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Q&A with Shawn Michael Warren

Image courtesy of Shawn Michael Warren. 

If you've driven, walked, or biked by the Barnes & Thornburg building at 11 S. Meridian St. lately, chances are you've seen Shawn Michael Warren at work, painting the larger-than-life mural of internationally recognized cyclist and racial justice advocate Marshall "Major" Taylor. He is being assisted by Indy-based painter Boxx the Artist, as part of a program to help artists learn to create large-scale civic murals. The mural is the first in the Bicentennial Legends series. To learn more about the mural, the Arts Council’s Director of Public Art, Julia Muney Moore, sat down with Shawn for a Zoom conversation. He told us about his artist beginnings, what murals he wished he could paint, and what music or podcasts he listens to while painting.

Warren, who is based in Chicago, earned his BFA at the American Academy of Art in Chicago and studied at the Florence Academy of Art in Florence, Italy. He uses historic themes or narratives to communicate essential human truths, and to initiate uncomfortable conversations surrounding race, socio-political subjects, and culture. His most notable work, In a Promised Land…, brought to life the tragic history of the Greenwood district in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Warren has spent time working in Los Angeles doing murals, and some of his mural subjects in the past have been Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou, and Martin Luther King.

Julia Muney Moore: How did you start making murals?

Shawn Michael Warren: In 2015, I entered one of my pieces into what was called the Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series–a nationwide competition with tens of thousands of entries. I ended up being one of the top three winners, so part of the prize was that you had to create a mural in the city of your choice. At the time I was transitioning from Chicago to Los Angeles for an MFA program, so I felt that doing it in L.A. was the best.

At the MFA program, there was a system where you had to pick a mentor and advisor that would guide you. I picked Kent Twitchell, a very renowned muralist. I look at him as a Master Yoda type of individual; he taught me everything there is to know about mural making. It is a very, very different process from painting on canvas and it's almost as if you have to be two different types of artists.

JMM: Thank you for pointing out the connection to Twitchell–he's one of my favorites. What attracted you to this particular mural of Marshall Major Taylor, and why were you interested in applying for the commission? 

SMW: One of my favorite things about the work that I do is bringing attention to people that most do not know about. A couple of months prior to the call being made for this project, I saw the Hennessy ad where they commemorate Major Taylor, and I thought it was really cool. I mean, Hennessy was a brand that I least expected to do something like that. But it was very necessary. A lot of history tends to get buried, but we're talking about someone who was one of the two Black, most dominant athletes in the world at that time, and he's not someone I've heard of all that much. So knowing his story and what he endured–and the mark that he left on the sport of cycling–I wanted to properly honor him in a way where you cannot forget him.

JMM: When you start a project, do you have a routine that you like to do? Do you have any superstitions?

SMW: No superstitions. I don't have any rituals or anything. I'm pretty straightforward, and I'm very calculated with how I proceed with murals. I want to be as efficient as possible, and have to account for the unknowns, mainly weather, but it can be anything.

JMM: Who else is on your portrait wish list?

SMW: Ah that's a tough one. I would love to do one of Jackie Robinson. Louis Armstrong–I would prefer for the Louis Armstrong mural to be in Chicago, because this is where his career started and he was a big part of the roaring ’20s jazz era. 

JMM: Where would you recommend that someone go in Chicago to see some really great public art?

SMW: The West Loop area–the Fulton Market area is where my Oprah mural is. But there are dozens of murals in that area, specifically down a street called Hubbard. It's what's called the “B_Line,” so you have this museum of different murals from many different artists going westbound on Hubbard street. 

JMM: Who are you listening to right now? Do you listen to music when you paint?

SMW: Absolutely. I cannot paint in the quiet at all. I need music. The artists I listen to are Kamasi Washington–I listen to a lot of jazz when I'm creating. Javier Santiago, who is from Minnesota but now lives on the West Coast, is another. Robert Glass would be another. Primarily jazz music and house music. House is a very Chicago thing. 

JMM: Do you listen to any podcasts?

SMW: Yes. The Sculptor's Funeral with Jason Arkles. He broadcasts from Florence, Italy, about different sculptors through different eras in history. So, it can be from Michelangelo to Daniel Chester French. I also listen to PORTRAITS, a podcast from the National Portrait Gallery in D.C. Kim Sajet is the host and she's the museum's director. And then, a little random: Hotboxin’ with Mike Tyson has quickly become one of my favorite podcasts over the past year.

Mural rendering courtesy of Shawn Michael Warren. Click here to learn more about the Bicentennial Legends mural project. 

Julia Muney Moore is an arts administrator, curator, educator, and art historian who currently serves as the Director of Public Art at the Arts Council of Indianapolis (since 2014).  She has curated, selected, and managed public art projects since 2000. Julia received her B.A. from Bryn Mawr College and her M.A. in Art History from New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, and her M.B.A. from Ball State University.  At the Arts Council of Indianapolis, Julia oversees community and civic public art projects, public art master planning, and ongoing programming to improve artists’ capacity to create public art.  She has also held positions as the Director of Exhibitions and Artist Services at the Indianapolis Art Center and the Public Art Administrator for Blackburn Architects, Inc., and has taught art history and art appreciation at colleges and universities in central Indiana.  Julia is on the national Public Art Network Council of Americans for the Arts (term expires at the end of 2021).

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