ArtsATL > Art+Design > Building the Wall: Joseph Guay takes a new direction with public art

Building the Wall: Joseph Guay takes a new direction with public art

Atlanta artist Joseph Guay

When Trump supporters first began chanting “Build the wall,” they probably didn’t have Joseph Guay in mind. Nonetheless, this month the artist will build an enormous concrete and steel wall in midtown Atlanta, a highly visible and potentially controversial public work he hopes will serve as a sort of sounding board in divisive times.

Guay stands firmly on one thing in particular: he seeks to create a work that is all but absent of his own views. “Until you put something in front of someone, people don’t know what they really want. For the people that want a wall, let’s give them a wall. The people that are against it, let’s build it and see if they’re still against it,” he says. The work is intended to facilitate difficult conversations and provoke thought in an environment where civilized discussion and true contemplation have become all but impossible. “I want someone to stand there and look at this thing and think: if my hopes for my life are on the other side of this, what does that feel like?”

If part of his intent is to get people talking, the colossal work seems guaranteed to do just that. The steel, rebar and concrete piece — modeled after a real proposal for the wall at the U.S.and Mexico border — will be 40 feet in length and 16 feet high and weigh over 25,000 pounds. It will be placed in a highly visible but still-secret location in West Midtown with a tentative opening date of June 14, Flag Day. One side will have a giant image of Trump’s face painted on a gold background, the other a Mexican flag.

“I’m going to put it up and just let people graffiti it, put their feelings on it, put their arguments on it, everything can go there,” he says. “You can look at people’s opinions and hopefully walk away persuaded in some way.”

A close-up of the wall being built.

The wall, as per Guay’s specifications, is being built entirely with the labor of undocumented construction workers from Mexico. Guay says that the workers, whom he first contacted through a friend with a construction company, have been enthusiastic about the project. “It’s been amazing getting their input, watching a piece of art get built that I’m not allowed to build,” he says. “I only want to have their hands on it. The whole thing has come together really fast because of people who believe in making it with me.”

Guay ranks among the city’s most internationally prominent visual artists, but he says the new border wall and other recent works mark a big change for him. “I spent 20 years of doing art for the wrong reasons,” he says. “It’s time to do the right work. I’m going into the studio to make what I feel needs to be made.”

Guay is self-taught, and his creative career has followed an almost unreal path from anonymity to the highest level of success. Indeed, the story of his life can seem much, much stranger than fiction.

Guay grew up in the suburban beach community of St. Simon’s Island, Georgia. An idyllic childhood spent biking, sailing, kayaking and hanging out on the beach with friends gave no indication to outsiders of the troubles within his family or the unusual double life his father led. “My dad put us there because he wanted us to have something he didn’t,” Guay says. “He saw it as this picture-perfect utopia for a family. St. Simon’s is where he placed us to have a nice life while he would go do his thing.”

Guay’s father was a con-man who, like Guay’s grandfather, worked the carnival circuit with a rigged gambling game known as Razzle. Guay still keeps the game in his study, wrapped — just as his father kept it — in a white pillowcase. From the age of six, Guay traveled with his father, learning to operate Razzle and becoming his father’s right-hand man. But the strain of leading a double life, and the guilt of passing on such a dubious profession to his son, began to wear on Guay’s father and the family. “He’d come home and want to be this normal husband, but that normal thing just never worked,” Guay says. “He’d go on the carnival with all these intense crime guys and be that, but he wanted to be this. He wanted to be committed to one or the other, but he never was. He wanted to play both sides.”

Throughout his childhood, Guay often turned to art as an escape. “I would get weird anxiety,” he says. “I was always making things. My mom would give me a bucket of water and a paintbrush. I’d paint the driveway over and over. The water would dry, the painting would disappear, and then I’d start over. I’d be out there all day. It was the truest form of creating art. There was no by-product. There was no selling it, there was no putting it anywhere, there was no being judged for it. I just made it.”

But growing up on St. Simon’s, it was hard for him to know that art could ever become a career. He was stunned one afternoon when he came across a copy of Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine in his older sister’s room. A photograph of Andy Warhol in the magazine was his first encounter with the idea of a living artist, his first inkling that art could be a way of life.

When he was in the ninth grade, a teacher submitted some of his drawings to the Savannah College of Art and Design without his knowledge, and he was immediately accepted and awarded a full five-year scholarship. College officials balked when they met the 15-year-old Guay, so slight then he still looked twelve. His teacher managed to convince the school that if they were willing to accept him on the strength of his drawings alone, they could wait until he had finished high school to give him the scholarship.

But as Guay went through high school, the carefully constructed facade of his family’s picture-perfect life began to fall apart. His dad had a mental breakdown, his parents divorced, and in the process, they lost everything financially; their lives turned chaotic. Guay managed to finish high school, but he had to get a job to help take care of the family. He assumed that life as an artist was simply a luxury that — even with a free ride waiting for him at SCAD — he would never be able to afford. “I took all my art supplies, put them into a trash can and burned them,” he says. “I thought it was never supposed to happen.”

For years, Guay worked whatever jobs he could on St. Simon’s. He was eventually inspired to pick up some of his art-making again when he became aware of the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat. “I was so lost,” he says. “It was like starting from scratch all over again. Fifteen years had passed since I’d touched any art.”

When a friend in Atlanta was getting married, Guay couldn’t afford to attend the wedding and couldn’t even afford to buy a gift, so he sent a drawing instead. What he didn’t know was that his friend’s mother was a prominent Atlanta interior designer who showed his drawing to anyone and everyone she could. “That’s when the whole thing started,” he says.

Guay found early success creating and selling his work around Atlanta to his friend’s mom’s clients, eventually moving to the city where he established a small studio on Bennett Street. He worked well in whatever medium or style he put his hand to, and he was especially adept at creating work to meet a client’s specifications, something he was happy to do if it meant more financial stability for him and his family.

His career seemed to have a strange, charmed sort of quality to it. The first photographs he took in his studio — self-portraits because he didn’t have a model and was just learning to operate the camera — were selected for a group show, and they were snatched up before the official opening by the world’s most famous collector of photography, Elton John. Unfortunately, the gallery closed, and the represented artists were reportedly never paid. Throughout that trying process, John remained supportive and became a close friend.

“I lost an entire show but gained Elton,” Guay says. “From then on, he’s been this really amazing presence in my creative journey. He’s always challenging me to push myself, asking: what are you doing next, what’re you up to? When you have someone at that level who shows interest in you and gives you validation then you have a responsibility to take your work to a different level.”

Guay’s father passed away in 2006 just as Guay’s art career kicked into high gear, but Guay is proud to say that he was able to support his father through his art for a few years toward the end of his life. Guay became John’s personal photographer and assisted the Sir Elton John Photography collection for seven years. He became especially well-known for his portrait photography, and his work hangs in galleries and private collections around the world. In his home, which he designed himself, now hangs a print of the photograph of Andy Warhol that he first spied in his sister’s Interview magazine, a gift from the image’s world-renowned photographer, Greg Gorman, now a close friend.

The trajectory of his rise has been pretty sharp and swift, almost dizzyingly so. A recent breakfast on the terrace of Elton John’s mountainside villa in the South of France where Guay had arrived to take photos of John and his children became suddenly, understandably, overwhelming. “I got really emotional,” recalls Guay. “I told him it’s weird to think my dad was raised in a carnival. ‘Til I was five years old, I was raised in a trailer . . . It hit me. This thing happened. It really happened. He told me something that was so beautiful: ‘As a human being you’re supposed to be a lamb, you’re supposed to be kind and meek and look out for people. With art, you’re supposed to be a lion. You should never back down from anything you feel.’”

With that sort of directive in mind, Guay says his outlook on his work and process has changed. “I’ve repeatedly trashed opportunities to be big in other ways,” he says. “I always knew it wasn’t me. I don’t know if it’s destroying my career or if it’s just meant to be. It’s strange. I’ve walked away from some great opportunities.”

His most recent show, Remnants of the Human Condition, which opened in October of 2016 at Atlanta’s Westside Cultural Arts Center, was a powerful meditation on violence in America, with sculptural objects created from bullets, gunpowder, black hoodies and motor oil. His upcoming show, Duel, slated for an October 7 opening at the same venue, will take on the topics of global terrorism, border control, religious fundamentalism and violence, with many of the objects and paintings in pairs: guns welded together at the barrel, brass-knuckles joined together at the business end, canvases coated with broken glass and bullet shells alongside graffitied pieces of his deconstructed border wall.

Though Guay’s life has always seemingly had a touch of the unlikely and the surreal, perhaps one of the hardest pieces of information to wrap one’s head around is the fact that Guay’s current studio assistants — the people helping to lift those heavy paintings encrusted with broken glass or to move his buckets of bullets around — are Atlanta Ballet star dancers Heath Gill and Christian Clark.

“They’re used to lifting bodies, so they can easily lift a canvas,” Guay says. He became friends with the dancers through his girlfriend, Tara Lee, who danced with the Atlanta Ballet for 21 seasons until her last show with the company in early May of this year.

Guay began attending Atlanta Ballet performances and rehearsals when he and Lee started dating about four years ago, and the dancers also began dropping by his studio not far from Atlanta Ballet headquarters to help him out whenever they could. “I’ve been introduced to a lot of people at the ballet,” he says. “Tara’s energy has affected me because I see all of the sacrifices dancers make to create. They go through hours of stretching, and their bodies are injured or tired, but they still get up and do their thing. I was like, ‘Man, I suck. What am I doing?’ They really influenced this change in my work.”

Just as the dancers have inspired him, Guay says he’s likewise tried to remain supportive and encouraging through turbulent times at the ballet. The Atlanta Ballet’s longtime artistic director John McFall, who placed an emphasis on innovative contemporary work and the individual artistic interests of his dancers, retired at the end of the 2015–16 season, and the board replaced him with Gennadi Nedvigin, who rigorously adheres to the traditions of classical ballet and its exactingly precise technique. For many of the dancers, including Lee, Gill and Clark, the change simply wasn’t a match. “I’m the biggest person to provoke someone to leave an institution,” says Guay. “When everything started to change at the Atlanta Ballet, I was the guy in a corner with a huge speaker, saying ‘Yes! Please do this!’ I’d push on them.”

ArtsATL’s Scott Freeman recently broke the news that Gill, Lee and Clark, along with fellow Atlanta Ballet dancer Rachel Van Buskirk, were leaving the Atlanta Ballet and forming a new independent dance company helmed by retired Atlanta Ballet dancer John Welker. The first performance of Terminus Modern Ballet Theater will take place in October at the Westside Cultural Arts Center where Guay’s upcoming art show Duel will serve as a backdrop. Guay took the photographic portraits of the dancers for the recent company launch announcement, and there are plans for further collaboration.

“Typically, it’s a challenge if two creatives date each other, but we push each other to excel correctly,” he says. “It’s nice to have someone that knows you and knows your intention and can steer you in the right direction.”

And it’s a direction that Guay says he is finally able to follow. A few years ago, he bought his mother a home in Atlanta, and his older sister has likewise settled down in the city. “Everybody’s okay,” he says. “Now that we’re all okay, I’m going to be an artist. It’s taken me 20 years to say that.”

“I’ve done so many art shows,” he says, “now I just want to put things in the world and stand back and watch the world react to them and see what that provokes.” His Border Wall could conceivably provoke any number of things. He risks losing clients and collectors with the new, politically charged phase of his work, and stoking opinions about such a hot-button issue could easily devolve into personal threats. Strident criticism for the wall project could come from the left just as easily as from the right. “It’s more important to be the lion that’s kicked back than the lamb watching it all take place,” he says.

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