into ... who knows?

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If you’re the kind of person who likes to know the meaning behind an artist’s imagery, you may find yourself wanting more from Tom Stanley than he’ll provide.

The Concord-raised, Rock Hill-based artist, who began a residency at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation and a stint as guest curator in August, is affable, talkative, curious. And a little mysterious.

Tom Stanley enters a residency at the McColl Center with an open mind: “I don’t know exactly what I’ll be working on. I hope my work goes in a direction I don’t expect.” John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

What will he work on during his residency? “Boats, probably. And houses,” he responds. “And I say that very loosely. They may take on different shapes, and they could be metaphors.”

For what? “I don’t always know. But both houses and boats are very important to me.”

How so? “Well, I grew up in a house, and I live in one now,” he responds. And laughs.

The artist – and former chair of the fine arts department (and professor emeritus) at Winthrop University – does not want to be pinned down. “I don’t know exactly what I’ll be working on,” he says. “I hope my work goes in a direction I don’t expect.”

Tom Stanley’s “Boats Before I Go #1,” 2018. Courtesy of the artist. Photograph by Alexis Howard.

As guest curator, though, he’s got a specific start. Between now and April 2019, he’ll curate four shows of new work from McColl alumni. The first one, “New Works/Alumni One,” opens Sept. 13 and features photographer/installation artist Michaela Pilar Brown, sculptor Erika Diamond and installation and performance artist Jonathan Prichard.

Stanley, 68, chose the three area artists not just for their work, all of which focuses on the human figure, but because they’re interested in having conversations with McColl visitors. “Some of the best artists are people who are generous of spirit,” he says.

“Michaela is a photographer who uses her body to tell stories – specifically about the African-American community,” he says. “Her photographs for this show were all shot in Winnsboro, S.C., at Camp Welfare at the AME Zion Church. Do you know about camp meetings?”

They’re reunions, sort of – held on church grounds. Generations of families return for food, devotions, singing, preaching. “Camp meetings blend the secular and the sacred,” he says.

Erika Diamond focuses on the fragility of the body. For “Alumni One,” she’s creating hand-woven garments out of bullet-proof fiber to make a statement about the massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando where 49 people were murdered. Prichard paints, draws and is a performance artist whose work explores movement and the body. A performance piece will be part of his work for the exhibition.

Stanley considers the curating gig the “icing on the cake” to his residency. While the McColl Center has had many guest curators, officials believe this will be the first time in the center’s 20-year history that an artist-in-residence has done double duty as curator.

“Our artistic director left at the end of 2017 with no exhibitions planned beyond the summer of 2018,” explains Armando Bellmas, McColl’s marketing and operations vice president. “We reached out to Tom, who was already slated to be an artist-in-residence in the fall, because of his strong curatorial background. It’s been a perfect fit.”

Stanley doesn’t want to say too much about his curatorial plans. He’ll let them evolve. “This will be a team effort,” he says. “I can’t do any of this without other people.”

Stanley plans to immerse himself in the work at the McColl Center – and in urban life. He and his wife, Kathe – an arts educator – are renting an apartment across the street from the McColl for the duration of his eight-month residency. “We want to know what it feels like to be here – to be part of cultural events, sporting events,” he said. “And I may want to walk over to the studio to work at night.”

This spring he did a six-week residency as a visiting artist at Charleston’s Gibbes Museum, and he’ll have a solo show this December at Hodges Taylor in South End. That, titled “En Route to Here,” will contain both old and new work – but none of it has been shown in Charlotte before.

This show is not a retrospective, says gallery partner Lauren Harkey. “Tom retired and then amped everything up,” she said. “Who says retirement means slowing down?”

While the symbolism (houses, ships, windmills) throughout his 45-year career has remained constant, his style has not. Harkey says she’s excited to showcase Stanley’s stylistic progression – which has always been unmistakably modern even as it incorporates simplistic, almost childlike renditions of houses.

Industrial elements have always been part of Stanley’s iconography. Harkey says those come from his childhood: “His dad worked in a machine shop. Tom wanted to be an engineer until he found out he’d have to do math. His mom ran a boarding house (in North Carolina). He’s had a very rich life, but he’s also sort of an everyman.”

12-Panel Drawing, acrylic on canvas, 76x102 inches (3)
12-panel drawing, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist

“There’s a sense of place and a narrative element to his art,” she continues. “That’s true of folk artists.”

While Stanley isn’t a folk or self-taught artist (he earned an MA and MFA from the University of South Carolina), he says he is fascinated by them. Since folk art is primitive and childlike, it seems as if it – more than any genre – is at risk of being derided by the “my-kid-could-paint-that” type.

So, what makes good folk art? “A good self-taught artist is creating in a voice that’s not been used before. It may be crude, but there’s something unique about it. It adds something to the visual vocabulary.”

Unlike the often-flat look of paintings by self-taught artists, Stanley’s art has depth and texture. It’s often stark – black and white with the occasional touch of another primary color – and geometric.

While the work appears structured and orderly, Harkey says Stanley is spontaneous in the way he approaches it: “At the outset, he doesn’t have an objective.”

“You wouldn’t call me a painterly painter,” Stanley says. “I draw with paint more than I paint with paint.” He loves a technique called sgraffito, which involves drawing into layers of paint on a canvas.

The often-solitary pursuit of art isn’t solitary for Stanley: He looks for opportunities to collaborate. He led the work for CATS’ Blue Line extension at the Tom Hunter Station, and says he loved involving the Hidden Valley neighborhood kids in the public art project.

His old studio at Winthrop once became so overcrowded that he moved his canvases out to the hallway and began to work there. Students and colleagues often stopped to ask about the work and his process. “Not working in isolation was liberating,” he says. “I can become too absorbed with myself if I’m just in my studio listening to music.” (Probably Bill Evans, John Coltrane or Rahsaan Roland Kirk.)

Moving out into the hallway led to the work becoming “less precious,” Stanley said. “It took on a more workmanlike – or workperson-like – quality.”

His McColl residency again allows him to again work among people. He hopes visitors will stop in and interrupt his work. He wants to talk – just not necessarily about himself.

Harkey, 32, says, “There’s a “humility about him. It’s a beautiful generational thing that my generation may be losing.” Harkey’s offered insight into Stanley’s visual metaphors. But does the house represent shelter? Is the boat a means of transportation or a means of escape? “We tend to want everything to mean something,” she says. “But it doesn’t have to. Whatever you want to take from Tom’s work is up to you. He doesn’t dictate what you should see.”

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.