“Brilliant, original, thorough, quirky and funny.” Rhode Island School of Design Senior Lecturer Tom Roberts read to audience members his evaluation of then-college sophomore Shepard Fairey, who took his “Social Commentary and Propaganda” course in 1991. Three decades since graduating from RISD and over a decade after he rose to fame with the 2008 “HOPE” portrait of former President Barack Obama, world-renowned contemporary street artist Fairey returned to his alma mater Oct. 21 to kick off the 30th anniversary of Obey Giant, his street art campaign that started in Providence in 1989.
A collaboration between RISD and Providence cultural center AS220, the Monday event began with opening speeches by RISD President Rosanne Somerson and AS220 Youth Director Anjel Newman. Their welcoming introductions preceded the screening of a 15-minute documentary on Fairey’s life and a conversation between Fairey and Roberts. Both segments delved into the monumental moments in Fairey’s last 30 years of work — from a young RISD graduate who slapped iconic “Andre the Giant” stickers around Providence to a father of two daughters who now reflects on the social and political impacts of his work.
Ever since his 2008 “HOPE” portrait of Obama, Fairey has continued to engage with social justice issues and political movements. The artist recently collaborated with non-profit organizations to advance grassroot movements that advocate for progressive social change. “This work is so aligned with RISD’s strategic plan at the moment,” Somerson said at the event. “It’s really wonderful to see an alum doing this incredible work in the world.”
Fairey recently became a member of the RISD board of trustees, adding another position to his long list of titles, Somerson announced. She went on to describe Fairey as a “contemporary street artist, graphic designer, graphic illustrator, DJ and founder of Obey Giant art and OBEY clothing.”
Fairey graduated from RISD in 1992 with a degree in Illustration. Recounting his experience at the school, Fairey praised the quality of RISD’s liberal arts courses but recalled a divide between artistic disciplines that he said was “unhealthy.”
“I took as many screen-printing courses as I could, but there was this idea that as a major in Illustration, that I was somehow an interloper in the screen-printing studio. I think that was an unhealthy attitude,” Fairey explained to The Herald. As a trustee, the artist wants to promote increased interaction between different departments that allow RISD students to be more interdisciplinary in their artistic practices.
“I’ve always utilized what I call the ‘inside/outside strategy,’” Fairey said. “When the system shuts me out, I’ll just figure out a way to work around it, but when I can infiltrate the system and try to make it better, I will.”
Now based out of Los Angeles, Fairey sees his artistic development at RISD as connected to the city of Providence, where he remained for five years after graduation. “I liked Providence. I liked not just the RISD community, I liked the whole Providence community. I felt like there was a lot of this do-it-yourself creative spark,” he said. “Providence has this camaraderie where a lot of creative people would help each other out.”
After graduation, Shepard ran a small screen-printing studio in Olneyville that he started in the summer after his junior year. While in the city, he started “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” — a street art campaign that distributed his hand-designed stickers of then-famous professional wrestler “Andre the Giant.” The sticker campaign quickly spread to other cities across United States.
“In more traditional art realms — let’s say New York City — me making this quirky ‘Andre the Giant’ sticker may have been looked down upon or not taken seriously. Here, the novelty factor of it seemed to connect a lot (of) people,” he said, adding that the response to the campaign ranged “from highbrow to lowbrow.”
While in town for the event and his pop-up gallery — “Facing the Giant,” open on 233 Westminster Street until Nov. 16 — Fairey decided to paint his 100th mural in downtown Providence, continuing his 30th anniversary celebration.
“A lot of the murals I’ve been making for the last few years have been taking the approach that I used — simplifying things to their most iconic essence and using a limited color palette — to its next phase,” Fairey said. “I’m including patterns, and texts and geometrical elements, portraiture, in this mural, where I hope there is a sense of movement.”
Located on the wall of the Founder’s League building downtown, the large mural now features a portrait of Newman — executed in characteristic Fairey style. Geometrical triangles point to Newman’s face, which is outlined with bold yellow, blue and orange color blocks. Newman is known among Providence artists for his creative vision and his ability to bring people together around art.
“I wanted to focus on what AS220’s philosophy is, what I think is valuable of what it does for the community — but also (on) a person who is emblematic of the organization and a success story within the organization,” Fairey said. On the side of the portrait “creativity is the mechanism of self-liberation,” a phrase Newman once said, is stenciled in black letters.
“If creativity is the mechanism of self-liberation, then it can also be the mechanism, by ripple effect, of societal liberation,” Fairey added.
Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article used a "he" pronoun to describe RISD President Rosanne Somerson. In fact, Somerson uses she/her/hers pronouns. The previous version of this article also misspelled 'Shepard' as "Shepherd" in the headline. The Herald regrets the errors.