Re-dignifying marginalized figures: Stan Squirewell
Peanut Tee Tee
Stan Squirewell (b. 1978) is a painter, photographer and collage artist who re-imagines and re-dignifies marginalized historical figures.
Squirewell learned well the lessons of his childhood: to do what he loves and to never give up. That has led to a blossoming career as an artist with a compelling exhibition on view at the Claire Oliver Gallery in Harlem, NY.
“Marginalized communities are often overlooked and omitted from history in general. The history I was taught did not have my ancestry represented. As a child of the hip hop era, born in the 70s, growing up in the 80s and 90s, I look at my work as almost remixing, crate-digging, but my crates are museums, private collections, and historical narratives. I remix my pieces according to my own way of writing history. The main thing I want the viewer to take away is to question what you think you know, what you’ve been told, and what you believe.”
Stan Squirewell was born and raised in Washington, DC. His first memory of drawing was with a cousin. They were drawing boxcars from a book his grandmother had given them for Christmas. Squirewell got frustrated because his drawing didn’t look as good as his cousin’s, so much so that he balled up his drawing and threw it in the trash. His cousin retrieved the crumpled drawing from the bin, ironed it out, and proceeded to show him how to correct his drawing to look more like a boxcar. “You shouldn’t give up on yourself so quickly. If you fix this one line here, and here it would look just like the car.” This was a lesson for Squirewell to never give up on himself. If he made mistakes, he would just have to correct them and keep moving forward.
A second key figure in Squirewell’s childhood was his Uncle John. One day, when he was about eight years old, he stumbled upon his Uncle painting landscapes in his basement studio, in the style of Bob Ross but with more collage elements. This was the first time he’d ever seen anyone painting real-time, and he was captivated. From then on, each weekend when he visited his Uncle John, he’d bring his drawings to show off what he did. His uncle would encourage him, saying “man, you can do it.”
In school, Squirewell’s knack for drawing was noticed by his teachers who encouraged him to take more art classes. He attended the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, a prominent art school in Washington, DC with notable alumni Dave Chappelle, Denyce Graves, and Tracy Inman. At the time, the vast majority of the students at Duke Ellington were Black. In fact, Squirewell’s entire childhood and adolescent years were spent in a segregated environment. When he went to college as one of a handful of Black students in his class, he felt culture shock and the sting of racism for the first time. He recounts one experience where a teacher prodded him to make a nude drawing more quickly. Squirewell was immersed in the exercise, taking his time trying to capture the details. “It’s not like any of your work is ever going to be in a museum,” the teacher said. Squirewell took that as a challenge, and said to himself “Oh, that’s where my work is going. That’s why I’m doing this.”
Squirewell didn’t finish at that school, but he continued making art. He apprenticed under established DC-artists, Michael Platt and Lou Stovall and went on to earn a MFA from Hoffberger School of painting in Baltimore, MD in 2007. He won first place in the Rush Philanthropic and Bombay Sapphire Artisan series in 2013, and his work is now in the collections of three prominent museums (Museum of Fine Art, Boston, Smithsonian African American Museum, and Reginald Lewis Museum).
During his MFA studies, Squirewell began conducting ancestry research. Through it, he learned that his lineage included Native American roots. This discovery sparked an interest in how ancestral origins become blurred or erased, sometimes by accident and sometimes intentionally. It led him to take a more critical view of historical narratives, particularly simplified ones that gloss over the nuance and sometimes messy detail that inform identity. This perspective informs his current work.
Squirewell’s latest series called Who that is? reimagines a new identity of little-known historical figures using a combination of photographs, collage, painting and a ritualized burning, a reference to new spiritual beginnings. “I hope that they would be pleased with what I’m doing with them. The way that I’m adorning them is befitting of who they were and what they would have liked in their lives at the time. Everyone likes to look good.”
Stan Squirewell’s work is currently on view at the Claire Oliver Gallery in Harlem, NY through June 11.
Watch Squirewell discusses his latest work: