Stephen Hayes – American Heritage
Dimensions: 41 x 36 x 4″
Medium: mixed media wall relief
Stephen Hayes “American Heritage” is a poignant work embodying the history of commodifying Black bodies and their labor in the United States. Upon a quasi-colonial backdrop, Hayes replaces the traditional seal of the United States with his own experience of history. Rather than the American Eagle, thought to symbolize strength and power, Hayes places images of the Brookes Slave Ship diagram instead. The diagram resembles the shape of an ear of corn, a metaphor for commodification of both human beings and agriculture by other human beings. This is one of Hayes’s most brilliant works, from the same series as one held in the permanent collection of the Gibbes Museum in Charleston, South Carolina.
Hayes was born in North Carolina and raised with the idea that anything is possible. His artistic interests and skills were formed in childhood, when his mother, Lender, gave him a full size workbench and encouraged him to get creative with old mechanical parts she brought home from work.
Hayes’s current work fuses the past and the present. The common thread is capitalism, the commodification of human beings, and the subsequent brainwashing effects. Recurring imagery creates a thread between individual pieces in his repertoire and lets him speak directly to larger societal issues that are rooted in the racial structuring of society.
Stephen L. Hayes, Jr. makes art—woodcuts, sculptures, installations small and large—from found materials that draw on social and economic themes ingrained in the history of America and African-Americans. His approach is simple: “If I can’t find it, I’ll make it. If I can’t make it, I’ll find it.”
He went to North Carolina Central University, aiming to transfer to North Carolina State University to study mechanical engineering. Instead, through a friend, he discovered graphic design. His new major led to a ceramics course, where his enthusiasm and skill led to being allowed as much time as he wanted on the wheel. He threw enough pots to develop a strong portfolio, leading to a residency at the acclaimed New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University. Hayes earned an MFA in sculpture at Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta. His thesis exhibition, Cash Crop, has been traveling and exhibiting for nearly a decade.
Frequently in his work, Hayes uses three symbols: a pawn, a corn, and a horse to explore America’s use (or misuse) of Black bodies, Black minds, and Black labor. Artists, he believes, are as much translators as they are creators.