IF, somehow, you’re not familiar with Panhandle Slim’s work, you have the perfect chance to get acquainted this weekend at a rare gallery show for the folk artist.
Panhandle is something of a local star. His work is all over town, from signs to stickers to the pop-up art sales he hosts occasionally. His simple format of a portrait and quote, painted with bold colors, resonates with viewers.
Born Scott Stanton, Panhandle takes his name from his hometown of Pensacola, Fla., and has lived in Savannah for about 15 years. We spoke with him last week about his art and his new show at Sulfur.
1. You usually sell your art outdoors, so a gallery show is new for you.
I usually do outdoor shows here and there, not really planned, not gallery-style shows on what I call sterile white walls. As I have [outdoor] shows, I meet a lot of different people and think, “This doesn’t usually happen in an art gallery setting,” where it’s a little more stuffy.
When my art shows outside, it’s usually the deal where you make prices and pay as you can. There’ll be price tags on these paintings for all the people that say they don’t like that system [laughs]. They’re just not conditioned to work that way. Most people don’t do what I do. [laughs]
2. How did you get started with this specific style of painting?
When I lived in Michigan, I went to an art gallery and saw a painting by Howard Finster—I’ve always liked his stuff. I couldn’t afford it, so I thought, “I’ll go try to make that.” I went home and painted Dolly Parton, just the face, and it looked a lot like Howard Finster. I did Jimmy Carter after that, and then Malcolm X, and I haven’t stopped.
I started adding words to it, music I was listening to or words I read. It’s definitely become my own versus those first pieces looking just like [Finster]. That’s what I liked and I wanted to put on my wall. I did a few and they were in my garage, then someone saw them and were like, “Those are really cool! Have you ever thought of selling them?” I remember thinking, “You’re crazy—only I want this stuff!”
3. That’s very full-circle. Do you think about it like that?
I definitely think about that a lot and keep that in perspective. I’m very lucky and humbled.
Speaking of full circle, Jimmy Carter was the second painting I ever did, and I just made it for my garage, but I never thought anyone would see it or anything like that. And I never would have thought that Jimmy Carter would end up with one of my paintings. Somebody wrote me a message and said, “Can you do a painting for Uncle Jimmy?” I said of course, I get a lot of messages like that. I didn’t know it was Jimmy Carter until I got a message on my phone and it’s a picture of Jimmy Carter holding my painting. It was just the best.
It’s just an example for artists or any creative: just do it and you never know what’ll happen. Don’t worry too much about it.
4. Your paintings are often politicized. Is that your intent?
Oh, yeah. They’re very threatening but non-threatening at the same time. I guess that’s art. Anybody who’s had a problem with it, I’m thinking, “It’s a quote, it’s a fact, it’s a statement.” And as I’ve said to some people, I’m not here to make you agree with me. Just think.
I’ve had some problems, and people definitely come at me passive-aggressively about things. I just ignore them. I give a lot of thought to what I paint and quotes I use, and my whole thinking is, if you’ve got a problem with this, you’re not really thinking about what it says. It would take a special asshole to want to take it down or be mad about it.
I put a big Frida [Kahlo] mural up on a wall and it said “lover” on it. I thought, “Some repressed freak is going to be mad at the word ‘lover.’” And it happened. Someone said, “How am I going to explain this to my granddaughter?” And it’s like, “Whoa, what’s going on in your head?”
5. You also had a Nina Simone painting come down. Tell me about that incident.
It’s really complicated. The local system to the national system of hidden assumptions, hidden racism, all that. It just takes one upset person to ruin it for everybody. I always think of it as seeing a band—when the skinhead shows up, it’s over.
I’ve had to go in front of the [Metropolitan Planning Committee] a few times. They came at me with this public art and mural policy, and I listened, and when it was my turn to speak, I said, “I’m not public art or muralist.” These are signs.
So, I’ve dealt with them, and this is all about control, and you’re mad because you’re not controlling it. It goes back to my skateboarding—everywhere you go, you’re told to leave, and you find out how you can do it. It’s all the same to me. Writing, music, art, painting, finding ways to make it happen without them controlling everything.
That’s the biggest part of what I do. It’s not so much art, it’s more academic. In school, you learn one thing, you don’t learn a lot. I certainly didn’t learn black history. Black people didn’t learn black history in our school system. Luckily I can put it out there. The City would love to direct me on who to put up.