When you hear people talk about the enmity of white and Black Southerners you need to understand that everyday that paradigm is being challenged by the generations here and to come. When I wanted a dream team of people for this book and The Cooking Gene project I selected artists and photographers from diverse backgrounds. One friend of a friend I met in my journeys was Stephen Crotts. I wanted my book to have the rustic feel his art has. I wanted it to communicate the past translated into now. Stephen is my friend, he brought this to book to life and I want you to meet him:
How long have you been creating your art?
Everyone draws as a child, right? People find other creative outlets along the way. I just kept scribbling.
How does being from the South and especially South Carolina impact your work?
My family raised me to notice and care about the people and places surrounding me, and exposed me to Southern history, nature, food, music and more. My folks shared their faith with me, showing me what it looks like to love your neighbor. They helped me actually see the South for what it is: broken and beautiful, scarred and surviving.
When I started playing banjo in high school, I gobbled up as much as I could find about the instrument’s African origins. At college I got involved with a group of living history interpreters who were all African-American. Seeing eyes opened as we did programs about slavery in museums and on plantation sites made me want to be a bigger part of inviting people to consider the past. An artist residency in the 8th Ward of New Orleans dazzled all my senses, but not without putting my inherited advantages in contrast with the opportunities of my neighbors there. Getting to work with museums in the years since has allowed me to keep telling Southern stories in the community.
How long have you worked in this medium and what other media do you work with?
I started carrying sketchbooks in high school. Sketching from life in ink forced me to pay more attention to the marks I was making. I started and finished several of the ink drawings for The Cooking Gene in my sketchbooks. When I approach drawings loosely, on scrap paper or in my sketchbook, the work often ends up with more spontaneity and life. In addition to drawing with ink, I have also been working more in oils. Painting a landscape outdoors requires working quickly to capture whatever drama there is in front of me at that moment. The light and conditions are constantly changing, so it can be a challenge. Painting places allows me to actively observe and appreciate where I am.
I was really impressed with how you brought the African ancestors to life. Tell me more about that process?
For some of the ancestors, we had photographs to reference. Starting there, we incorporated visual clues to their stories, such as the woven fan Elijah Mitchell holds. Additionally, we worked in botanical ornamentation of the kinds of crops the ancestors worked with. Attempting to draw people for whom we have no visual record was more of a challenge. Because of the genealogy you have done, we know which people groups these individuals belonged to. For me, it was a balance of looking at others from those groups, as well as the faces of their descendants (including yourself).
The illustrations in The Cooking Gene are really poignant because they often bring to life old photographs of my Ancestors. It’s one thing to bring out the realism, but how did you work on capturing the spirit within them?
The habit of drawing faces from life helps me get close to the edge of intangible qualities in people – those things a snapshot may not capture. I’m always hoping for more than a technically accurate rendering. I’m really looking for a sense of the person’s emotion, and I have to lean on what I’ve seen in the eyes of living people when approaching the image of someone I haven’t met.
What was your favorite illustration in The Cooking Gene?
The drawing of Jack Todd struck me. We see the mast of a ship just over his shoulder. He has just arrived in America. My imagination fails to grasp the reality of that moment, but the drawing stared me down and made me consider it. What it would mean for my family and me if I were suddenly removed from our joint pursuit of happiness? What are the consequences of refusing to recognize the image of the Creator in another human being?
You love nature and are a brilliant amateur naturalist. Your images of animals and wildlife are both fun and exact in how they evoke Southern identity. How does your relationship with nature impact your work and your relationship with the South?
Finding wild creatures is so thrilling in part because it can’t be planned, and there’s always a measure of surprise and delight in that. Daddy taught me how to whistle to the Bobwhite quail and wait for its response. My uncle took my cousin and me on weekend adventures, highlighting counties where we observed beetles, dragonflies or snakes in a binder of South Carolina maps marked for each species. Now I get to quiz my daughter on the calls of our backyard birds. Things like the appearance of wildflowers or the emerging of cicadas mark time for me throughout the year, and deeply make this place what it is.
What was challenging about working on this project? What was enjoyable?
It is challenging (and humbling) to try to honor and communicate the lives of people upon whose shoulders we are standing. The heavy lifting has been done in the writing. I hope the drawings serve as a set of eyes looking back, reminding us that what we’re reading isn’t abstract. There’s joy for me in the making of the images, but more in what they invited me to consider along the way. We have not suddenly manufactured the syncopated rhythms and rich tastes we enjoy at our cultural banquet. Every good thing is a gift that has given at great cost. Faithful stewardship begins in recognition and thankfulness.
Stephen Crotts is an artist and illustrator living with his wife and daughters in Rock Hill, South Carolina. See more of his work at scrotts.com.