For the People: The Artwork of Stephen L. Hayes Jr.

By Lynn Trenning

When Stephen L. Hayes, Jr. was a kid he broke his toy remote control car. His older brother Spence took it apart and connected the little engine to a 9-volt battery. “It blew my mind,” says Hayes. “I learned I could break toys and make new toys.”

Years later, Spence took Stephen to neighborhoods more affluent than his own in Durham and told him to look around. “At that moment I didn’t know what the difference was, but now I do,” Hayes admits. “My brother explained that their houses are worth more than their cars, and in our neighborhood our cars are worth more than our houses. [The cars] were more for show.”  

Hayes, the inaugural Missy Luczak-Smith + Doug Smith 13-month Fellowship Artist-in-Residence at McColl Center for Art + Innovation, took Spence’s lessons to heart. He doesn’t get caught up in materialistic things, yet he is concerned about the influences that music, media, and materialism have on children. “That’s why I use my artwork to teach. I want to use my art to capture a kid’s eyes, to see there is more than materialism. They think it’s a popcorn world; you put it in the microwave and you have an instant meal.”


In 2010, Hayes created Cash Crop, an exhibition in Atlanta and thesis for his MFA in Sculpture at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). “At that time I stopped calling myself an artist. I called myself a creator.” 

Cash Crop, 2010

Cash Crop featured a variety of mixed media components, the centerpiece being life-sized concrete sculptures of shackled slaves bound to wooden pallets. A triptych called “Man Woman Child” is a floor plan of how slaves were packaged for transatlantic transport. “Made In” is a model ship; on its sail the names of countries without economic labor rights. “The same way people were being packed in the ships is the way people are being packed into warehouses today, even though they are happy to be able to provide for their family. Cash Crop is asking who or what is the next cash crop?”  


While creating Cash Crop, Hayes came across the infamous Willie Lynch letter, “The Making of a Slave.” The letter, delivered as a speech by Lynch, a British slave owner who was invited to the colony of Virginia in 1712 to teach his methods to slave owners there, proposed that you break the psyche of a male slave the same way you break a horse. “Where does brainwashing go on today?" Hayes asked himself after reading Lynch’s letter. "That made me think of consumer capitalism."

The title of How to Make a Dollar, Hayes’ work in progress during his art residency at McColl Center, is a play on Lynch’s letter. It's a commentary on economics and consumerism.  “I listen to hip hop and what they are talking about,” notes Hayes, particularly about today’s youth’s obsession with money, clothes, and cars—and how the media feeds this.  

His third floor studio at McColl Center houses frames made of skids and pallets. Squares of woodcuts made with a tiny hand tool are woven together by a rough crochet. There are goods made from goods. There is sculpture and there is corn. There is evidence of the stock market, and of genetically modified organisms. “Everything will revert back to How to Make a Dollar,” declares Hayes. However, not one to share his work until it's done, he adds, "we don’t show the magic until the magic is complete."

Hayes loves making stuff, but he also dreams of his artwork being famous, and his name to be legendary amongst everyone. "I always hate those little boxes you have to check about your race," he admits. "I’m American. Even though there might be an African American influence, I make artwork for people.”

As to the work, “sometimes it has a meaning, and sometimes it just is. I want people to think harder than this materialistic world," he concludes, "and for young people today to aspire to be more.”