Ink Magazine (IM): When did you first taking an interest in art, and exactly what was it about art that drew you to it?
Cameron Spratley (CS): Let’s see… I never really took an interest in it, it was just something I always did. I was just the kid in class who drew all the time. And I guess just through that, and just doing it all the time, I got really good at it, it was just always like a hobby when I was young. I was always drawing in my room for fun instead of playing video games, like I never really got into that. And then when I got serious about it I guess it was more in high school when teachers noticed I was good at it and put me in the classes with the other great artists at the school… I used to actually really hate to paint. I used to like to draw more. Painting just always took so long, and I was just very impatient. I went to visit my brother at school when he was studying architecture, and he was also doing all these really cool paintings, and I’d never seen anyone do paintings like he was doing… it was all just like fun for him and I looked up to him a lot. I just kind of stumbled into it in a weird way where my older brother made it seem really cool and it made me want to do it too. So my junior year of high school I went and stole a bunch of paint from the art store, made my first painting and kind of never stopped after that point. It was always this fun thing we could do together. And then… I don’t know, I just got really, really good at it.
IM: So what led you to coming to VCU specifically as a result, then?
CS: I loved Richmond. Everytime I came down here to visit… I mean, I looked at a lot of other schools. Definitely coming from the suburbs, I wasn’t ready to go to New York yet. I want to go eventually, but this is like a great stepping stone to getting there, I think. Also, obviously, in-state and all that. It was a big factor.
IM: And why study painting?
CS: Oh, well… I came here for graphic design because I was told that’s how you make money from every single person I had ever asked about going to art school, who weren’t artists. So through AFO, my teacher Matt Lively, whose an artist here, taught me that you can make money off painting, and just the fact that he was doing it an supporting his whole entire family just showed me that I can really do it. Because before then it wasn’t something I thought I could do as a living. I didn’t think my mom would want to pay for me to go to school to do something that I might not be able to do forever, and then end up working as like a waiter. I guess I paint because it starts conversations that last forever. I want to design a lot of things and work in all sorts of media, but we still talk about what Picasso was thinking, for example, and he’s long past.
IM: So in your work what would you say are some things that inspire you and your process?
CS: A big thing I’ve been focusing on lately? Well, I make a lot of work about black culture, and through grade school I feel I wasn’t taught about it fully or in the right way. For example, we’d learn about slavery, and I was told runaway slaves would have to wear chains when they worked in the fields, but it was also more that they would be like, chopped up, and disposed of, whipped… all this bad stuff they wouldn’t bring up in school. As soon as I learned that, I felt that I had to tell people. Not exactly that, just that’s there’s more to the story for people to think about. Some artists who inspire me are Oscar Murillo, Eddie Martinez, Aryz, Jayson Musson, Wes Lang, Yung Jake, Jesse Kanda, Uzi… and Virgil Abloh, who is a creative director who designs some of the craziest things, along with the whole DONDA team. I study artists a lot on my own and watch them as they advance their careers. Also watching random documentaries, and feeling high quality garments at Need Supply Co. helps me when I’m stuck. Right now I’m looking at a lot of murals, too, which is something I want to do more of myself. I did one last summer and I’d like to do another this summer. That’s one of the most fun ways to paint, I feel like. A lot of inspiration I get is not even from artists. Going to the woods… that’s something that’s super cool to me. Being surrounded by that much nature. And mostly my friends and the stuff I feel like they produce. It’s so crazy to me that people my own age are making what they’re making. But a lot of it is… rappers. When I think about branding myself, and making my career after school, I look at a lot of what they’re doing. I don’t like to make much work about my family or myself, because I don’t really like to talk about myself like this. There’s just so many weird things that have happened to me that I use as inspiration for my work. Like learning about slavery in third grade and my whole class stared at me.
IM: What would you say it is about your friends that specifically drives you?
CS: I love the competition of it. When one of my friends makes a really good piece, I mean, first of all I’m super proud of them, but second of all… I’m like, “Wow, I need to go to the studio like right now. And start working.” And it’s not at all to one-up them. It’s more that if they’re doing something of that caliber, then I need to be doing the same. I love critiques so much, because I have this drive to hang up the best thing in the room. It’s not to be the best person. It’s just… if that’s not your drive while working, then what’re you doing?
IM: And I’ve noticed within your work you have a few recurring themes you explore, could you kind of elaborate on those a bit? And do you think there’s any change in that since when you first started making art?
CS: Yeah, I use a lot of themes or motifs as sort of my signature. It’s funny, because all my work looks very different, but a lot of people tell me they can tell that I made each one of them. So a lot of themes I was using were a way of filling space before, and no matter what I did that way it would always look interesting, or cool to people. So now I think a lot more about what I use, and what it means to me. Like it’s reason for it to be there. One that I’m working with right now is these paintings that just say the word “Nigga,” over and over. Usually the base of the canvas or the surface I’m painting is pink, and I’ll use the word “Nigga” to turn the piece black. I feel like… I don’t associate myself with that word, people just call me that word, which makes me that word. And I feel like… well, I don’t know how to say this because it makes people mad. But… I’m trying to take a lot of the meaning out of that word. I feel like it doesn’t mean what it used to anymore based off of how freely it’s used in pop culture and rap especially… This is the hardest thing to talk about. But really just exploring that. Asking questions about it, and not looking for an answer. I think that’s important. I focus a lot on stereotypes as well. Just because when someone sees me, they think of these preset things that I will do, based off of what other people do, or what they perceive others to do, and based on what they were told. So… I explored a lot of Newport cigarettes. Mostly because they’re a stereotype. It’s because all they are is cigarettes, but they’re considered “black people cigarettes,” and are considered less than others because of that. Even though they cost the same amount, are full of the same thing, just from a different company. I’m not trying to give people answers, I’m just giving them reasons to think about why things they believe or know exist, or where they came from. I’m not asking them to research and find out “why black people can jump high,” I’m more asking them to think about why they look at black people and think they can jump high.
IM: What do you feel for you is the most rewarding part of showing your work to people?
CS: There’s something about critiques in class that is really ruthless. You can say whatever you want… and my teacher keeps telling me to be mean to people. I don’t even like going to galleries when I have my work in them. Because everyone is so nice to me and complimenting me. That honestly doesn’t help me at all. If everyone just compliments you you’ll get stuck doing whatever it is you’re doing. Critiques push me to expand what I’m doing, the way I’m doing it and where I want to go with it. And it gets so technical, to the point of asking why you put that brush stroke where you did. Or why did you use this tone of color next to a different color. It doesn’t help as much when my teacher says it, then I’m more likely to ignore it and do what I want. When it’s a fellow classmate I definitely listen and work off of them.
IM: So it seems like more than any particular setting or authority figure on the subject would influence you, something that resonates with you strongly is collaboration with your peers, right?
CS: Yeah… I don’t even really trust the opinions of people who are older than me honestly. Because a lot of what I’m pulling things from is music made around the country by people my own age. Talking about their experiences. Some of my teachers don’t even know how to use the computer… when you grow up in the age of the internet, if someone doesn’t know how to use a computer I like immediately don’t connect with them as much…
IM: Too culturally detached?
CS: Yeah exactly.
IM: And do you think that’s something people our age should be doing at this point in our work, sort of relying more on ourselves and our own intuition instead of relying so much on what our teachers say?
CS: Yeah. I got really mad in class because a lot of kids don’t take themselves seriously. At least in classes that I’ve been in. I kind of see it like, everything I make should be of the caliber to get into a gallery. It’s never just for the grade. But a lot of other kids are just following the exact assignment. It’s sad because we’re at the top art school, but some kids are just trying to pass. There’s this weird thing with college, where some kids parents can pay for it so they go. They are just here because they can be, and they got in. And if my mom is working to give me money to be here then I’m gonna try as hard as I can.
IM: So do you have any upcoming work that people can keep up with after reading this?
CS: Yeah, hopefully I’ll have some more mural work coming out this summer. If Matt Lively is reading this, he promised to do a mural with me this summer… so he better come through with that. And definitely even if I’m not in the next one, the next Space.88 show. It’s one of the most fun things I’ve ever been to, probably. Dabbling in video work probably. And I’ve had this long planned idea, since the spaces for Broad street galleries are so cheap, then as soon as I save enough money I can rent one out. And once I have a strong enough body of work I can just rent one out and have a show, since it seems like some of those galleries aren’t very open to students. So I feel like if I have a show across from 1708 Gallery or something it’ll be like, “we’re really out here, we’re really making things.” And honestly, talking about First Fridays… most of that work is not that good. And a lot of it is not anyone that went here. Which is weird. Because I feel like VCU is leading the art community here in Richmond, really. And I don’t think they pay enough attention to undergraduate students in those galleries. Look forward to a collection of works on paper also, they’re more raw and immediate and where I’m finally not scared to offend people so I feel like they are stronger than some of my paintings even though they are simple and mostly black and white.
IM: So what do you hope your work can do for people when they see it?
CS: I hope that… Well… It sounds so lame! Ha. I guess I want it to be able to just improve people’s day. Their lives. Mostly just like, think about the world in a different way. I feel like even though I’m exploring controversial or deep subjects, I want people to laugh about it. I want something for these middle class black kids to be proud of. I want people to know that everyone is the exact same, and we’re all just people, and even though I look different, there is no difference from you… I want the word “Nigga” not to be used anymore. Or at least as loosely. There’s no way I’m going to be able to stop racism through my work, obviously. That’s a crazy thing to try and do, and it probably won’t change until we all have sex and all look the same. But it’ll probably still be around, unfortunately. It’s crazy to me… Racism isn’t even a real thing, it was just something invented to justify enslaving of certain people, and it’s somehow still here today. Some people might not even get that meaning in my work right away. Like in my Pyrex piece, people just see jars, but those are actually used to cook crack with… so it’s actually super exciting when people don’t understand it. When I was in the gallery, I didn’t explain my piece to anyone, I just listened to them explain it to each other. And that’s awesome, if like one person in the room gets it, and then like other people are so visually interested in it and want to know what it’s about, that conversation is awesome to watch around a piece of work that’s hanging up. But I don’t really have the answers. I’m confused by almost everything I make, and that’s kind of awesome to me.